Che (Parts I and II)

Steven Soderbergh's sprawling two-part epic about the revolutionary Che Guevara is nothing short of, well, revolutionary! Soderbergh takes a man whose iconic status means many different things to many different people, but Soderbergh's on-screen Guevara is exactly what he needs to be: real. Throughout both films (spanning a daunting 257 minutes in total) we are thrown into the gritty and unrelenting world of life as a guerrilla. Always close-in and frequently hand-held, the camerawork puts you right on the ground with the the man himself. This creates an intimacy that defies the abstract ideology that so often clouds judgement on one of the most overly used and insufficiently understood figures of the twentieth century. What's more Benicio Del Toro puts in an outstanding performance that captures all of the nuances of Guevara's character that made him great, but still avoided the kind of grandstanding that so often hampers biopics of this nature.

The first film starts with a speech by Che, introducing the 'hero' that we all know, before promptly cutting back to the begginings of the civil war as Fidel Castro organises a group of radical thinkers at his home. This instant contrast between the public figure of Che and the private world of political activist Ernesto sets the tone beautifully for the rest of the film. Henceforth the narrative jumps back and forth between the ongoing guerrilla campaign waged in Cuba, where we see the revolutionary warrior displaying his legendary disciplinary streak, unceasing idealism, and unrivalled motivational skills. The action is kept ticking over by some superbly shot scenes of jungle warfare that match anything produced in recent years for its ability to parachute an audience right into battle. In this manner we follow the group as they gradually push back Batista's forces and gradual take control of Cuba, before leaving the action as Che addresses a United Nations conference as a leading figure in the new Cuban conflict.

Skipping forward several years, and a lot of action in the life of Ernesto Guevara, the second film opens with cryptic news announcements over the alleged disappearance of Guevara. We are then shown him deep in preparation for an expedition to foment revolution in Bolivia. Here he is to face a very different situation, a population whose peasantry are not only disparate, poverty-stricken and largely conservative, but also very wary of foreigners. Facing this challenge Guevara presses on with his guerrilla tactics against increasingly difficult odds, and Soderbergh keeps us with him throughout the whole gruelling experience. Gone are the cuts back and forward, gone are the inspiring scenes of victorious battles, what we are left with is the other side of being a guerrilla warrior - and the slow and difficult demise of a legend. The grim determinism of this half of the production makes it a far less enjoyable watch, and it certainly feels a lot slower, but it is nonetheless an absorbing film that forces you to feel the pain of the failure in Bolivia more sharply and poignantly than you might expect to.

As a whole, the work is an unmissable biopic that deploys the perfect tools to capture the essence of an elusive figure. But more than this, it is a masterful depiction of the guerrilla life. The huge omissions in the life of Guevara preclude this from being considered a comprehensive historical account, but what does is portray the world of a guerrilla with a closeness and mind-blowing intensity that has to be seen to be believed. An important and exciting pair of films that I highly recommend you catch.

Che Part 1 at IMDb
Che Part 2 at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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