© Jim McCarthy July 2009
The new Stephen Soderberg double DVD/Blu Ray film formats of Che Part One and Part Two has hit the stores in the UK and the two films are a breathtaking achievement. The first film concerns specifically Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s first campaign, along with Commandante Fidel Castro in the late 1950’s in Cuba to overthrow the imperialistic USA linked government of tin pot dictator General Fulgencia Baptista. The second film concerns Che’s attempt to lead a guerrilla insurrection in Bolivia in 1966 and 1967.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara De La Serna, born of middle class Argentinean origins, was to become one of the most iconic faces of the 20th century. His strikingly handsome face is to be found staring out from tee shirts, Cuban tourist advertising, protest march banners, civil rights movement graphics and multiple photographic images.
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro liberated Cuba in late I959.
The Cuban Revolution totally changed the island from a satellite of “corrupt Yankee imperialism” to the exciting, decaying, musically invigorating, forlorn “Communista” based country it is today. Che went on to fight in the African Congo and after this campaign, with a small guerrilla army in Bolivia, eventually being captured and executed on 9th October 1967.
This immediately conferred an iconic Christ-like status on “Che” and ever since his visage has been used to represent, freedom, insurrection, pop stars looking for a brush with greatness, street art and the ubiquitous tee-shirt imagery.
Both films start with a gradually developing map (the first film is of a map of Cuba, the second, a map of the complete Latin America, which highlights at the end Bolivia. It is represented as a simple, rudimentary geography lesson to set the scene and the pace. The maps gradually and determinedly reveal the district names of Cuba, such as Matanzas, Havana etc, the city names and the mountain ranges (Sierra Madre) etc. This is Soderberg’s way of bringing the viewer into the tempo and rhythm of the films. To slow you down for what is to come. To empty the viewer of pre-conceptions- this device is almost jarring but it works and is highly unusual. The films are a non-sensational and revealing look at the campaigns with a detached, dispassionate and documentary style approach to the guerrilla’s campaigns.
Che Part One leads all the way up, to the run up to capturing Havana. Before this event we see the weaselly Batista making good his escape in plain clothes. The cinema verite feel is enhanced by Benicio Del Toro’s astonishing portrayal of Ernesto Che. He more than resembles him physically and facially and in body heft. Del Toro inhabits the person of Che completely. He was “rewarded” by this by winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival (with Sean Penn on the judging panel). The recognised Che expert, John Lee Anderson
(Who wrote the so-far definitive Che-A Revolutionary Life) reinforces this point in the extras section of film two.
The films are told in truncated but seemingly real time, they capture both the idealism and the tedium of the guerrilla’s life in the Cuban plains and its mountains. Benicio Del Toro convincingly portrays Che’s asthma attacks worsened by the rainy weather and the gruelling conditions, particularly in the higher altitudes of Bolivia in Part Two. The films are greatly helped by being almost entirely in Spanish with English sub-titling. The alternative of the main leads speaking in English with Spanish sub-titles would be too awful and absurd to contemplate. It is a major tip of the hat to the filmmakers who went outside the USA to finance the film, to achieve this completely necessary use of the mother language.
The two films are both an inspiration and a creative triumph. Soderberg brings his uniquely dispassionate and slightly clinical style of direction to the proceedings. We don’t get much more of the inner life of Guevara but the films do fill in many gaps in the knowledge of his campaigns and their details. Which for many are shrouded in myth and basic iconography.
These films will re-introduce Che to a whole new world, so much different from that world of only forty years ago. It is startling to realise how much was done with so little in the case with the Cuban revolution and how those limited resources worked badly against Che and the guerrillas in Bolivia, South America. The CIA backing counter forces in the country wanting to stop him in his tracks did not help either. They were two very different campaigns with two ends of the spectrum in terms of outcomes.
Another Soderberg triumph, both in terms of the weightier than usual content and his subtle and reflective use of layered dialogue and superb mixtures of camerawork, in terms of
colour and in the overall tonal palette of the two interlinked but contrasting films.
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