The Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara was many things to many people. To some (especially those from third world countries) he was an effective and fierce opponent of America's hypocritical imperialism while for others he was nothing more than a criminal who masterminded violent campaigns to overthrow governments. Whatever your opinion of the man might be, Steven Soderberg's film, a four and a half hour magnum opus feels truly epic in scope and function. It is a rare cinematic experience because it presents both points of view in two equal halves that complement each other.
The first of the two films is an engaging, highly compelling mixture of pseudo-docudrama, war movie and brisk biopic. We get no scenes of the young Ernesto (for that you would have to see the excellent Motorcycle Diaries and the film dives straight into the period during the mid 50's when Che and long time ally Fidel Castro charted their plans to rid Cuba of then president Batista. What follows is a detailed, multi-year campaign showing how Che and his rag tag crew of outsiders formed a large scale movement that gained the popularity of the local population. Throughout all this we see numerous times why Ernesto was so influential. Benicio Del Toro he makes the character courageous, inspiring and fearless. Through voice over narration, which are actually the parts of the film that intercut the campaign missions to an interview that Che gave while in New York during 1964, we are almost educated in the ideology of the man's thoughts and beliefs. If the war scenes provide a frighteningly discerning look at guerilla warfare (in exceptionally crafty scenes of battle), the quieter moments between these battles shed more light into how one man became so influential.
The second film, appropriately called Guerrilla is a markedly different film in tone and approach to the character. While the first film ended leaving me thoroughly engaged thinking that the film honoured, almost glorified the work of Che Guevara, the second film becomes almost its anti-thesis. The Bolivia campaign, held half a decade after Che's success in Cuba, was never able to repeat the successes of Cuba. There were many reasons for this and the film built its case well. Che was considered an outsider, not a native, and thus his strongly held belief that a dissatisfied junta could overpower a corrupt government in bed with US came across almost as arm twisting. Added to this is the unforgiving Bolivian jungle, but also the fact that with help from the US, Che's opponents were better prepared this time. There was glint of madness in Del Toro's portrayal of Che in this, the second part, especially when we see him and his men take food from poor farmers promising them a better life. Convinced of their own right, how different were they from modern day terrorists? This objectivity is what made this second film become almost a flip perspective.
If there are two sides to every story, it is almost certain that those who watch Che as two separate films will miss out on the completeness that a back to back watch provides. The achievement of director Soderbergh is monumental not only because of how difficult it must have been to show the same man from different angles (in victory and defeat) but also because the entire film is in Spanish and feels rigidly authentic. As far as pure, visceral cinematic experiences go, it doesn't getter better than Che.
The film was viewed and reviewed as one feature as part of DIFF 2008. - Faizan Rashid