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Che: Part Two

2009-12-18 09:24

What it's about:

Steven Soderbergh’s biopic of legendary freedom fighter Ernesto 'Che' Guevara follows his life from his early politicisation until his death. The movie is split into two instalments (Part 2 is releases in SA on 18 December), but they are very much a part of the same film.

What we thought:

Biographical movies are tough to get right – firstly, they’re usually about people famous enough that you already know the basic story, so you don’t have the element of surprise on your side. And secondly, there’s the question of how much dramatisation is acceptable to make the story of somebody’s life watchable.

Steven Soderbergh made some unusual choices when he put together his sprawling movie about iconic revolutionary Che Guevara. He sidestepped those usual dilemmas – leaving out some major events in Guevara’s life as well as shunning a romanticised view of him – and instead put together a detailed look at the day-to-day tasks of a militia. The result is documentary-style filmmaking that ignores the sweeping drama that you might expect from such a film and comes out more like an instructional video on how to put together an insurgency.

Which is not to say that it isn’t fascinating. It’s testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a director that my attention was maintained throughout both lengthy instalments, mostly due to fantastic camerawork and pitch-perfect performances. Should you be less interested in the minutiae of either filmmaking or history, however, I strongly suspect that you may be bored to tears. Walter Salles set the bar pretty high with his excellent The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). His film showed a young Guevara looking for adventure on the road, and instead finding his calling as a champion of the oppressed and disempowered. The way in which it showed the initial trajectory of such a luminary life made the film resonate beyond the confines of the film.

In Soderbergh’s twin pictures, however, we are given little of the sense of consequence that made The Motorcycle Diaries so satisfying. Che takes an unflinching look at a man who was flawed, sometimes plagued by doubt, struggling with banal circumstances, with only his idealism and dogma to guide him. In painting such a meticulous portrait of the man, however, we are shown little of the external consequences of his revolutionary actions.

Part 1 follows Guevara’s life from the point at which he and a ragtag bunch of insurgents are on a boat headed for Cuba to seize power from Batista. His discussions with Fidel Castro set the scene for their mission. The film doesn’t dwell for too long on any one period, but progresses at an unhurried pace in unfolding the events.

Part 2 (released separately on 18 December) is less watchable than the first, mostly due to it being a careful look at life in a jungle camp with its accompanying boredom. Battles take place and people enter and exit with little explanation of the wider consequences, meaning only the most learned or careful viewer could really understand how the story slots together.

These are definitely films for history or political science buffs – the Che-T-shirted masses will find little to satisfy them. The saving grace is Benicio Del Toro’s inspired performance. It’s a role that he was born to play, and he takes an understated approach with simmering power beneath the surface. His magnetism alone makes the Che two-part epic worth a watch.

In 1967, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara leads a small partisan army to fight an ill-fated revolutionary guerrilla war in Bolivia.

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