“I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people. And I know it because I see it imprinted on the night that I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like a man possessed, will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood and, consumed with rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then, as if an immense weariness were consuming my recent exhilaration, I see myself being sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveler of individual will, pronouncing the exemplary mea culpa.”—Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries
Shortly after submerging himself within the Bolivian jungle and ingratiating himself with its peasants, Che Guevarra challenged local Communist Party leader Mario Monje’s belief that conditions were not right for revolution. Che responds calmly in a dispassionate voice, at least according to Steven Soderberg’s vision:
Anywhere in the world where men are being exploited by men conditions are right. When children work in mines and 50 percent of miners don’t reach the age of 30, when these same miners go on strike to improve their wages and they are massacred by the army, are those conditions right or not? If infant mortality rates are the highest in Latin America because of lack of hospitals and medical care, the situation is right for me.
Although Monje (Lou Diamond Phillips) is mostly dismissed within Che: Part Two as a Communist Party hack, history nonetheless has vindicated his assessment, though it might still fault his reasoning. In these early moments of the film, Soderbergh juxtaposes not only free-form guerrilla tactics versus the functionary strategy of ossified Party politics, revolutionary idealism versus rheumatic dogmatism, but a utopian vision versus the plaguing mundane concerns that ceaselessly deflate any vision for a better world in the mere attempt to endure.
Soderbergh clearly indentifies with Che, the idealist, even though Che: Part Two serves as a testimony to the limits of idealism as we watch Che’s (Benicio Del Toro) disastrous Bolivian expedition unravel. After all, Soderbergh himself is something of an idealist, too. In the documentary Making Che, which accompanies this DVD set, Soderbergh claims that the ten year project-in-making Che forced him to confront the question: do movies matter anymore? Soderbergh reflects, “I don’t think that they do. So that added to: what was the point of eight years of work when movies have become so disposable. There aren’t many opportunities for them to be taken seriously like they were in the late 1960s and 1970s here in the United States.”
This jeremiad conveniently overlooks the ambitious world of art cinema of Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Carlos Reygadas, Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Zhang Ke Jia, Steve McQueen, and Lars von Trier that still thrives globally and even screens on the remaining independent theaters the dot across the States. But this is Soderbergh the aesthete speaking who must overlook nuance and the terrain of the actual surrounding mediascape for fear of finding his other half: Soderbergh, the commercial filmmaker of such dreck like Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Ocean’s Eleven (2002), and Erin Brockovich (2002).
Soderbergh’s artistic schizophrenia is not unique, but something that plagues many filmmakers who must work within Hollywood. One thinks of John Cassavetes acting in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to fund films such as Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Sayles script-doctoring hack movies to support directing Matewan (1987) and Lone Star (1996), and, more recently, Guillermo del Toro pumping out Hell Boy (2004) and Hell Boy Two: The Golden Army (2008) to materialize his Spanish Civil War films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
There is only one moment where art and mammon converged in Sodergergh’s entire career: the outstanding 1989 Sundance premiere of his first feature-length film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. This set a template for many misguided projects and frustration for the rest of Soderbergh’s career by not realizing the rarity of the moment that originally drew him into the Hollywood fold. The art cinema side of his career has stumbled between the grossly narcissistic, Schizopolis (1996), and the hopelessly misguided, a remake of Solaris starring George Clooney. Che, at least Part One, has broken this trend by fusing both Soderbergh’s artistic vision with a mastery of genre.
One must first of all admire Soderbergh’s refusal to psychologize Che, a common device of the standard biopic. We are always on the outside, blocked by his public persona before news cameras or his own troops. It is not coincidental that Soderbergh begins Part One with a radio interviewer checking sound levels before asking her first question and Part Two with an oblique shot of a television screen of Castro (Demián Bichir) reading Guevara’s farewell letter. These are subtle warnings that we will not be able to penetrate beneath the image, beneath the personality that was so invested with Latin American revolution that it has become hopelessly enmeshed by its rhetoric, it style, its hopes, its victories, as well as its limits and tragic failures.
For example, when an interviewer asks Che’s feelings when Fidel demoted him from being a guerrilla captain to a trainer of new recruits, he replies calmly, objectively, that Fidel had his reasons and one must always sacrifice one’s ego to the goals of the revolution. Soderbergh follows this with a flashback to one of Guevara’s men consoling him that he is the best man to train new recruits. Che nods. Yet the sequence doesn’t add any clarity. We can’t tell if Che is being consoled because of his own feelings of inadequacy or because Che’s comrade thinks Che needs emotional support. Soderbergh refuses to move beyond the surface dialogue, image, and actions, which over time establishes a rather subtle impressionistic narrative texture.
Furthermore, the modernist style of the first part adds to its richness and complexity. Not only does it shuttle between times and places such as 1957 in Mexico City, 1959 in the Sierra Maestra, and 1964 in New York offering a rather broad but nonetheless suggestive framework establishing the rationale behind the Cuban Revolution, but also offers distantiation techniques that pull us from the immediacy of events to reflect on their meaning. This is well encapsulated in the first battle scene. As the revolutionaries attack army barracks, the diegetic sound cuts out and a voice-over of Guevara intercedes commenting on Tolstoy’s reflections on war. As we watch the men fight, Che states calmly, objectively how Tolstoy believes that military science only ponders how the size of an army leads to its victory, but there is also the x-factor, which is defined as “the spirit of the troops.” Che comments, “Men with the desire to fight who also understand why they’re fighting… will be triumphant.”
This sequence perfectly embodies the guerrilla’s notion of praxis where thought initiates action and action completes thought. By uniting Che’s gleaning of military knowledge from literary classics like Tolstoy’s War and Peace with gritty guerrilla fighting, the film not only reveals reflection as a necessary part of action, but also exposes how high culture holds vital knowledge for even the illiterate and dispossessed. This is nothing less than dialectical thought at work where the weight of the cultural past can be used against itself to unlock the potentialities of more egalitarian futures.
Finally, Part One’s framing is reminiscent of the latter work by Ken Loach. It largely refuses close-ups of Che, instead preferring distant framing where he is seen among other revolutionaries and set against the landscape. He is only one among many, and the film refuses to idolize him. When we first see him in the Cuban jungle, he is suffering an asthma attack. Wheezing and doubling-over, Che seems more of a burden than a benefit to the revolution. Even when he is in the forefront of the frame, he is normally facing away from the audience. This not only visually minimizes the centrality of Che, but also reinforces the enigmatic personality that lies beneath his words and gestures.
Because of Soderbergh’s masterfully framing and editing, we don’t mind that the first part concludes as an action genre mainly composed of fighting during its remaining 30-minutes. Finally, we see battle scenes without any voice-over since by this time we thoroughly understand the thought that undergirds the revolutionaries’ fighting. This is not some spontaneous action but a well-developed plan.
Yet Part One ends on a provocative note. On his drive towards Havana in victory, Che comes across a group of comrades who have stolen a red Cadillac that belonged to one of the snipers they killed in Santa Clara. Che stops them and says, “Even if it was Batista’s, the car is not yours. Go back to Santa Clara immediately and return it. And then you will go to Havana by bus, by jeep or on foot. I’d rather walk than drive to Havana in a stolen car.” As he returns to his car, he mutters to himself, “Incredíble.” Condensed here is the remaining challenge of the revolution: the bourgeois habits that the revolutionaries carry within themselves. They have vanquished the external enemy, but the internal one remains much more persistent and intrusive.
Part Two is an entirely different film, as has been well-reported during its theatrical release. There are a series of reasons for this change in style: it was shot before Part One and originally was supposed to stand alone; it is based upon Che’s Bolivian diary, which fails to provide the critical distance that the source materials for Part One allowed for; less is generally known about Che’s exploits in Bolivia. These are all justifiable reasons for a stylistic change, yet they don’t change the fact that Part Two drags, mired in documentary-like style chronicling the innumerable details of jungle guerilla fighting but not adding a larger sense of Bolivian society and the revolution that Part One provides of Cuba.
The film fails to even offer a rationale for Che’s trip to Bolivia. Why there as opposed to some other Latin American nation? And what exactly are the ills he is supposed to be fighting? In Part One we see newsreel footage of Batista’s coup and learn about the ways in which American imperialism has impacted all of Latin America. In Part Two we see sequences of Bolivian president René Barrientos (Joaquim de Almedia) meeting with the CIA to decide to train men against the revolutionaries, but we don’t lean anything more about these oppressive regimes or the fight against them. The suggestiveness of Part One has given way to superficiality. By sticking too closely to Guevara’s diaries as a primary source, the film loses perspective as well as interest. The dialectical sophistication of the first part devolves into nothing more than one long chase sequence by Part Two.
Ultimately, one has to admire Sodergergh’s ambition in making a four hour and 20-minute Spanish-language film on Che Guevara. It is unfortunate that the skill of Part One makes Part Two difficult to watch. If anything, Che crystallizes Soderbergh’s warring sides: the ambition and ingenuity of the first part jars against the rather rote framing and plot of Part Two. Criterion helps account for these differences by providing a rather good, if not hagiographic, making-of documentary as well as an insightful, if not equally hagiographic, essay by Amy Taubin on the film. Additionally, the DVD set holds a 1967 documentary concering Che’s death in Bolivia as well as a short documentary on the innovative use of digital filmmaking used by Soderbergh. Che is as much a success as it is a failure, as insightful as it is prosaic. If anything, the film draws together the contradictory tendencies of the revolution with those of an ambitious filmmaker who has visions of a better cinema while still firmly mired in a commercial system where true aesthetic innovation and thematic concern for social justice translates into nothing more than a box office loss.