30 April 2009

CHE: PART 2 - GUERRILLA (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008, US) - 'To survive here, to win...you have to live as if you've already died'

Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto 'Che' Guevara

The second part of Soderbergh and Del Toro’s Che biopic opens with a close up of a 1960s television set with the black and white images of Fidel Castro delivering a speech regarding a letter he has received from his friend and comrade, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, reassuring the Cuban nation of the revolutionary’s relative safety. Not only is it a visual reminder of the postmodern tele-visual age that much of the western world was entering and how nationhood was becoming manifested through alternative institutional modes of address, it also provides a crucial link between the two films in demonstrating how Che’s journey would shift emphasis from the euphoria of Cuba to the jungles of Bolivia. Shot using the new ultra light RED camera in a similarly cinema verite fashion to Soderbergh’s ‘The Argentine’, the second part titled ‘Guerrilla’ focuses squarely on Che’s failed attempts to begin a revolution in Bolivia, leading to his humiliating capture and brutal execution by the Bolivian army. The sociological strength and truthfulness of ‘Guerrilla’ as formidable political cinema certainly affirms Soderbergh’s superlative position alongside Paul Thomas Anderson and Terence Malick as one of the most versatile and technologically adept American film makers working today. ‘Guerrilla’ is arguably Soderbergh’s finest cinematic achievement to date, eclipsing ‘The Argentine’ with an equally powerful elliptical approach and creating a cogent study of a political leader who became a victim of his own radicalism and ideological integrity.

Currently, the cumulative worldwide gross for Soderbergh’s diptych stands at $30 million which is disappointing considering the film cost $60 million to make. However, the film does have a chance of turning a profit once it appears on DVD and this is likely where it will potentially find its biggest audience. After the triumph of Marxist revolution in Cuba and the end of Batista’s regime, Che was declared a national hero but his revolutionary instincts compelled him to travel and propagate his ideals in Congo and finally Bolivia. Upon his arrival in Bolivia, Che immediately succeeded in creating a Partisan Army made up of indigenous volunteers and Cuban revolutionaries. Acting as leader, Che oversaw the training and education of the soldiers, helping to transform them into a formidable guerrilla army, which put up great resistance to the CIA backed Bolivian Army. Che’s aim was to use the revolutionary war to motivate the peasants and create some kind of a popular uprising but such political idealism was undermined by the widespread suspicion aroused by their presence of a foreign army. Many of the Bolivian peasants who form a large part of the underclass question Che’s intentions are shown to be taken in by the lies propagated by the local police and military who resort to threats of intimidation and violence.

Steven Soderbergh also takes credit for the cinematography under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews.

What this second part makes much more explicit than the first is the direct American involvement in the political affairs of Latin American countries like Bolivia, assisting with the military training of the Bolivian army so that they can stop short any idea of a revolutionary impulse taking hold of the peasants. The CIA’s role in the capture and execution of Che is explored with great subtlety through the character of Ramirez (Yul Vasquez) who hovers in the background as a symbol of corruption and conspiracy. The ideological debate that forms much of the exchanges between the revolutionaries in particular examines with great clarity the painful compromises one must make in order to live up to the principles of socialists who want the eradication of such deep man made inequalities. ‘Guerrilla’ ends brilliantly, poignantly capturing the execution and state sanctioned murder of Che as one of understated historical significance and the performance by Benicio Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great method performances of the last 20 years.


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