For some reason unknown to me, Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” was recently released in South Korea although it has been more than 10 years since the movie came out in 2008. I already saw it in 2010, but I was willing to give it another try for re-examining my initial opinion, and I am glad to report that it is still the most ambitious work from Soderberg during last two decades, though I remain to be not very enthusiastic about it unlike some other critics and audiences.
The movie is divided into two parts: “The Argentine” and “Guerilla”. While these two parts are inseparable in terms of storytelling, I decided to review each of them because they are separately shown in South Korea, so the review will mainly focus on what I felt and observed as watching “Guerilla” at a local arthouse movie theater in my hometown.
“Guerilla” is set at the time point which is around seven years after Fidel Castro and his No.2 guy Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio del Toro) succeeded in overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba, 1959. While he was later appointed as one of Castro’s cabinet members, Guevara suddenly disappeared in 1965, and then Castro subsequently announced to the public that Guevara left Cuba for spreading their spirit of revolution around other countries out there.
In 1966, Guevara is ready to sneak into Bolivia, but he drops by Cuba first for meeting Castro and his dear wife and children. While successfully disguising himself as a family friend, he spends some nice time with his wife and children, and then he leaves for Bolivia along with his several Cuban comrades, who are, like him, quite determined to spread their ideology around those poor people in Bolivia.
At first, things look promising to Guevara and his comrades, but it soon becomes apparent to us that they are bound to fail for several overlooked factors. Bolivia has also suffered from right-wing dictatorship just like Cuba once did, but Guevara and his comrades did not get much favor or support this time. While local left-wing factions do not welcome them much, those poor people of Bolivia do not like them a lot either as frequently being sandwiched between Guevara and the Bolivian Army. In case of one poor farmer, he finds himself in a very difficult situation as incidentally getting himself associated with Guevara and his soldiers, and he has no choice but to cooperate with the Bolivian Army.
In addition, the Bolivian government was already quite ready to stop Guevara right from when he arrived in the country, and it also gets considerable help and support from the US government. As briefly implied in “The Argentine”, the US government has been watching on Guevara’s activities after the Cuban revolution, and we soon see several American military advisors coming to Bolivia for training the Bolivian Army soldiers more for suppressing Guevara and his soldiers.
As calmly and closely observing how the situation gets worse and worse for Guevara and his soldiers for next several months, Soderbergh, who also unofficially worked as the cinematographer of his film as before, gives us a number of tense moments without resorting to any unnecessary thrill or excitement. While we occasionally get several battle scenes as expected, they are mostly handled via a dry, restrained approach, and, though we do not get the whole picture of what is exactly going on around Guevara and his soldiers, we become more aware of the growing sense of doom and desperation around them.
While he can just quit and then go back to Cuba and his family, Guevara adamantly sticks to his ideological belief, and that comes to seal his fate in the end with more misery and ordeal. Around the time when he is eventually captured by the Bolivian Army, he looks far shabbier and shaggier than before, and Soderbergh presents Guevara’s eventual demise on October 9th, 1967 via a very effective subjective viewpoint to be appreciated.
Although “Guerilla” is less enjoyable compared to “The Argentine” due to its gloomy mood, it is also held well together by the strong lead performance from Benecio del Toro, who shows here a commendable case of committed acting as he did in “The Argentine”. While we do not come to learn anything particularly personal about him, Guevara in the film comes to us as a compelling human figure to observe thanks to del Toro’s unadorned natural acting, and I admire how del Toro and Soderbergh strenuously stick to their clinical depiction of a revolutionary who simply lived and died for his ideological belief. I must tell you that my political stance is quite far from Guevara’s (I am a liberal who grew up as a staunch anti-communist, by the way), but I observed Guevara in the film with constant fascination nonetheless, and I came to understand why he is still famous even at present, though I personally think he would roll in his grave if he came to learn about how his political image has been turned into a popular commercialized brand during recent years.
On the whole, “Guerilla” precisely complements what is presented in “The Argentine”, and these two parts work together well to give us the vivid, uncompromising presentation of two different important periods in Guevara’s life. Although they are a rather dry, tough stuff to say the least, they are worthwhile to watch for Soderbergh and del Toro’s admirable efforts, and I think you should give them a chance someday.