Director: Steven Soderbergh; Release date: out now
The second part of Steven Soderbergh's biographic film of the life of Che Guevara is much more straightforward - and depressing - than the first. It concentrates almost wholly on the debacle of Guevara's final campaign fought in Bolivia between 1966 and 1967, a campaign which ended in his tragic death.
There is symmetry between parts one and two of the film. Soderbergh charts the rise and fall of Guevara through the films and looks the voluntarism behind his political ideas, a voluntarism which insisted that, "It is not necessary to wait for the conditions to be right to begin the revolution - the insurrectional guerrilla group can create them."
The first film details the victory of the Cuban revolution and the amazing story of how a handful of idealists sparked the overthrow of a dictatorship and became an inspiration to the oppressed across the world. It takes us from the first meeting of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, in a Mexican flat, to the victory of the Cuban revolution and the rise of Guevara as a figure of international significance.
The second film charts this process in reverse. It opens with Guevara's resignation from office in Cuba in order to try and repeat in other lands the apparently successful strategy of revolution through guerrilla warfare.
There is a structural and artistic unity between the two films but at the cost of narrative clarity. What Guevara was looking for in Bolivia, and in the Congo previous to the Bolivian adventure, was a way out of the limits imposed on the Cuban revolution. The national independence which Castro fought for was compromised quickly by the realities of the Cold war. In 1963, threatened by a commercial embargo from the US, Cuba was forced into the USSR's sphere of influence. Before the revolution Cuba was a mono-crop economy dominated by the US. By the mid-1960s Cuba was a mono-crop economy dominated by the priorities of the USSR. Guevara understood that spreading the revolution was one way to break the deadlock imposed on the developing world by the imperialism of the world's two super-powers, but his strategy for spreading the revolution was through the guerrilla warfare which had succeeded in Cuba.
Where the first film chronicled the increasingly successful tactics of the guerrillas against the ruling order of Cuba the second film details their failure against the US-backed ruling class of Bolivia. Politically isolated in an unfamiliar country, and unable to win the support and co-operation of the peasants, Guevara's band are slowly whittled away by disillusion and state violence. What comes over very clearly in the film are the limits of armed struggle and what can be achieved through the gun of even the most heroic and self-sacrificing guerrilla. Guevara is brutally hunted down, captured and killed.
This film is sympathetic to the man but much more ambivalent about the revolutionary project to which he devoted his life. Near the conclusion of the film a captive Che has a conversation with his guard, a young Bolivian soldier who shares a cigarette with him. They can relate to each other on a basic human level, swapping information about their families, but the guard knows nothing of Che's ideas. He only knows that communism is hostile to religion and when Che asks him to let him go, the guard turns his back on him. The inference is that the oppressed will always serve their oppressors and are incapable of fighting for their own interests. This message is reinforced in the group of inert and silent peasants who mass round Che's body as it is lashed to a helicopter and flown out of their dusty village.
We all knew that this film wasn't going to have a happy ending, but recent Bolivian history gives no room for pessimism. Throughout Latin America and beyond, the masses are moving against their oppressors. That's why they're making films about Che Guevara.
"Hasta la victoria siempre."
Che: Part 1 was reviewed in Socialist Review last month.