A few months back I saw "The Motorcycle Diaries", the film about Che Guevara's early twenties in which he took a motorbike trip around South America. He left from his homeland of Argentina with his best friend. Their aim was to have some fun basically, though as doctors, medical students really, they did have some serious intentions. They planned to visit a leper colony and talk to a distinguished physician there. It was an interesting enough movie that it led me to read the book, which is actually the diary of Guevara from the trip.
Yesterday, I finished watching "Che", Steven Soderbergh's two-part, almost five hour film about Guevara. I am glad I read "The Motorcycle Diaries"!
Part One is a film about Guevara hooking up with Fidel Castro to bring about the coup in Cuba. It seems Guevara was the tactician and inspiration, while Castro was the leader who took on the responsibility of the whole action. With a large number of rebels, they advance on government troops. The final part of the film is an almost street-by-street, and literally wall-by-wall, account of the taking of the final town before the rebels were able to take control of Cuba. With little plot other than miltary tactics, the film is bogged down in itself. While ephemerally interesting at first, my interest began to lag. By the time the final invasion was being shown, I realized the only thing I had learned, other than how to take Cuba by force, was that Che greeted every soldier individually, by name, as he looked them straight in the eye. That was an insight that passed quickly though. I must admit I was glad when it ended. I wondered if I would actually watch Part Two.
For the sake of artistry, and because I have some interest in the man I met in "Motorcycle Diaries", I watched the second half. And I will say that if you have any interest in Guevara, you have to watch both films. The second is set in Bolivia, where Guevara goes to continue the revolution. He leaves Cuba behind to a Castro that is living off the fat of that land and hardly embracing "the people". But Che, whether he saw that or not, plans to lead the Bolivian peasants against their government. Where Cuba was such a success, at least for Che and his intentions, Bolivia proves to be the exact opposite.
The amazing problem is that he has so few rebels with him. It is hard to understand what he actually expected to do with a group that seemed to top no more than thirty at any time. His ability to greet his troops personally and look them in the eye served him well here, though it did not go as well for those soldiers. Guevara is the leader here. There is no Fidel Castro to take any heat or make any decisions. Guevara, whose lifelong problem with asthma really rears up in Bolivia, has no business attempting what he attempts here.
These two halves - one of great success and one of abject failure - make Soderbergh's opus a film well worth watching. There is an overall biographical arc, an assessment really, that can only be attained by setting each half against the other. But I would suggest reading the "Diaries" also. The film gives us little background or characterization of the famous revolutionary icon. From the book, I knew that his goals were formed by seeing the native Indian populations of South America living in cultural splendor, but economic destitution. He had good motives.
But the film shows that when those same Native Americans are coerced to help rebels, they get nothing in return other than government troops harassing them. The very people he wanted to help wanted nothing to do with such violence and harassment. There must be better ways to change the world, but those ways may make results harder to achieve than violent revolt.
Che had good intentions, but it seems it was really a wasted life and wasted talent.