October 1965: Fidel Castro (Bichir) reads a letter from Che Guevara (Del Toro) in which he resigns from the Cuban government. Two years later, Guevara tries to bring about revolution in Bolivia. Things do not go well.
Given Che Part One ended with the revolutionary leader telling his troops, “The revolution begins now,” you’d think that Che Part Two might show Guevara’s part in that victory. But, as any Star Wars fan knows, Part Two is the melancholic one, where our heroes find themselves trudging through grim locales, under clouds of impending doom. All boxes ticked, then.
The film begins with a farewell — Castro reading out Guevara’s resignation letter. We’re told nothing of how this has come about, but the tone is set. Despite some unintentionally comic scenes in which Che goes incognito as ‘Ramon’, with Max Wall shaved head and go-faster grey streaks — and overlooking an inexplicable Matt Damon cameo — the mood remains fogged and valedictory throughout. If Part One resembled a John Sturges movie reworked by Rossellini, then Part Two — drawn from an earlier Terrence Malick script and Guevara’s own no-laughs Bolivian Diary
— is something far grimmer.
After the Bolivian Communist party leader refuses to back Guevara’s armed campaign, we follow Che’s men into the Bolivian jungle only to see them laid low by hunger and defeat: they only learn their whereabouts from radio reports of their various losses. Imagine a Sam Fuller war movie directed by Werner Herzog or Malick’s own The Thin Red Line, not so much in the meandering narrative but in the sense that we’re only ever watching a fragment of something too large — war — to convey on the screen.
Working with even less backstory than Part One, Del Toro is, if anything, more impressive: quiet and magisterial, even in sickness and defeat. The scene where he quietly persuades a Bolivian guard to release him is almost frightening in its quiet power.
The film ends in blur, silence and dust, as if we’re watching the world fade through Guevara’s own eyes. Moments before his death we learn he’s left five children behind in Cuba. It’s a fragment of personal detail, but after what we’ve been through it’s overwhelming. We might still be in the dark as to his politics, but after nearly five hours in his company we’re in no doubt we’ve lost a great man. Maybe that was all Soderbergh and Del Toro wanted, after all.
Like Guevaras slog through the Bolivian undergrowth, Che Part Two is a hallucinatory journey into the heart of darkness, defined by a performance of great presence.