Guerrilla works remarkably well as a standalone film. The story of Che's failed attempt to lead a revolution in Bolivia, then under military rule, is a compelling tragedy. The initial impetus brought by Che's arrival incognito to lead the guerrilla war is lost as misfortune follows misfortune. The odds stack up against the revolutionaries. US backing for the Bolivian army, hostile conditions in the rainforest, suspicious locals and Che's failing health are just some of the difficulties which beset the nascent rebellion.
Soderbergh's portrayal of Che is largely uncritical, but this film is no hagiography. The style is refreshingly undramatic, with a subtle and effective soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias adding quiet drama to many scenes. Che is undoubtedly the centre of the film but there are very few close-ups of his face and we are encouraged to see the people fighting alongside him and sometimes against him too. Where Soderbergh wishes to demonstrate Che's virtues we see it in small episodes such as the loyal acolyte who upbraids two fellow guerrillas when they question Che's leadership, and emphasises the sacrifice that he has made in leaving behind Cuba to fight again for revolution.
The direction throughout is superb. Part two feels tightly edited despite its narrow focus and is able to communicate a great deal through images without the need for a narrator to spell things out for the audience. At the start of the film we see a few short clips of lavish parties in post-revolutionary Cuba, immediately furnishing us with ideas as to why Che would sacrifice his old life to fight again in another country. Later on, the portrayal of guerrillas marching through the unending rainforests stands out as a strikingly beautiful scene and helps to create a feeling of the enormity of the task before this tiny band of revolutionaries.
If there is a problem with the film it is the distance between the viewer and Che, which, though it does allow us to appreciate the context of the insurgency and the people around him, makes it hard for us to understand him better as a person. True, Benicio Del Toro is utterly convincing in the lead role so much so that it is difficult to remember that you are watching an actor and not the man himself. However, watching Guerrilla as a standalone film means that we are given precious little insight into what is shaping Che's thoughts, words and actions. It is to be hoped that this is more to the fore in the first part of Soderbergh's biopic (I cannot comment on that yet), and certainly the strength of part two is making me look forward eagerly to seeing the prequel.