The Motor Cycle Diaries

Lawrence Russell

The Motor Cycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) [2004] dir. Walter Salles writ. Jose Rivera (based on original writings by Che Guevara & Alberto Granados) cine. Eric Gautier music. Gustavo Santaolalla prod. Robert Redford et. al.

|| star. Gael Garcia Bernal (Che Guevara), Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto Granado), Mia Maestro (Cichina Ferreyra), Mercedes Moran (Celia de ls Serna), Jose Chiarella (Dr. Bresciani)

|| Focus Features 2004

|| color 128 mins

|||| Friend on the phone says he's just come back from Argentina, was looking for the big bird, the Condor. What's it like, I say. Flat, he says, incredibly flat. Hot too. What's Buenos Aires like? I say. Clean, he says. Strange architecture....

the re-selling of Che

Well, this is the way she looks in 1952 in The Motor Cycle Diaries, the recent film by Walter Salles about the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara before he became the poster icon of the Cuban revolution... a clean, open city with a vast flat hinterland. Story starts with Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) packing up to leave on a South American tour riding an old Norton 500 motorcycle with a pal, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a horny biochemist who thinks they can cover 4000 kilometers in 4 months, looping through Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezula. Guevara isn't known as "Che" at this time, but rather as "El Fuser", a 23 year old on the verge of graduating as a MD specializing in leprosy... an interesting metaphor that's exploited near the end of the script, but not to the aesthetic advantage that it could've been in pure fiction.

Bernal in Motor Cycle Diaries

Also ignored is the fact that Guevara had taken part in street demonstrations against the dictator Juan Peron, and as likely as not was leaving town because he had to. Most dramatists would use such an action setting -- a street riot -- as a hook scene about a revolutionary-in-the-making but not the script writer Jose Rivera... why not? A politically correct choice in the re-selling of Guevara for this generation? No question, many will think this film is propaganda. While politics are barely mentioned or are carefully navigated in this photo interpretation, the very subject of Che Guevara is so politicized from the onset that an objective view is impossible.

Still, the director and the writer try... largely by the technique of omission and concentrating on creating a portrait of a sensitive poet who can never tell a lie. He's young, sexy, although not exactly superpowered, as he has a tragic affliction, asthma, which also figures faintly as a metaphor for the conditions of the South American world he lives in. But the true analogy here is to Lord Byron, the English poet with the club foot who famously swam the Hellespont... and the climax of this film has Guevara swimming a wide river at night in a foolhardy (but altruistic) desire to show solidarity with the lepers on the other side.

So this film is a travelogue about two young guys (who swear a lot) who have never been outside their native country riding a machine that has very little probability of completing such a journey. Gravel roads, dirt roads, fields, deserts, mountain passes... they dump the Norton several times before finally colliding with some cattle on a country road in Chile, thereby finishing the bike forever. Thus the Norton "dies", perhaps an indicator of the dying old woman's passing in the last village. "Just as her body will soon be lost in the great mystery that surrounds us," says Guevara's poetic V.O. before he leaves her bedside and mounts the doomed bike.

You would expect a film about the young Che to show just what exactly radicalized him enough to later join up with Fidel Castro in Mexico City, take part in the Cuban revolution and have no problem ordering the executions of all who didn't see it Che's way, export "the revolution" to other countries, including Bolivia where he was ambushed in 1967 and executed, his body buried in a runway. Does he see blatant injustice, cruel behavior? Nothing extraordinary. Two situations are offered, but do they really put anything on the line?

better to die standing than live on your knees (Che Guevara)

One is the Anaconda mine scene, where Guevara watches a foreman recruit workers like a slave broker working the rock gang in Spartacus. Guevara watches in indignation as his newly acquired friends, the dispossessed Communist farm couple, are split up, the husband told to get in the truck while his wife is left behind to an uncertain fate. Guevara hurls a rock as the truck departs, just as he probably hurled a rock or a bottle at the Peronistas a few weeks earlier in Buenos Aires. As presented, there's no real injustice here, merely a fairly standard recruiting routine from some vagrant workers hanging around outside the mine. The same sort of thing goes down today, just about anywhere in the world someone might go in search of casual manual work.

The other situation occurs in the last stanza of the film at the San Pablo leper colony, where Guevara and Granado have volunteered their services for a few months. The place is run by some nuns, who have strict rules about physical contact with the lepers -- indeed, the colony exists in quarantine on the other side of the river. Guevara of course ignores the "no touching" regulation... and the moral becomes clear: the Church with its outmoded culture acts as an oppressor and the rationale for a corrupt social order not only here but in all of Latin America. In fact, "El Fuser" has a revelation when he sees that South America isn't a collection of separate political states but one mestizo nation... sound like Simon Bolivar, whose statues monitor every plaza south of the Darian Gap?

The Motor Cycle Diaries plays to a converted constituency... or a new generational constituency about to be converted because this film is nice to look at and the acting is good, so it will have a romantic appeal. There's a nice balance between poetic dramatization and documentary stylistics. The narrative is episodic, always driven by the average citizens they encounter along the way... the man with the tumour on his neck, the two Chilean sisters, daughters of the local firechief, who flirt with the penniless Guevara and Granado in a cantina, buy them wine and empanados. Or Dr. Bresiciani (Jorge Chiarella) who puts them up for the night but makes them read his manuscript "Latitudes of Silence" ...while Granado diplomatically says "you really know how to tell a story", Guevara says bluntly that "the writing is bad, trite and full of cliches". The Doctor takes it well, but you have to wonder if Guevara's tactlessness is the honesty of a pure spirit or the vanity of a clumsy man who can't dance.

The major crisis for Guevara comes with the kiss-off letter from his girlfriend Cichina (Mia Maestro), the woman he detours to visit and deliver a puppy to. "I'll wait for you," she says (after denying him sex). "But I won't wait forever." A couple of months? Not long. She encloses some money, like a Mary Magdalene buying off her Christ. He staggers through the desert, he climbs to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu... fertility and poverty, green and mestizo... like many road movies, it's a poetic hymn to the landscape they ride through... the pampas, the Andes, the Amazon basin. Easy on the eye, the mind. And the compelling atmospheric music score of Gustavo Santaolalla makes it all seem so groovy, even if some of the electric guitar work doesn't exactly fit an early 50's period setting.

Walter Salles directed "Central Station" -- he has a nice touch. Robert Redford is the exec producer... wha tha... how could a former Hollywood pretty boy be involved in this? Gringo guilt? Opportunism? Actually, if one looks back at some of Redford's own films, starting with the silly revisionism and homicidal clowning of "Butch Cassidy", then the well-intentioned "Milagro Beanfield War" ...and later "Havana", a pretty good film that didn't do very well at the box office or with serious critics, you can see that he has an on-going "interest" in indigenous America and Latin culture.

While it lacks the edge and tragic romanticism of "Before Night Falls" (about the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas), "The Motorcycle Diaries" does extend the dialogue about Latin America and its recent history.

Some people might think Guevara was influenced by Aime Tschiffely who set out from Buenos Aires in 1925 to ride all the way to North America on horseback. Tschiffely's incredible feat -- using two Mustangs, Mancha and Gato -- probably has never been equalled and his account of his journey from Patagonia north through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and onward to Washington, D.C. is an incredible journal about the personal endurance required for man and beast to survive in the surreal landscapes of the Andes and the jungle swamps of South America.

His social observations were acute:

In many of the police stations where I slept I saw pathetic things written on the walls, such as, "Here suffered incessantly for two months Juan Rodriguez, a victim of his shameless politcal enemies." Or another: "The good and patriotic Peruvian citizen, Pedro Alvarez, starved and cried here for six months. The innocent are in jail, the guilty are in their houses living in luxury."

Tschiffely had no axe to grind, was no revolutionary; he was Swiss, he was an outsider, was an adventurer. Unlike the young Guevara, he wasn't damaged by what he saw.

© LR 2/05


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Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2005