The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mía Maestro, Gustavo Bueno, Jorge Chiarella
Directed by: Walter Salles
Based on the diaries written by a 23-year old Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) is a Spanish film that follows Ernesto (Che) Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal) and Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna, second cousin of Che himself) on a year-long trip throughout South America in the 1950s. Setting out on Alberto’s old Norton 500 motorcycle, the two plan on seeing the continent as a last hurrah before settling into their medical careers (Ernesto has one semester left in medical school, Alberto is a biochemist about to turn thirty), with the intent on reaching a leper colony in Peru where they will volunteer.
I’m not a Che fan at all, mostly because I don’t agree at all with Communist totalitarian policies, but also because I find the cult of Che trifling and stereotypical. It’s almost as though they hand out Che posters and shirts at freshman orientation along with Bob Marley shirts and posters of Starry Night. I love how college kids express their originality and individualism in the most conformist and typical of fashions.
However, I will say that I really don’t know that much about the history of Che Guevara (or, really, Latin America in general). Although, I’m not sure that makes me that unlike people who wear Che shirts, as he’s become more of a novelty and less of a historical figure with each piece of merchandise sold adorned with his image. So I can’t really judge this movie for historical accuracy, and instead can only comment on what is presented by director Walter Salles.
Which works out fine, because the film isn’t really political by nature. Of course, there are undertones in the film, showing what influenced the young Che to eventually become a revolutionary. But, at its core, the movie is a coming-of-age road film about two buddies heading out on an adventure. Filmed throughout South America, the movie is simply gorgeous, capturing the adventurous spirit of travel and the true camaraderie of the two men engaged in this crazy trip. In many ways, the film feels like Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, which is probably why Salles has apparently signed on to direct an adaptation of that book.
When the movie is focused on Ernesto and Alberto’s travels, and the trials and tribulations attendant to them, it is a lot of fun. Bernal and De la Serna have real chemistry together, with Bernal providing optimistic charisma and de la Serna providing comic relief. Their banter and mini-adventures make the film feel a lot less like a political polemic, and more like a fun adventure.
The dramatic weight of the film is given when Ernesto and Alberto come into contact with the poor underclasses of the different countries they visit. It’s obvious that these encounters are what helped shape the dogmatic views of the bourgeois-raised Che, and even understandable to a degree. There was a significant imbalance of wealth that required a response. But, given that the imbalance is just as prominent today in post-revolution South America, I’m not sure that Che’s solution was the correct response. This is where the film becomes problematic, in that it only shows Ernesto’s side of the story, and is determined to lionise the young idealist in the process. It’s fine to show Ernesto’s disgust at nuns who refuse food to lepers who fail to attend mass, but that fails to consider that Che will later refuse liberties to those who disagree with his Marxist ideals later in life (only he just has them executed instead of denying them lunch).
As a biopic, the movie glosses over too much in an attempt to make Che appealing, and almost saint-like. But, as a road movie about two young guys named Ernesto and Alberto, the movie holds a lot of appeal. It’s a gorgeous picture, following two interesting and charismatic young men on an entertaining journey, a romantic look at the forming of an idealogue that may be lacking in perspective, but delivers as entertainment.