Shaping the men to come: Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) off the beaten track in The Motorcycle Diaries.
Long before he and Fidel Castro took over Cuba, Che Guevara was just a young man on a motorbike. Paul Byrnes loves the movie.
The Motorcycle Diaries
Directed by Walter Salles
Written by Jose Rivera, based on The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che ” Guevara, and With Che Through Latin America by Alberto Granado
First, and most staggeringly, is the physical beauty of the movie. It is full of places to die for - from the Argentine plains to the Peruvian Andes to the Amazon - which, in a way, is part of the idea. It’s filmed with a passion for the idea of pan-America Latina.
The taking away of one’s breath at regular intervals gives a sense of what it might have felt like for Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna and Alberto Granado when they set off in 1952 on a noisy 1939 Norton 500cc motorcycle to discover their continent. The beauty grips you: it’s pristine and thrilling and it carries the film’s emotions for the first few reels.
We don’t yet know much about these two men, but seeing them race two gauchos on horses along a dirt road in Argentina is sheer joy. This is youth not being wasted on the young, at least until Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna, who’s actually related to Guevara’s Argentine family) loses control of the bike he calls the Mighty One and pitches them into into a boggy ditch. It’s the first of many spills the Norton will provide.
This brings me to my second reason for loving this film: its sense of idealism. It’s about the slow radicalisation of Ernesto (played superbly by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, from Y Tu Mama Tambien), the boy becoming the man, but Brazilian director Walter Salles manages to construct this evolution largely without corn or phoniness, or hyperbole. The film is partly about the intense feelings of youth and Salles gives us that without condescension or cynicism.
The film does not set out to defend what he became, the Marxist revolutionary who left a slew of corpses in his wake, but to imagine how he started becoming. It’s a portrait of the man who is not yet Che Guevara, not yet even a doctor, but a 23-year-old medical student from an upper-middle-class family who wants to experience the world.
It’s true that this story avoids having to deal with the ugly stuff, such as the torture and execution of hundreds, possibly thousands, of political prisoners once he and Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959. That may be why some (North) American critics see it as apologia and hagiography, as though it were not possible that Guevara was (at least at some time) an idealist, nor that it might be a legitimate artistic endeavour to try to trace the growth of that idealism. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, as they say.
In that context, it’s interesting that the idea for the film originated within Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, rather than with Salles (who made Central Station). People at the institute took the project to him. The screenwriter, Puerto Rican playwright Jose Rivera, studied at Sundance under Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a noted critic of United States foreign policy in Latin America.
In the current political climate of the US, the message of the film - that poverty and exploitation breed radicalism - though hardly novel, is controversial. I suspect it’s meant to be. The film is financed largely from Britain and Europe. Whether the major US studios declined, I don’t know, but it would not be surprising.
The third reason I loved the film is its quietude - a hard thing to achieve in a road movie featuring a roaring beast of a British motorbike. The script is based on two accounts - Guevara’s diaries, revised by him years later for publication, and Granado’s book about their journey. Granado is still alive in Cuba. Salles also consulted Guevara’s family, who remained in Cuba after he parted from Castro in the mid-1960s.
The first half of the film is fast and boisterous as the two friends take to the road. Granado was a 29-year-old biochemist who loved chasing women, so their adventures are sometimes amorous and often funny, but the pace changes once the Mighty One gives out, somewhere in Chile.
A landscape they were hurtling through becomes one they must walk (and hitchhike) through. They begin to meet more people - Indians forced off their land, peasants heading to work in appalling conditions at the (US-owned) Anaconda mine, an old woman who’s dying but can’t afford a doctor, a truck driver who quotes Pablo Neruda.
Most of these parts are played by people recruited in situ, as the film crew travelled the same roads.
The film was shot in sequence and many of these encounters look like documentary. The film thus becomes a modern odyssey for the filmmakers, travelling in the steps of their subjects exactly 50 years later, but having their own experience of the huge, confronting continent. In a lot of places not much has changed, so the suggestion is clear: the same conditions might yet produce another Che Guevara.
The fact that he became someone different to the man we see on screen made the film more interesting for me, rather than less. The true revolutionary, Guevara said, was always guided by a great feeling of love. This is the man the film is about. He also said the revolutionary soldier must be driven by relentless hatred of the enemy, thus “transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold-blooded killing machine”. This is the man he became.
The film prefers the young hero, naturally, but it implies the line that connects these two statements.