There is only one problem that I can see with this film: the viewer.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a film that is based on the
experiences of two young men from Argentina in 1952, as they leave
their comfortable existence as Buenos Aires professionals to explore
the South American continent from the back of an old motorcycle.
Though this may sound like a setup for yet another formulaic buddy
picture, the actual trip began as the dream of one 29-year-old biochemist
Alberto Granado, accompanied by a younger brother’s
best friend, the 23-year-old medical student, Ernesto Guevara.
The film is based on the memoirs of both men, and was made with
the consultation of the surviving Granado, now some 81 years old.
Ernesto Guevara went on to achieve mythic fame as the revolutionary,
“Che” Guevara, and was killed in Bolivia in 1967. But
that, as they say, is another story.
I wondered what to expect of this film, myself. I thought that I
might get some insight into a fellow asthmatic who couldn’t
dance, just a couple of little details about Guevara, the man. Of
course, there is also this little issue of Guevara’s subsequent
politics. I was curious how the film might play to American audiences.
I still am. There is more than a bit of irony in the longevity of
Guevara’s legend as he still arouses interest even in the
nation whose C.I.A. had such a prominent hand in his defeat and
death. Americans would be well-advised to remember that the rest
of the world will view this film a bit differently.
So, what do you expect from a film about a young Che Guevara?
You want answers? You want illumination of the “man behind
the myth?” Perhaps, depending on your political leanings,
you might anticipate some leftist propaganda shrouded in a thinly
veiled and highly contrived narrative; or, you might look forward
to an inspiring tale of the creation of a heroic figure of mythic
proportions. Fortunately, The Motorcycle Diaries is not
any of those films. As valuable and as entertaining as such a documentary
might be, this resulting film is more subtle, unpretentiously more
subjective, and even better.
It is, after all, a road movie, only to the San Pablo leper colony
in the Amazon, where both men had volunteered to get direct experience
with the disease they had studied in school. There are moments of
drama, humor, even some romance. In the beginning, you get the predictable
introductions, the jokes about “the mighty one” (the
motorcycle), the dreams of romantic conquests, the watchful mother
entrusting her son to the older Alberto’s promise to keep
the younger Ernesto safe and return him to medical school. Then,
on the road, the film slowly develops a genuine sense of adventure,
of place, and of the people. It weaves a vision of these men in
a fifties America (South, to us up north) that is both hypnotic
and beautiful, with a logic that flows as effortlessly as in a dream,
but with an immediacy as if we are watching home movies that were
filmed by a master.
In a real sense, that is exactly what we are watching. For a film
that was largely shot on super 16mm film, then blown up to 35mm,
the film is gorgeous. Walter Salles says that he
and cinematographer Eric Gautier “opted for
a simple, direct cinematic grammar.” Those are easy words
to say, but Salles puts in on the screen. It is almost as if reality
itself is a bit more comfortable being filmed by the smaller, less
obtrusive camera, and it repays the favor by showing us a more genuine
and meaningful visual truth. Further, as the film incorporated indigenous
people from the varied locations into the film, the actors seem
completely integrated into the historic surroundings. Even the music
seems completely authentic and appropriate, and yet delightfully
familiar and enjoyable.
Rodrigo de la Serna does a remarkable job of
acting in this film. He succeeds in keeping his Granado on significantly
equal footing with his soon-to-become-mythic friend. Rather than
letting his vibrant character’s romantic obsessions become
excessively comedic or offensive, he imbues his lust with a romantic
respect of a woman’s style that is oblivious of her social
class, something that most of the women seem to thoroughly enjoy.
This depth allows Granado to serve as such important counterpoint
to his increasingly serious friend, and illuminate the social and
political realities that are dawning on the young Guevara. In turn,
this grants Gael García Bernal a free range
of subtlety and intensity in his depiction of the conflicted young
man. Together, coupled with outstandingly detailed (though necessarily
brief) performances from the rest of the cast, they take this film
beyond the mere explanation of the political motivations of a single
man to the profound revelation of the human realities that motivate
political passion itself.
This must be as much as screenwriter Jose Rivera
dared hope to achieve. When the protagonists arrive at the San Pablo
leper colony, events and images that might easily seem otherwise
contrived and overly dramatized play with logical sincerity. We
have indeed learned something about the man behind the myth, but
each answer inspires countless more questions. This is a more fitting
testament to the humanity of the man who became Che Guevara than
his face on countless t-shirts. We can only hope that further filmic
explorations of his life will live up to this standard. Now, I am
curious about a great deal more than his asthma.