Friday, April 4, 2014


(September 2004, U.S.)

Nearly ten years ago, I went to see the Spanish film THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES based on nothing more than a recommendation from my employer at the time, who happened to be an art film lover, as well as a lover of motorcycle riding (thanks, Mike!). I did not know walking into the theater, nor did I completely make the connection walking out of the theater that this film was the story of the early youth of internationally-known iconic Marxist guerrilla commander and revolutionary Che Guevara. Frankly, the only thing I really ever knew about this guy was the iconic image I'd seen of him on concrete walls and on t-shirts...

This film is not about exploring the life of a guerrilla commander, but rather a young man in his early twenties with an overwhelming desire to hit the road with his best friend on an old, failing Norton 500 motorcycle (christened "The Mighty One") and discover the country that is their own. This journey and narrated memoir of young Ernesto "Fuser" Guevara (played by Mexican actor Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal) and his partner in travel Alberto "Mial" Granado (played by Rodrigo de la Serna) is quite literally a tale of boys who along the way of life on the road, become men. Travelling across South America, the main purpose is initially fun and adventure, but their ultimate goal is to work in a leper colony in Peru. They desire to see as much of Latin America as they can and learn of its people. Along the way, the bike continuously breaks down and leaves them in dire straits. After some repeated time of such failings, one can't help but wonder how these two men manage to keep landing on their feet. Their feet, actually, is where they do end up in the end because "The Mighty One" eventually sees its final days, never to be repaired again.

Traveling now at a much slower pace on foot and by hitchhiking, Guevara and Granado encounter the plight and the poverty of the indigenous peasants, and the film now assumes a greater seriousness other than a common "road movie" once the men gain a better sense of the disparity between the "haves" (to which they belong) and the "have-nots" (who make up the majority of those they encounter). In Chile, they encounter a penniless and persecuted couple forced onto the road because of their communist beliefs. In a rather intense fire-lit scene, Guevara and Granado can't help but ashamedly admit to this couple that they're not out looking for work, but merely travelling for their leisure. The men accompany the couple to the Chuquicamata copper mine, where Guevara becomes angry at the harsh treatment of the workers. Later, there's also an instance of recognition when Guevara, atop a luxurious river ship, looks down at the poor dark-skinned peasants on the small wooden rickety boat being dragged behind. These are the moments of discovery and clarity that we know will produce a man of history many years later. As anticipated, Guevara grows and solidifies as a human being. As a young doctor in a leper colony, he comes to realize the value and meaning of all human life.

By the end of the film, after his sojourn at the leper colony, Guevara confirms his nascent egalitarian, anti-authority impulses, while making a seeminly simple birthday toast, which is ends up becoming his first political speech. In it he evokes a pan-Latin American identity that transcends both the arbitrary boundaries of race and nation. It's these encounters with social injustice that transform the way Guevara sees the world around him, and by implication motivates his later political activities as the famous Marxist revolutionary. There's also a brief mention of Che Guevara's eventual 1967 CIA-assisted execution in the Bolivian jungle in the end credits. That however, is the political history of man who left behind the life of a boy and a motorcycle many years ago. To explore further the life of this man in film would require a cinematic story in a whole different direction. Perhaps if you have a great deal of time and patience, Steven Soderbergh's CHE (both Part I and Part II) with Benicio del Toro in the starring role is the direction to take.

Strictly as an art film, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES may not provide any real satisfactory answers as to how a simple medical student went on to become arguably the most famous revolutionary of the latter half of the 20th Century. It does, however, have an undeniable charm in that it provides the memories of youth with a sense of purity and altruism, which are complemented by the open cinematography. It's an incomplete portrait, indeed, but it's a lovely depiction of two best friends unknowingly riding themselves into the books of history.

Favorite line or dialogue:

Doctor Hugo Pesce (referring to his novel): "Ernesto, your opinion?"
Alberto Granado: "He loved it."
Hugo: "If he loved it, I'd like to hear him tell me."
Ernesto Guevara: "Look, Doctor, I think you book is a bit trite. There are too many cliches, and I..."
Hugo: "Well, that's not so bad."
Ernesto: "No...the writing is basically...bad. Basically unreadable. It's a worthy attempt, Doctor, but I think you should stick to what you know best. I'm sorry, Maestro, you asked my opinion and that's it."
Hugo: "Damn you, boy. Nobody's been that honest with me. You're the only one. The only one."

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