A film depicts young Che Guevara touring South America on an ancient Norton motorbike.
Spanish, with English Subtitles
Directed by Walter Salles
The captivating film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) depicts young medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, known later throughout the world as the revolutionary Che Guevara, as he sets out on an adventure that would change his life’s priorities and influence his later ideology. The movie is based loosely upon Che’s own accounts of the eight-month motorcycle journey, accompanied by the older biomedicinist Alberto Granado, throughout South America in 1952. The film succeeds in showing us not only the thrilling experience that embodies free-spirited travel, but also in expressing rich social themes. Injustice, segregation and class inequality are interwoven into the film’s light-hearted depiction of travel difficulties and joys – motorcycle crashes, begging for food and shelter, running from angry mobs, and chasing women.
Both Gael Garcia Bernal (the excellent Mexican actor famous from Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna playing Che’s jovial travel partner Granado turn in excellent performances. Equally as impressive, though, is the cinematography filmed on location throughout South America. From desolate landscapes in Patagonia, to mystifying Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, and finally to the Amazon River, the film gets “close to the land” as Ernesto describes the feeling of leaving Buenos Aires and entering the countryside at the journey’s start. Chile, in particular, with its eerily beautiful waterscapes and colorful and provincial austral cities comes straight to life.
But The Motorcycle Diaries is more than just pretty filmmaking. The narrative marries a travel tale with a deeper social message, in a way reminiscent of the film Easy Rider. One sees the young Ernesto’s firm and compassionate character react to the poverty and injustice he encounters, especially amongst the indigenous. These encounters help determine the role Che would pick up in his later life, just as all true journeys mean more than mere sightseeing. This theme comes to a climax in a scene where Che and Granado are sitting around a fire outdoors one night with a dispossessed migrant couple. The couple travels by necessity – they are running from persecution and seek employment in a mine in the north of Chile to avoid starvation. After relating their sad tale, the migrant woman asks the Argentines why they are traveling. It pains young Ernesto to reply, “we travel just to travel.” All the privilege and unfairness of the world is right there before their eyes, things most people never bring themselves to see. Ernesto’s viewpoint on this journey matures quickly from “wanting to get laid in every country” to concluding “part of myself is no longer myself.” He’s found his cause.
The film manages to counterbalance these heavy themes with the comedic dialogue of Ernesto’s companion Granado. Quick with jokes and to chase a pretty girl, Granado brings levity and believability to the tale. He represents the common part of humanity always seeking to gratify itself. Time and again we laugh at Granado’s quick-witted comments, especially in reference to fifteen U.S. dollars that Ernesto’s girlfriend has given him specifically to buy her a bathing suit should they manage to arrive in the United States. As the travelers suffer all sorts of hardships, Alberto constantly derides Ernesto to spend the fifteen dollars. Ultimately, though, more important than the joking is how the film uses Granado’s self-centeredness as a backdrop to display Ernesto’s quality of character by comparison. Travel movies, due to the nature of the ever-changing locations, must make the most of their protagonists. We see, thus, at the film’s end that although Granado is older and has just gotten a lucrative position in a hospital in Venezuela, it is Che being shown boarding a plane for bigger and better things.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a meaningful ride through South America that expresses how travel changes people, if they open themselves up to the people they meet along the way. Che Guevara these days may be nothing more than an image on a T-shirt, but there is something bigger at the core of this film than even this revolutionary figure. Easy Rider touched on the division between young and old at the height of the turbulent 1960’s; this movie warns us to remember those being left behind as the world’s march towards globalization continues – a central theme for today’s traveler.