Motorcycle diaries of a revolutionary

The Motorcycle Diaries (15) (Walter Salles, 2004) On general release.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a collection of diary entries and letters written by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara while he travelled through South America for eight months with his friend Alberto Granado. When they set off from Buenos Aires in January 1952, Che was aged 23, a medical student close to graduation. Alberto was 29, working in a hospital in Cordoba, Argentina.

As well as recording their journey, Che’s diary gives an insight into his life, personality and his cultural background. Most importantly Che’s narrative shows ‘the extraordinary change which takes place in him as he discovers South America, gets right into its very heart and develops a growing sense of South American identity which makes him a precursor of the new history of America’. (Introduction to The Motorcycle Diaries, Verso, 1995)

The film of The Motorcycle Diaries is not a documentary but a story inspired by the Argentinians’ experiences. The pair travelled through Argentina, Chile and Peru, under the scorching sun and into freezing snows. They passed through Patagonia, crossing the Andes and the Atacama Desert, entering the Amazon Basin and finally reaching the San Pablo leper colony, near Iquitos in Peru, where they worked for three weeks.

Gael Garcia plays Che and Rodriguez de la Serna is Alberto. The acting is hard to criticise, partly because 80% of the cast are not actors, but poor and indigenous people revealing the reality of their lives. No amount of stage makeup can create the sallowed look of those who have suffered a lifetime of poverty and exploitation. Director Walter Salles explained: ‘In places like Cuzco or Machu Picchu, for example, we encouraged the actors to mingle with the people they met, as Alberto and Ernesto could have done 50 years ago. This purely improvisational material was then blended with the more structured screenplay by Jose Rivera.’ Around 20% of the film’s scenes come from this improvised material. Several people who played lepers in the film had been patients at the actual leper colony.

The cinematography draws inspiration from South America’s beautiful natural landscape. The same is true of the soundtrack. As the journey takes us from one country to the next, so too do the instruments and styles which inspire the music. The scripting and dialogue is human and emotional, free from the empty dramatics or clichés we are so used to in mainstream film.

The film was made with the support of Che’s family and the Che Guevara Study Centre in Havana. Where Che’s notes left mysteries, Alberto himself, now 82 years old and living in Cuba, guided the filmmakers, visiting the crew on location.

Perhaps most significant is the scene where Che decides to celebrate his birthday with the people from the leper colony, who are separated from the doctors’ and nurses’ living quarters by the Amazon River. Che swims across in the middle of the night in a powerful show of courage and compassion. This incident may not have taken place on Che’s birthday, but it did take place, and it took him two hours to swim across the perilous Amazon. This event symbolises Che’s decision to take the side of the poor and oppressed, even at risk to his own life.

The inequality and misery in Latin America is worse today than it was during Che’s first insights.

As a piece of entertainment, this film gets top marks. As a piece of art, it is also wonderful. As an insight into early revolutionary thinking The Motorcycle Diaries shows us that being affected by injustice is perhaps the first step of every revolutionary. We can all share part of that.
Ehthesham Haque

FRFI 181 October / November 2004 


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