Before Che Guevara became a communist and revolutionary he apparently was an earnest medical student in Buenos Aires with a specialty in the study of leprosy. He had a promising medical career ahead of him, a girlfriend from a fine family and was seemingly on his way toward a good life. No one knew him as Che: he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.
The Motorcycle Diaries (in Spanish with English subtitles) details Che’s transformation from a young man from an Argentine middle class family into the beginnings of a revolutionary. It details his journey across South America with his good friend Alberto Granado. It starts out in Buenos Aires on the back of a chronically overloaded motorcycle with major exhaust problems. Che is 23; his friend Alberto is approaching his 30th birthday. Neither had ventured far from their native Buenos Aires and wanted to experience the breadth of Latin America before their mundane careers consumed them.
If it is adventure they were looking for they got plenty. Their overloaded motorcycle takes many a tumble into ditches and eventually falls apart. They are soon are flat broke. Alberto’s natural salesmanship finds them many places to stay for the night and the occasional company of the women they seek. But Che’s transparency and honesty sometimes works against them. Like two guys barely out of adolescence they spend much of the movie swearing at each other in a good-natured way; it seems almost to be a form of affection.
Eventually their quest to discover the real Latin America is realized and it is not often a pretty place. In bartering for shelter and food Che uses his skills as a nearly certified doctor to treat people. He eventually becomes appalled by what he sees. Very slowly as they wend their way through Chile, Peru, Venezuela and finally Brazil, Che experiences a political awakening. He comes face to face with migrants forced off their lands despite having lived there for generations. He meets people eking a living on the margins of many a brutal and capitalist economy. Eventually he ends up at a leper colony in Brazil. He develops a real empathy for the lepers, who live on an island on the south side of the river while their caretakers live in relative splendor on the north side of the river.
Che, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is portrayed as a high spirited, often horny but an earnest and passionate young man. He seems to have an ability he does not really want to have: to be able to glom onto the suffering of those around him. What emerges is one man’s spiritual transformation.
The acting is uniformly good. But it is more travelogue than movie. It becomes a series of vignettes, almost like postcards on the places they visited on their long journey. The movie was clearly filmed on a shoestring. The cinematography is often choppy. It has a gritty and real feeling to it rarely found in movies of the Hollywood variety. Instead of glamorous and preened actors we get lots of real people in dirty clothes and bad teeth. All this dirt and filth seems obscene at times against the natural glory of South America. Perhaps that is the point.
This is a movie that makes no pretenses for greatness. It simply tries to capture the spirit of the young Che Guevara and documents the beginning of his enlightenment. His many revolutionary activities are not shown. But it does hurt to learn at the end of the movie that this earnest man of the people was hunted down and assassinated in 1967 with the help of our own CIA.
With the benefit of hindsight we should realize that the issues Che and other communists spoke to were very real. No one should be surprised that the oppression and poverty that ordinary people endured at the hands of oppressive governments and large corporations spawned men like Che Guevara. As I watch the rise of an oppressive corporate-ocracy right here in my own country and I see the middle class slowly disappearing this movie makes me wonder if we are breeding today new generations of Che Guevaras right here in our own country. Perhaps we will be smart enough to make our government one of the people again, instead of one that bends over backwards to meet the needs of the business world.