Uneasy Riders

In 'The Motorcycle Diaries,' Che Guevara traverses the political topography of Latin America

Though the "reality" trend has certainly eclipsed the "biography" trend on TV, shows like Jack and Bobby prove that fascination with the younger days of our icons never really goes away. With The Motorcycle Diaries, Brazilian director Walter Salles offers a glimpse of Che Guevara that confines its scope to a life-altering trip the eventual revolutionary took with a friend through South America in 1952.

We begin in Argentina, with affluent 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (played by Y Tu Mamá También's Gael García Bernal) and older pal Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) taking a holiday from their medical studies to explore the vast continent. They're intent on traversing the Andes, the Atacama Desert, and the Amazon basin, with a goal of reaching Venezuela in time to celebrate Alberto's 30th birthday. On the titular bike--a belching, unruly metal hulk they flatter with the appellation "Mighty One"--they press on, up, over, around, and through a Latin America of astonishing variations in topography and, they find, human circumstance.

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna in 'The Motorcycle Diaries'
Focus Features
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna in 'The Motorcycle Diaries'

Though based on the written reflections Che and Granado compiled after the journey, Diaries forgoes any flash-forwards or knowing voiceover that would hint at Che's future. Some have found the understated (and at times hagiographical) approach disingenuous--the power of the film depends on knowledge of Che's later incarnation, and leaving it out of the frame seems to some a device designed to flatter those in the know. But it's also true that Salles, though no stranger to schmaltz, is leveraging the Che legend--one that has arguably been reduced to one famous photograph employed as a symbol of rebellion by insurgents and dorm-room potheads alike. Salles taps into historical currents extending back well before the man's birth and continuing decades after his grisly, immortalizing 1967 death at the hands of CIA affiliates in Bolivia.

The grand themes of poverty, exploitation, and the need for Latin American unity backdrop this Ernesto's subtle evolutions. The simplicity of Salles's travelogue approach is deceptive, and the pair's motion though the panoramic landscape--first on the back of the Mighty One, then on foot and chance flatbed--becomes a meditation on high and low, speed and slow, warm and cold, shelter and exposure. After an early visit to the manicured family estate of Ernesto's Argentine paramour, bike troubles and horseplay increasingly give way to encounters with those less and less fortunate, culminating in a stay among lepers in Peru. Here, Ernesto's privileged élan takes on what Che historians will recognize as a lifelong somber aspect.

When some migrants ask the reason for his journey, Ernesto haltingly responds, "We travel to travel." The cocky oblivion that gives these two the courage to mush through snowstorms on perilous mountain roads is humbled into awareness. Other jabs at tyranny from above come by way of chance encounter. Mine workers on the road explain their ill treatment at the hands of the U.S.'s Anaconda Copper Company (the same snake that Travis Wilkerson dissects in "An Injury to One," his poetic film essay on the systematic poisoning of Butte, Montana). Doctors among the lepers work with scant supplies, forgotten by the economically surging First World.

If the complex Che--guerilla commander who bailed on the administrative headaches of Castro's Cuba to become a worldwide insurgency consultant--has been reduced to a defiant head shot, Salles acknowledges this in his attention to expression. He has his ideal physiognomy in Bernal, whose face handily eclipsed that of world-class hottie Diego Luna in Y Tu Mamá. His eyes register shock, pity, guilt, and resolve without overstatement. And Salles films his features with the same love as he does the weather-beaten South American ranges, rolling the camera over the slopes of brow, nose, lips, surprised smile, haunted squint. And interestingly, what stays with you is not what Ernesto became, but what the continent continues to be. As we've seen in recent documentaries like Venezuela's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Brazil's Bus 174, Chile's Pinochet's Children, and the currently playing look at Argentinean labor collectivization, The Take, it is huge, diverse, troubled, exuberant, and inspiring of transformations large and small.

 
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