“It is better to die standing than to live on your knees.” — Che Guevara
The soul who uttered this famous remark did not become himself quickly or easily, as indeed is the case with most of the rest of us. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928, the future expert strategist on guerrilla warfare, the brilliant engineer of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, began as the pampered, sheltered son of an upper middle-class family. The eldest of five children, Guevara struggled for breath all his life, suffering from acute asthma. This is why his family moved to Alta Gracia, Cordoba, when he was two, where the climate was drier. (Ironically, his condition kept Guevara out of national military service.) Perhaps this is also why Guevara later chose the path of becoming a doctor, although his initial interest lay in treating leprosy. A pivotal event in his life that helped Guevara achieve his identity and embrace his destiny is a long journey throughout Latin America, begun in 1951 on a moped, that he undertook with a friend, Alberto Granado. The trip, which outlasted the life of their vehicle, spanned some 4,000 miles, taking the two young men—Guevara was 23 at the outset; Granado, 29—from Buenos Aires down the Argentinian coast, through the Andes Mountains into Chile, and up north into Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. Guevara had already studied Karl Marx, but for the first time he came into contact with impoverished workers, that is, the politically dispossessed, and, in a leper colony on the Amazon River, other instances of suffering humanity. His confrontation with injustice ignited his compassion and sense of Latin American identity and commitment, propelling him into the belief that the continent’s different nations represented the artificial barriers that European colonialism had imposed, dividing the people, as the Amazon River divided lepers from the medically healthy, bank from bank—the metaphor that fired his imagination. All this coalesced into the first stirrings of Guevara’s political consciousness. As the director of The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta), whose subject is this journey, has explained, his film is “about Ernesto Guevara before he becomes The Che”—a “definition,” he adds, that “is not mine, [but] was given to me by [Guevara’s] son, Camilo.”
The director is Brazilian-born Walter Salles, and The Motorcycle Diaries is his long-nurtured dream project. The script, by Jose Rivera, is based on books about the journey written by its two participants, including the published version of the journal that Guevara kept during the event. Salles gained international celebrity and exaggerated praise for the Brazilian Central Station (1998), another “road film,” and one worn down into insignificance by its sentimentality and illogic. But every filmmaker should realize his or her “dream project,” I reasoned, recalling the phenomenal beauty of John Huston’s film of James Joyce’s The Dead (1987). On the other hand, Salles is no John Huston.
I like this new film by Salles—quite beyond reason, perhaps. It is the work of a lightweight artist, not a great one. It is highly imperfect, and I will summarily address some of its defects. But it is a compelling emotional entertainment. The film took the audience prize at San Sebastián and, more substantively, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. It was also a great success at Sundance. Robert Redford, that old Chéist, is one of the film’s producers.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a sort of coming-of-age story, an attempt, as Salles has put it, to “humanize” a figure that has become largely mythological and ideological. In his eulogy for Guevara, with whom he had parted ways politically, Castro launched the idea of his old compatriot as a model and inspirational revolutionary, and the liberal U.S. media, reducing Guevara’s image to one of the principal commercial icons of the twentieth century, neutered memories of Guevara’s dedication and fervor by appropriating that image for a chic form of anti-American Americanism. Here before us, in Salles’s film, is Guevara as an idealistic and compassionate boy—an idealization of him, to be sure, but something humanly recognizable. For the record, though, there is little in the film that can predict some aspects of the future Che Guevara. As Commandante of the Revolutionary Army of Barbutos, Guevara—only a few years later than the time covered in the film—ordered scores of executions of Batista loyalists and deserters. This “Che” is no way discernible in Salles’s Ernesto, and indeed, in reality, one might not have been discernible in the other. But the knowledge we bring to the film makes us wonder. Nor should we forget that, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Guevara became disillusioned with the Soviet Union over Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s refusal to launch nuclear war against the United States. It is well and good that the film provides a postscript indicting the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for its hand in the murder of Guevara; but what of the Guevara who thought nothing about murdering masses of citizens of the United States? You will not find the remotest intimation of him in Salles’s film. On the other hand, the Abraham Lincoln whose Patriot Act-type clampdown on civil liberties during the American Civil War defined part of his presidency is discernible in John Ford’s portrait of him as a young man in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Sergei M. Eisenstein’s favorite American film, at least in part, I presume, because of Ford’s cautionary analysis of U.S. democracy’s vulnerability to demagoguery. Salles could have made a more probing film (as did Ford), and his “humanizing” Guevara may constitute just another mythology.
Even (or, perhaps, especially) apart from the particular case of Guevara, Salles engages us by recording with emotional clarity the spirit of youth. In this light, the future Che may be seen as a radical departure from Ernesto as much as an evolved instance of human growth. Attempting to right injustices, war imposes its own rules and often creates personalities in line with the perceived necessities of those rules—personalities at stark variance with those that would otherwise have developed in the same human beings. In order to embrace Salles’s film, one must both relate Ernesto to Che and separate the two. The film errs near the end by showcasing the asthmatic Ernesto’s gratuitously “heroic” swim across the Amazon River, from one bank to the other on the night before his departure for home, to rejoin the lepers whom he has been tending. It is as false and sentimental a gesture, for Salles, as is the film’s ridiculous coda, in which the actual Alberto Granado, today, is pictured in horrible closeup, his eyes filled with convenient memories. Salles has borrowed this bogus documentary finish from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), and Spielberg himself took the idea from a film in which the strategy works: Agnieszka Holland’s fine Europa, Europa (1991). It is all too apparent that Salles holds the closeup as an invitation for us to “read into” the real old man’s face the face of the much younger Granado that we have watched throughout the film. This is shabby, shameless and cornball. Buried beneath this sentimental gesture is the one pertinent point: that Granado has long honored the memory of his dear friend, Ernesto, by adopting Cuba as his homeland and practicing medicine there. This is how the Revolution has continued, but Salles is tone-deaf to the sweet music of undying friendship at his disposal.
The film lives, then, for the duration of the Latin American journey that it depicts—the trip that gave Ernesto Guevara an education of the heart. The faces of the workers (such as at a Chilean copper mine) and of other ordinary persons he encounters are indelible—for him and for us. (The periodic black-and-white insertions of reiterated images of these souls might have worked better if they implied Guevara’s haunted memory rather than, as they do, Salles’s manipulative technique.) The land, which Guevara says he had wanted to get close to, becomes a key visual player—the earth, the skies, the Andes, the Amazon River. There is too much of a lot in the film, including upwardly tilted quasi-Soviet-silent shots of human faces portrayed against the illimitable sky; but much of the film’s excesses translates into a warm generosity. Where Salles has most admirably restrained himself is in the area of Nature’s gorgeousness. Images of this appear as punctuation during the trip—glimpses of such unearthly beauty that a steady stream of such images would have greatly diminished both the beauty and their utility. Salles’s selectivity and restraint help keep the film from becoming a travelogue, which I, for one, would have found tiresome; the glimpses seem visionary, and they accumulate into a metaphor for the growth of both Guevara’s humanity and own visionary capacity. We observe Nature as a projection of liberated humanity, and the poor and the struggling whom Guevara meets along the way imply the context of humanity’s need to be liberated—that is, freed from oppression. The visual aspect of the film is touched by poetry. The human faces, the earth, the sky: these merge into a single grandeur in the regions of our imagination. The film’s superb color cinematographer, Eric Gautier, deservedly took the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes.
The meditative first-person voiceover also contributes to the poetry of the film. For instance, Guevara’s comment on two consecutive points in the journey assumes the stature of a universal reflection. He speaks of the melancholy he feels over the place he is leaving and the excitement he feels about the new place he is entering—as though the present, emotionally, was the point of intersection between past and future. Guevara’s sensitivity to environment, including people, suggests a man capable of continual rebirth.
Gael García Bernal, the Mexican Alain Delon, plays Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. Bernal came to The Motorcycle Diaries with experience; he had already played Che Guevara in a 2002 television mini-series about Fidel Castro. Salles has drawn from him excellent work. I question the necessity of amplified sound for Guevara’s heavy asthmatic breathing, but in the main Bernal is a joy from start to finish.
If only Bernal could have what Delon has had—Michelangelo Antonioni, Luchino Visconti, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Joseph Losey and Louis Malle directing him!
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