BEFORE HE CHANGED THE WORLD THE WORLD CHANGED HIM.
A friend of mine told me he wasn’t too thrilled about the lack of criticism against Che Guevara in this film. A myth has been created around Guevara and that famous photograph often worn by clueless teenagers as a symbol of social justice. Che did his share of good deeds while he was on the planet but there are also a number of relatives to the people he had executed in Cuba who probably would call him a monster. Still, this is not a film about Che. This is the story of how a medical student became Che.
The year is 1952. Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), who’s a biochemist, leave their homes in Argentina for a motorcycle journey that will take them all the way to a leper colony in Peru where they will work as volunteers. The young bike riders start out as happy-go-lucky tourists, but the trip turns into a very educational experience for Ernesto in particular. They run into communists who can’t find work because of their political convictions. At Machu Picchu, Ernesto is deeply moved by the fact that the grand Inca Empire succumbed to the Spanish conquerers; a more prosperous society was built, but the only thing that the descendants of the Inca got out of it was poverty. Wherever Ernesto makes a stop on the continent, all he sees are injustices.
Eventually, he and Alberto reach their destination and make an impact in the leper colony, which is rigidly ruled by Catholic nuns. A political mission begins to take shape in Ernesto’s mind.
Rooted in South America of the early 1950s
One has to view this film as representative of what Guevara experienced in South America at the time – who wouldn’t want to to do something about these inequalities? His subsequent crimes in Cuba are a different story. The film also addresses many problems that are still relevant in several South American countries, not least the way Indians are treated. Bernal and de la Serna are both excellent as the adventurous, irresponsible twentysomethings who find ample reason to grow up during the journey, even though they initially struggle only with inconsequential problems. Women are part of the story in the beginning, but as perspectives change, so do the men’s priorities.
I can see why director Walter Salles was attracted to this story; his previous Central Station (1998) also featured a road trip to the countryside and along with cinematographer Eric Gautier Salles offers viewers versatile images of the South American continent. The approach is equally humanistic. In one of the final scenes, Ernesto swims across a river in spite of his asthma, between the camps of the sick and the doctors, in an attempt to prove how important it is to unite all the people of the continent.
You don’t have to be a Socialist to be moved by this film. In that sense, Salle’s work is rather harmless, delivering conclusions that no one would disagree with. The question is what you would do next after seeing people suffer – work actively and selflessly to help the poor, or follow the destructive path of Che.
The Motorcycle Diaries 2004-U.S.-Britain-Argentina. 126 min. Color. Produced by Michael Nozik, Edgard Tenenbaum, Karen Tenkhoff. Directed by Walter Salles. Screenplay: Jose Rivera. Books: Ernesto Guevara, Alberto Granado. Cinematography: Eric Gautier. Music: Gustavo Santaolalla. Song: “Al otro lado del rio” (Jorge Drexler). Cast: Gael García Bernal (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna), Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto Granado), Mia Maestro (Chichina), Gustavo Bueno, Jorge Chiarella.
Trivia: Original title: Diarios de motocicleta. That’s the real-life Alberto Granado in the final shot. De la Serna is actually related to the real-life Guevara.
Oscar: Best Original Song. BAFTA: Best Foreign-Language Film, Film Music.
Last word: “We left room for improvised scenes to find their way into the film. You can only improvise if there’s a strong architecture to the screenplay. It’s like jazz: you can only explore new sounds when you can always find your way back into the melody. So you have scenes with the Indian women in Cuzco who invite our travelers to share the experience of chewing the coca leaves — a completely legal and organic product, by the way, that helps you with altitude and to survive the cold. The improvs were also possible because Gael and Rodrigo were so much in synch with their characters they could invent lines on the spot.” (Salles, Indiewire)