The Motorcycle Diaries

By Vernon Crane

in 1952 Ernesto Guevara, a 23-year-old medical student, sets out from the comfort of his bourgeois Buenos Aires home to explore South America with his older cousin, the biochemist Alberto Granado. Adapted from both Guevara's and Granado's memoirs the film documents the journey up to their separation eight months later in Venezuala. Granado went on to become a doctor who founded a hospital in Cuba, the country Che and Castro helped to liberate from the Batista puppet, and Guevara to become one of the century's most revered figures, a revolutionary socialist who eventually got a CIA-sponsored bullet in the head trying to radicalize Bolivian peasants.

The era of the anti-globalization struggle and the re-emergence of left-ish politics and protest is an opportune moment for a telling of Che's early life, for the experience that took him from restless, youthful wanderlust to "hasta la victoria siempre" via an experience of the profound inequalities and injustices in South America. The problem is that Walter Salles isn't the man to tell it. His previous two big movies, Central Station and Behind the Sun were textbook examples of the kind of middlebrow, arthouse-in- thrall-to-Hollywood offerings that always sit comfortably with audiences and critics alike. Both aspired to being anatomies of the socio-cultural forces at work in Brazilian life in the guise of sentimental melodramas, both were deeply dissatisfying. The Motorcycle Diaries suffers similarly.

Part of the film's problem is that, like its young adventurers, it can't wait to get off on the journey and start having a look at some of that magnificent scenery. We're given no insight whatsoever into the intellectual or political climate of a middle-class Argentinian household at the time, what values or doctrines Che may have been defined by or may be reacting against. He zooms off on the motorbike with Granados, shares a mate with some dignified communist campesinos in Chile, hears the odd tale of woe from a handful of displaced indigenas in Peru, spends some time in a leper colony and concludes his journey in caracas troubled by the injustice he has witnessed. The real trouble is that neither he nor we have really seen any, and the little that's given to us is tokenistic and deeply sentimentalized.

Among the picaresque escapades of the loveable buddies on the road – blagging free food, trying to get laid and repeatedly falling off their bike in a variety of scenic locations – Salles has to find some way to convey the invisible, inner process, the dawning awareness, the shifts in perspective, the agonizing disenchantments and realignments of values that take place, but above having Bernal stare pensively into the dark or chew thoughtfully at his pencil before committing his thoughts to paper, he has little idea how to represent it. Consequently Bernal's flat, underwritten Che has the film wholeheartedly stolen from him by De la Serna, who, hunched, eye-brow waggling and moustached plays Granados as a cross between Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Groucho Marx. But that, unfortunately is about the only Marx you'll get in the film.

We conclude with a disturbed, questioning Che, just four years away from the Cuban revolution, who needs time to think about what he has witnessed, the situation presumably in which the audience should also be left and simply isn't. It's hard not to make invidious comparisons with Salle's fellow Brazilian the great Hector Babenco whose Pixote – one of the most arduous pieces of cinema verite imaginable – and brilliant adaptation of Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman took on the horrors of poverty and the problematics of political action with an unflinching eye. Salles doesn't want to get bogged down in all that grimness and the ideological stuff, it might turn the audience off, and of course the film's execution is profoundly non-socialist, focusing as it does on the iconic, Christ-like figure of Che rather than on the mute peasants and massed lepers who wait for his emancipating force. Better to show Bernal haunted by a series of black and white images of the faces of distressed peasants (and reify the individual liberal conscience) than to sideline him in the film's narrative, allowing these peasants to talk at length about their situation and their struggle.

Just as Spielberg did in Schindlers List, Salles sticks in a final 'real life' shot of the aged Granados just to remind us that 'all this really happened, folks', and the suspicion arises that it betrays a lack of faith in his own methodology, an attempt to add retrospective gravitas to an otherwise banal film. Neither director nor screenwriter are up to a serious take on their subject and, all in all, handsome and beguiling as it is, it's an opportunity missed by some considerable distance.
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