The Motorcycle Diaries (15)

Oct 05, 2005
Cranbrook Film Society

The Motorcycle Diaries is a fascinating, multi-layered film, both light and deeply serious. It is a rites of passage movie, a road movie, and one of the oldest of literary forms, the odyssey of a soul.

Structured to follow closely the original, five thousand mile journey of two young men, Alberto Granado and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara through South America, it is then filmed with a high degree of spontaneity and improvisation. Its central characters also make it almost two movies, one about Granado whose ‘film’ isn’t a million miles from Lucas’s ‘American Graffiti’ whilst Guevara’s reaches out to the austere beauty of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece, ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’.

The film also in its director’s words seeks to ‘deconstruct’ its own fictional status. As we shall see, ninety of the cast are non-actors and some of them are not acting! But above all, maybe, it’s a Latin American film: it cannot be properly understood without reference to the real history of which it depicts a fragment, and of which Latin Americans, the primary audience for the film, would be acutely aware.

In an interview at the NFT the director, Walter Salles addressed directly this question of his presumption in making the film at all. ‘At the beginning I was very unsure that it was even possible to do this adaptation (of Che’s travel diaries) because it was such sacred territory in the whole of Latin America; not only the book itself but the iconic quality of Guevara, which is very intimidating…’ And Salles makes it clear that the parallel explorations of Latin America by Granado and Guevara, and his own with his crew, inevitably imprint both the 1950s and the contemporary world on the film.

‘I didn’t go ahead with Motorcycle diaries before realising that the reality of South America in 2002-03 is very similar to that described by Ernesto Guevara in his book. The structural problems are pretty much the same – bad distribution of land and wealth. I realised that our own adventure within the continent could somehow mirror what happened to them on a very small scale and that improvisation was possible.’

Back in the early 70s, an enormous poster on my wall announced that for this fifteen year old his parents were no longer the centre of his world. The Che poster was of course the celebrated one that covered a thousand damp patches in student accommodation all over Britain. Taken by Alberto Korda in 1960 it captures Comandante Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara as he steps forward to address a crowd in Havana. The immediate context of course is usually absent from the millions of reproductions of the photograph. It is a modern icon, symbolising youthful idealism and faith in the future but stripped of that particular time and place and even that particular person. For Che was far from saintly, given to terrible rages, perhaps brought on by his asthma. He was a soldier above all, and did not hesitate to keep order amongst his men by sending the disobedient out to fight without a weapon and so to their certain death.

Though Walter Salles’ film ends by reminding us that Che was ‘murdered’ in October 1967 with the help of the CIA, Che himself would surely have thought he died a soldier’s death. He had declared war on the Bolivian government. And that second notorious image of the dead Che, his head obscenely held up to the camera’s gaze, and which, ironically, his killers were determined the world would see, takes us to the heart of Salles’ film.

But before that there is the wonderful Everyman, Granado, and in the finest performance in the film, Rodrigo de la Serna. Granado himself, now a youthful old man, is featured in the DVD bonus material and is as charming and irrepressible as you would imagine from the film, referring to his long- dead friend as a ‘doctor of souls’. Mischievous and emotional, his was the crackpot scheme in the first place, and the joy of serendipity. While Granado still loves to party, Che couldn’t dance!

Salles wanted some of Alberto’s loose, relaxed spirit to imbue the film. Framed by the wonderful cinematography of Eric Gautier which gives us landscapes straight out of National Geographic, scenes are improvised with the people the crew met on the journey. This creates another curious double effect since we are aware that they are real people, not actors, and this makes more credible their embodying, for Guevara especially, the reality of South America. The little boy in Lima and the Indian women in Quecha are not acting, nor are they in 1952. They are describing their own lives today. Salles shows us the faces again at the film’s end. He wants us to remember them, almost to be ‘haunted’ by them, the poor, the sick, the dispossessed who are what America is.

Some critics have seen these shots as a sentimentalising of poverty but anyone who saw Salles’ ‘Behind the Sun’, shown as part of our season a couple of years ago, will remember the brutal oppressiveness of the poverty-stricken peasant world he depicted. The tragic sacrifice of young men was a key theme of that film and Motorcycle Diaries, especially for Latin American audiences, is always in the shadow of Guevara’s sacrifice.

‘Behind the Sun’, incidentally, was made while Salles awaited the outcome of Robert Redford’s attempts to get funding for Motorcycle Diaries.

Which brings us back to Guevara and the final sections of the film that are again organised as a duality; two locations that present Guevara with an existential choice. Already knowing illness he chooses to take upon himself poverty, sickness and dispossession. Che is more like the nuns that run the leper refuge where the two young men stay than he realises. Like them, he’s not about to accept any liberal tosh about this being the best of all possible worlds. Salles has been at pains to point out that leprosy, that most ancient and biblical of diseases, still affects over half a million people in Latin America.

We see Ernesto racked by asthma, close to drowning, and giving up his coat to prevent another freezing. And the final textual note of the film conjures up again that image of him, a corpse, the vanquished on obscene display. But curiously it is the picture of the dead Che that grounds and makes powerful the iconic, context-less, timeless popular image of the revolutionary. Che did not compromise, did not avert that gaze but went on accepting his sacrifice, even to his own execution, as the price of holding on to what his journey with Alberto had shown him to be reality. Unlike the rest of us, as we see in the film, Ernesto won’t lie.

Those who wear a crucifix, other than for decoration, will understand the constellation of emotions. It’s worn not in the expectation of bliss in heaven, but in the modest hope of keeping it together in this life.

Reduced to nothing, humiliated in death, Ernesto gives the rest of us what he gave to Granado – courage to hold on to what the world really is. And so Che lives…Que Viva Che!

P.S. Hang on for the song at the end, ‘Al otro lado del Rio’, which won an Oscar; though the singer/composer Jorge Drexler was not allowed to perform it at the ceremony itself because he wasn’t famous enough!

Walter Salles | Argentina/Chile/Peru/US | 2004 | 128 minutes | 15