Talking About A Revolution:
At the age of 23, long before Ernesto Che Guevara distinguished himself as the military leader of Castro’s revolution, he took a gap year from medical school. With his gregarious friend, Alberto Granado, and a consistently unreliable Norton 500 Motorbike, they travelled far from their safe middle-class home in Argentina into the different classes, cultures and landscapes of South America, from the Andes to Chile, and finally to a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon.
The Motorcycle Diaries combines the two journals that Che and Granado kept of their tour. Wrapped in a strong script of humorous and often touching vignettes, The Diaries is an exploration of Che’s political and emotional realisation about himself and his homeland.
Films concerned with historical figures often coat the character in the myths that have since blurred the reality of the man. In this case, the director, Walter Salles, side-steps the problem by focusing on a smaller story about two impressionable young men who find the exploration of their country alters the direction of their lives. The implication of Che’s political future remains a faint suggestion on the horizon.
At the start of the trip, Che’s father gives him his blessing and a large revolver; the only violence involved is the death of an unfortunate duck but the tone of volatility is set. Che’s encounters with the people of South America, many destitute and disenfranchised, sow political seeds. By the time he has reached Machu Picchu, Che dismissed one of Granado’s silly suggestions by saying – “There can be no revolution without guns”. The young medical student hinting at the revolutionary he would grow up to become.
However, these moments are not blatant, nor forced, but instead are blended expertly into a film which, for the most part, is about two young men exploring their county and investing their time in what most young men invest their time in – young women.
The acting from Gael García Bernal, as Che, and Rodrigo de la Serna, as Granado, is superbly underplayed, as times achieving the sort of sincerity that is normally only glimpsed in well-crafted documentaries. Bernal’s stoic rendition of Che is balanced cleverly against Serna’s animated portrayal of Granado and together they generate an endearing dynamic.
Salles’s background as a documentary maker is obvious and his ability to infuse non-professional actors with professionals is impressive. Salles avoided using celebrities with bad accents and capped teeth, instead using real South Americans. Bernal and Serna are both so comfortable in character that they effortlessly rotate around many of the finely improvised moments in the movie.
There is also a very modern feel to the film, avoiding Vaseline-lens nostalgia about bygone days. Salles not only uses Che’s 1950’s South America to reflect subtle suggestions of modern-day South America, but, in places, directly explores the state of contemporary South America. In an interview at the NFT in London, Salles said: “I didn't go ahead on 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 rather sad inference of this being that the hopes raised by Che, Fidel and the revolution did not, in the end, herald any of the fundamental changes that they promised.
Although Robert Redford produced the movie there is not much American money to pollute the script. The potential saccharine of American influence was thankfully shelved by FilmFour’s funding of the movie. An American studio’s response to the screenplay was – “Where is the conflict?” Salles response was simply – “The conflict is internal.”
This is a film made for the cinema, where Eric Gautier’s excellent photography hints at the epic proportions of the South American landscape. It demands two viewings: one to appreciate the cinematography of the land and faces; the other to read the superbly unpretentious sub-titled script.
Near the end of the trip Che is confronted with the significance of the image and the currency that comes with reputation, when Granado convinces a mechanic to fix their Norton for free, by showing him a newspaper article, with a photograph, detailing Che and Granado’s adventure.
Che did not live long enough to appreciate how the famous photograph by Alberto Korda achieved a Christ-like level of iconic ubiquity in modern pop culture. Unfortunately for Che it is an image sadly disenfranchised from the sentiments that once gave it meaning. Many of today’s generation, ignorant of Che and the irony of a communist icon emblazoned across capitalist hearts, now don his face as a pseudo-revolutionary brand.
In an age where cinema seems unable to delve much below the botox-inflated skin of its celebrity actors, The Diaries is an impressive achievement, which, through sharp direction and humour, avoids all of the obvious pit falls. It is a feel-good movie without schmaltz, a political commentary without polemic, a coming-of–age movie without saccharine, a road-movie with a map and a clear destination.
Dir: Walter Salles
Photography: Eric Gautier
Actors: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De La Serna