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"We felt the world changing, or was it us?"
On the road with the young Che

Review by Lance Selfa | October 8, 2004 | Page 9

The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna. In Spanish with subtitles.

IN A climactic scene of The Motorcycle Diaries, 24-year-old Ernesto "Che" Guevara, working as a volunteer at the San Pablo leprosarium in the Peruvian Amazon, leaves a birthday party organized in his honor by the staff of the clinic. "I want to celebrate my birthday on the other side of the river," he tells his biochemist friend Alberto Granado, gesturing to the camp on the opposite shore where the leprosy patients stay.

He jumps into the rushing Amazon current and swims toward the other shore. Alberto and the other staff gather on the shore, beckoning Ernesto to turn back, fearing that he will be swept away in the current. The asthmatic Ernesto continues, even as he tires and finds it more difficult to breathe. Once the patients at the other side of the river--society's outcasts all of them--realize that Ernesto is swimming to their side, they gather on the shore to shout encouragement to him. The patients help him out of the current when, exhausted, he arrives at their side of the river.

The episode is a metaphor for Guevara's journey, documented in The Motorcycle Diaries--one of breaking with his middle-class medical student roots to cast his lot with Latin America's poor and oppressed.

The film is based on Guevara's and Granado's memoirs of their 8,000-mile 1952 trip by motorcycle, hitchhiking and boating from Buenos Aires to Venezuela's northern coast on the western side of the continent. "The plan: 8,000 kilometers in four months," a Guevara voiceover from his diary reads. "The method: improvisation. The goal: to explore a continent we had known only in books."

The performances of Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto and Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto, bring humor, humanity and depth to the telling of this story of discovery.

Only seven years after the events depicted in The Motorcycle Diaries, Guevara would emerge from the mountains of Cuba as the second-most well-known leader, next to Fidel Castro, of the 1959 Cuban Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. Guevara held a number of posts in early revolutionary government, before breaking with the Castro government because of its reluctance to provide active support to revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements around Latin America and the rest of the Third World.

From 1965 to 1967, Guevara traveled to the Congo and Bolivia to work with guerrilla armies seeking to overthrow corrupt regimes in those countries. In Bolivia, his badly outnumbered band was decimated and Guevara summarily executed in a joint CIA-Bolivian army operation.

The 1960s left embraced the image of Che Guevara as a self-sacrificing revolutionary martyred in the struggle. Today, when neoliberal capitalism is throwing millions into poverty and many traditional left political parties have accepted that "there is no alternative" to free-market dogma, youth around the world have again gravitated to Che as a symbol of revolutionary defiance.

Brazilian director Walter Salles chose to build the film around the 1952 trip of Guevara's, rather than on the more deliberately "political" excursion he took in1953-54--when he visited Bolivia in the wake of its 1952 revolution and Guatemala, where he observed up close the CIA-sponsored coup against the reformist Arbenz government.

Some may criticize Salles's choice to focus on the more romantic, politically naïve Guevara. But in showing why someone like the young Ernesto could become a revolutionary, the film is most affecting and effective.

When they begin their trip, Ernesto and Alberto seem most interested in drinking and picking up women as they move through towns in the spectacular Argentine Patagonia and the Chilean Andes regions. Trudging across the Atacama Desert in Chile, they encounter a miner and his wife who have been forced to travel from mine to mine, seeking day labor because they are blacklisted as communists.

Ernesto and Alberto observe the humiliating ritual in which the mine bosses handpick workers gathered at the pithead for a day's work at the U.S.-owned Anaconda copper mines. "As we left Chuquicamata [the mining region] we could feel the world changing, or was it us?" Ernesto confesses to his diary. Later, in Cuzco, Peru, they meet Quechua-speaking indigenous people who describe how "progress" is forcing them off their lands and driving them deeper into poverty.

Finally, at the San Pablo leprosy colony, they see another effect of the poverty of the region. And unlike the other doctors and staff at the colony, they refuse to wear surgical gloves when they interact with the patients. This treatment of the patients as equals to the doctors, and deserving of dignity, reinforces the film's solidarity with the oppressed and exploited.

Salles drives this home a series of black-and-white tableaus of workers, evoking images of 20th century documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange or Lewis Hine, proudly standing in their workplaces. For its exposure of real-world injustice and its stand on the side of the oppressed, The Motorcycle Diaries is a rare and welcome film.

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