Bruce Robinson reviews The Motorcycle Diaries.
This film relates the story of an eight-month journey through South America taken by Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Alberto Granado in 1952.
It is difficult to disentangle the film from a foreknowledge of Guevara’s subsequent life and death, and the politics that went with them. But it would be a shame if anyone were put off the film because they expect an uncritical retelling of the Guevara myth. The film is well worth seeing in its own right.
It starts with the two men planning an adventure, riding from Buenos Aires to Caracas on an ancient motorbike in order to cross the continent by Granado’s 30th birthday. They leave just before Guevara is about to take his final medical exams and spend the first night forced to camp in the grounds of a massive hacienda owned by his fiancée’s landowning family.
From here onwards, the pair face their own and others’ hardships in a series of encounters, many filmed in the real locations with non-professional actors. Perhaps the most powerful episode is when they encounter an indigenous couple seeking work who have been expelled from their farm in Chile because of their Communist sympathies.
The next day they reach a hole in the ground miles from anywhere, where they sit with hundreds of others until an overseer from the mine picks those he thinks best fitted to do the dangerous work. The rest are left to their fate and the couple are split up. Guevara impotently throws a stone at the departing lorries.
The two men are very different — Granado full of life, a bullshitter spinning yarns to pick up girls or con a meal out of someone; Guevara painfully honest, telling the truth irrespective of the consequences, introspective, unable to dance, and not always sympathetic in his ignoring of others’ feelings. Yet, as in a Brecht play, to survive he is also forced to be dishonest, getting a local paper to print an article describing them as great medical experts which both enables them to con people but also means they are called on to attend to the sick who cannot pay for a doctor.
Eventually their medical skills and the aid of a radical doctor bring them to a leper colony in Amazonian Peru where authoritarian rules are set down by the nuns who work as nurses. To get a Sunday meal, it is necessary to attend Mass. The sufferers are divided from the medical staff by a river. Guevara challenges the rules and wins the sympathy of the leprosy victims.
On his last night there, Guevara gives a speech which sums up the — as yet limited — political lessons that he has learnt from his journey. (“The division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are a single mestizo [mixed] race.”) Then in a drunken gesture he sets off to swim across the river to the lepers. We know, of course, that he survives the current and crocodiles, but this is still a powerful dramatic moment.
Beautifully filmed and acted (particularly by Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as Granado), The Motorcycle Diaries is more than just a classic road movie or, as one critic put it, a demonstration that a gap year broadens the mind. Nor is it just a “buddy movie” about the relationship between Guevara and Granado. It is a powerful account of how a naïve middle-class student is transformed into a radical by his experiences of the social realities he meets on the journey. That reality is sympathetically and entertainingly drawn. Don’t miss this film.