“It’s about two lives running parallel for a while.”
Based on a journal kept by Che Guevara during 1951-52, the film The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles the 8 month long journey he made with a friend that included traveling through Argentine, Chili, Peru, Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela. At the time, Che Guevara was a 23-year-old medical student–a specialist in Leprosy, and he traveled with Alberto Granado, a biochemist. Che Guevara had a great destiny ahead of him, and The Motorcycle Diaries attempts to capture an image of Che before he met Castro and before he became a pivotal figure in the Cuban Revolution.
Che Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) leave Argentina on a motorbike, with very little money, but with an unspoken sense that they both want to see the continent. Since it’s assumed both young men have high-pressured careers waiting for them, they seize this opportunity and eagerly hit the road. One of the first stops they make is to visit Che’s beautiful girlfriend Chichina (Mia Maestro) in her wealthy home. From there, the pair travel on–they experience hardships, mishaps, and misadventures, and they even spend some time at a leper colony.
Although the film was extremely enjoyable, and the cinematography gorgeous, the film’s main difficulty seems to be the portrayal of Che Guevara. In the film, he is the quiet one–Alberto’s the braggart, the one who chases the girls, and Che remains an observer. Any film that focuses on the pre-fame years of a famous figure must–as a minimum–flirt with the difficult idea of the famous figure in embryo. In the case of Che Guevara, it is logical to ask how the journey influenced Che and whether or not he was politicized by his experiences. While the second half of the plot rather daintily deals with that question, overall, the film’s portrayal of Che fails to show him as a leader of men. In several scenes, he’s shown as the superior of the two travelers, and a person with solid moral convictions, but the role is weak, and it requires a leap of imagination to take the film’s embryonic version of Che and fashion him into the Che Guevara who remains one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a road trip film, and the story could be about any two young men anywhere. The fact that’s it’s about Che Guevara is beside the point, but then again, the fact that it’s about Che Guevara does guarantee an audience. The image of Che appears on t-shirts all over the world, worn by all sorts of people, and it’s an image that has been co-opted until it no longer has meaning. I feel the same way about the film. I suppose the film represents an opportunity to introduce someone to Che’s history, and I’d like to think that that has happened on a few occasions. So far, my experiences on this issue have been bleak. One friend asked to borrow a book about Che and returned it saying they “couldn’t get into it,” and someone else said they saw the film, and knew it was about someone ‘famous,’ and did the ‘real’ person look like the actor. Oh well….