be capable of feeling deep inside any injustice committed against anyone
anywhere in the world. It is the finest quality of a revolutionary.”
The Motorcycle Diaries, the recently released film on Ernesto Che Guevara, is an exciting adaptation of Guevara’s writings of the same name. Also based on Alberto Granado’s memoirs Travelling With Che Guevara, Che’s travelling companion, the director Walter Salles was able to paint a graphic picture of a revolutionary in the making.
It is Buenos Aires in the year 1952. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a 23-year-old medical student, and his friend, the biochemistry graduate Alberto Granado, leave their cosy middle-class life and set out on a journey across Latin America. “Armed” only with an old motorbike (“the Mighty One“), both friends seem to be heading for a romantic conquest of this massive and beautiful continent. The method? Improvisation, says Ernesto. We see two young men, at times struggling with each other. But the main image that comes across is that of two nice guys keeping an eye out for the girls. Humour is never far away.
However, they soon discover that all is not peace and harmony on the continent. When they reach Chile, Ernesto and Alberto are confronted with the reality of everyday life. Their bike breaks down and they are broke. But that is nothing compared to the misery of the world that surrounds them. They continue their journey on foot, thus coming upon two homeless peasants who have lost their land. This is only the first of their encounters with injustice and inequality, and it marks a significant darkening of the whole atmosphere of the film. The jokes have not disappeared but it is clear something has changed – there is a growing awareness of injustice.
After this turning point, especially Ernesto becomes more and more concerned with the poverty of the indigenous people, the miners, peasants, etc. He sees the ruthless bosses in action treating the workers like animals. Combine this with the devastating sight of the ruined Machu Picchu in Peru compared to the desolated city of Lima, and you see how the young student’s consciousness is changing the further he travels. In a sense this is also reflected in his honesty. When he is asked by a man they are seeking lodging with about the lump on his neck, Ernesto frankly tells him it is a tumour. The same is true when he crudely tells his host that his self-written novel is unreadable. What comes across is a Che that is incapable of telling a lie.
The climax is reached when Ernesto and Alberto arrive at a Peruvian leprosy colony. Even here the patients are treated with insolence and are kept apart from doctors and nurses. But Ernesto refuses to follow the rules set down by the nuns. Since leprosy is not contagious, he does not want to wear gloves when dealing with patients. No wonder both friends soon become popular figures with the leprosy patients. This is also the moment Ernesto starts to deliver his first political speeches. On his birthday he talks about the unity of all Latin American countries, hence defying the artificial boundaries imposed by imperialism. To his credit, he symbolically swims across the river separating the sick from the ordinary people. He is greeted by a mass of people welcoming him, just as the revolutionary Che will be greeted by the masses in Cuba years later.
However, The Motorcycle Diaries is not about the later revolutionary fighter Che Guevara. The viewer is not presented with a hagiography of a person so often the subject of myth-making. Above all, this film deals with the human Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. The Che we see here is a sincere and simple man (and a clumsy dancer) suffering from bad asthma attacks, but also a compassionate person caring for his fellow human beings who is unwilling to reconcile himself with injustice. In that sense, this film certainly claims artistic qualities that go beyond the ordinary biographical sketches. Of all its merits, The Motorcycle Diaries is primarily a most enjoyable documentary that also aspires to the more universal themes of exploration, comradeship – and resistance.