In Spanish with English subtitles, dir Walter Salles. Che Ernesto Guevara: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alberto Granado: Rodriguo de la Serna
The Motorcycle Diaries is perhaps a little inaptly named. The journey Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara took with his compañero Alberto Granado in the Latin-American summer to winter of 1952 began in Buenos Aires on a motorbike right enough (a great enormous clapped out Norton motorbike), but it ended in Venezuela on a raft provided by the doctors and nursing sisters of the Sao Paolo Leper Colony; and in between there was a plenty of foot-slogging.
But a film has to be called something, and The Motorcycle Diaries is probably as good a name as any. It places the film as a road movie, and it’s also a buddy movie with something of a cultural debt to Don Quijote.
Che is undeniably the hidalgo of the “sorrowful countenance”, while Alberto Granado (a scientist who went to work in Cuba after the revolution) is the practical Sancho Panza. The journey they make together is twofold – a geographical journey across Latin America, and an ideologically journey towards socialism and on to communism.
It’s an enjoyable film and, at times (especially for Spanish speakers), it’s hilarious, as the two incompetents lose their tent in a storm, don’t have any money and have to go begging (til they can get to a Lista de Correos and pick up some mail and money from home). It’s not, however, a great film, and politically, it goes just a little way beyond reformism.
Che, a medical student (and the good and loving son of bourgeois but well-meaning parents), is horrified by the plight of the Quechua mineworkers and their exploitation by the brutal American mineowners. He’s also horrified by the equally vicious plight of the Quechua being thrown off their lands to make way for ‘progress and development’.
The only political speech Che makes in the film is on his last night at the leper colony. In it, he calls for a united Latin America – a call which neither his leper colony audience nor the audience watching the film can understand, since it is so de-contextualised. With no reference to the US imperialism Che wanted Latin America to be united against, it comes out as gibberish.
Still, Che’s horror at what he has seen and his Christ-like care for the lepers (and a few other unfortunates he meets on the way) puts him firmly in the camp of The Righteous.
Yet for all its failures – or, rather, missed opportunities – such as Alberto Granado’s dealings with a pretty prostitute being treated purely as humour (without even a passing mention of prostitution being yet another form of exploitation under capitalism), the film is worth going to see.
More than that, it’s worth celebrating. However inadequately, it presents a young man, who all the world knows went on to become a revolutionary communist (a physically beautiful revolutionary communist at that, who wears his heart of gold on his sleeve, just as Don Quijote wore the favours of his Dulcinea), to a western world, which has been told for decades that communists are ugly, brutal bastards who would put you in a gulag as soon as look at you, and eat your grandmother while they were doing it.
The Motorcycle Diaries gives the lie to all the lies told again and again about communists and communism, and that was why the audience watching it with me broke into spontaneous applause as the credits went up.
The message was one they had been waiting to hear, and it’s one they want to hear again. Communists and communism are the hope of the world. Go and see it (and take a hankie).