Political Film Society - The Motorcycle Diaries

PFS Film Review
The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motorcicleta)


The Motorcycle DiariesWhy would an apolitical medical student from an affluent family in Buenos Aires become a revolutionary? The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motorcicleta), directed by Walter Salles, not only explains why but also reminds filmviewers that the same injustices, which affected him so profoundly, still exist. With one semester to go in order to complete medical school, in January 1952, 23-year-old introvert Ernesto Guevara de la Cerna (played by Gael García Bernal) joins 29-year-old extrovert biochemist Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo de la Serra) on an ambitious undertaking--an 8,000-mile trip from Buenos Aires to Guijara Peninsula, Venezuela, on a 1939 motorcycle. The ascetic experience exposes both to the realities of exploitation, injustice, and poverty; as the film's tagline says, "Let the world change you . . . and you can change the world." As educated Argentinians, they have a deep appreciation for Spanish literature, and thus Guevara's voiceovers from his autobiography are extraordinarily eloquent; the film is based on both of their accounts of the trip. The cinematography of the continent is equally breathtaking. After a farewell to family and friends, in which Guevara's girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra (played by Mía Maestro) slips him US$15 to buy her clothes in case he makes his way to the United States, the two wanderlust companions encounter hazardous road and weather conditions as they cross the Andes, go through Chile, Perú, and Colombia, and end up in Venezuela. When the motorcycle breaks down in Chile, they hitchhike and walk many miles before reaching Lima, where they take advantage of water transportation opportunities. They also run out of money; Guevara refuses to spend the American money, so they must devise ingenious methods of survival on the fly. On several occasions, Guevara's applies his knowledge of medicine to the sick; in exchange, the duo receives food and accommodations. Thus, early in the journey Guevara realizes that even second-rate medical care is not available in the rural communities. Upon arrival in Chile, the two are given the nickname "Ché" because Chileans recognize their Argentinian accents, in which "Ché" is commonly pronounced. Without funds, they associate with the poor. Their political consciousness is first raised about injustice while they are walking in the Atacama Desert to see the copper mines: A couple, who are making the same trip, explain that they were run off their land because they were Communists, so they are in need of work; conditions at the mine are so severe that they expect to be among few applicants. However, many poor apply, and not all are selected. When the husband is picked, he climbs aboard a bus along with the rest, leaving his wife behind. Guevara, realizing that they are all thirsty, asks the recruiting agent to provide water, but the latter instead responds by demanding that Guevara get off the property of the Anaconda Copper Company. Unknown to Granado, Guevara gives the wife his American money. When the two travelers arrive in Perú, they tour the ruins of Inca civilization and meet the indigenous people, who explain that they have also been evicted by landowners from ancestral lands, where they engaged in self-sufficient agriculture; as a result, they migrated to the cities to make handicrafts for tourists and barely survive. Finally, the two travelers arrive in Lima, where a physician welcomes them; he has been expecting them, as they previously applied to volunteer at the San Pablo Leper Colony. He provides new clothes, good food, and secure shelter for a few days, but also asks them for an opinion on his manuscript of a novel. Although Granado praises his writing without reading a page, Guevara shocks the grateful doctor by being the first to tell him the truth about his literary effort just as they embark on a boat trip up the Amazon to San Pablo. Guevara, whose gentle honesty is now well established to filmviewers, joins Granado in assisting victims of leprosy. The time spent at San Pablo brings out the best in Guevara, and the staff responds by providing a birthday celebration for him, including a present--a raft so that the two can complete the journey to Colombia and Venezuela. After eight months, the trek ends and Guevara flies back to Argentina, while Granado remains at a medical facility in Venezuela. Titles at the end point out that Granado later moved to Cuba, and in 1960 he invited Guevara to join him. Later, according to the titles, Guevara left to organize revolution in the Congo and Bolivia, where in 1967 the CIA assassinated him. As credits roll, amid applause from opening night filmviewers in Hollywood, actual photos of Guevara and Granado, who is still alive in Cuba, appear on the screen. The Political Film Society has nominated The Motorcycle Diaries as the best film exposé of 2004 as well as the best film raising consciousness about the need for greater democratic freedoms and human rights.  MH

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