The Motorcycle Diaries

(Los Diarios de motocicleta, Walter Salles, Brazil/UK, 2004)


In the Australian film Bondi Tsunami (2004), four tourists cross the Australian landscape, looking for a great beach. For the travellers in The Motorcycle Diaries or Tony Gatlif's Exiles (2004), however, the stakes are rather higher.

Both these films start out in a carefree, holiday mood. But as the characters get deeper into their respective journeys, they encounter the political and social reality of their times, a truth shielded from them in their everyday existences.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a shamelessly romantic, myth-making film. It is about the young Ernesto Guevara in the days before he rose to prominence as the rebel leader, Che. And, in the manner of a grand, nineteenth-century novel, it sets out to show the origins of the visionary, charismatic political figure in the innocent, wide-eyed young man as he undergoes a process of awakening.

Walter Salles is a Brazilian director who made the impressive Central Station (1998). Here he paints upon a broad canvas of Latin America in the early '50s. Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) and his mate Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) start out in Buenos Aires, where they are training to be doctors. Mounting Alberto's beloved motorcycle (nicknamed The Mighty One), they plot a course that takes in the Andes, Chile and Peru.

Salles shows himself to be a master of the picaresque road movie – particularly with such gifted, soulful actors at his disposal, and a fine script by José Rivera. At some point in the deft display of landscapes, local songs and endless arrays of different foods, the mood begins to subtly darken.

As their own symbol of privilege, the motorcycle, breaks down, Ernesto and Alberto begin to recognise the lack of privilege, and the extent of exploitation, suffered by most people who work on the land.

Ultimately, Ernesto and Alberto are forced to remember and honour their vocation as doctors when they take up temporary positions in a leper colony in Peru. This part of the film is not only deeply moving, but also very convincing on the level of its gentle political rhetoric.

There are moments when it seems there is no dramatic trick too corny or manipulative for The Motorcycle Diaries to pull. For example, Ernesto and Alberto are differentiated in a classic way. The hero is sensitive, broken-hearted, possibly virginal – and hence destined for lofty greatness – while his jolly, rotund sidekick likes to sleep with whores. (Salles does, however, give the real Granado a beautiful moment at the very end of the movie.)

As for the asthmatic Ernesto himself, the film not only gives him a swag of personal fears to overcome, but also a big scene (I will not spoil it here) where he finally overcomes his anxiety in front of a cheering crowd. And who can think badly of a guy who writes so warmly and regularly to his mother back home?

But perhaps the key aspect of this 'portrait of the leader as a young man' is the way in which it positions Ernesto as a person who bridges old and new worlds. His journey across Latin America is, on one level, a journey backwards in time – especially so in a scene where he admires the remains of Incan civilisation in Machu Picchu. But in the context of the treatment of lepers, Ernesto represents modern wisdom, free of religious superstition – he scandalises the nuns in charge by refusing to wear gloves when he shakes the hands of his patients.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a celebration not only of personal experience, but also of opening up to and embracing the world.

© Adrian Martin December 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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