Now that he belongs to history, Che Guevara transcends his time and place and the politics that initially propelled him into international celebrity. Like some movie star or rock singer, the handsome face of the Marxist soldier-poet, peripatetic warrior for revolutionary causes, friend and advisor to Fidel Castro, boogeyman to Cuban immigrants, inspiration for countless thousands of rebels, now adorns posters and T-shirts, providing decoration and fashion statement for numerous decidedly non-revolutionary consumers, many of whom may not even know whose countenance they wear. No longer a symbol of the struggle for liberation of the oppressed, he has become a pop culture icon, a consequence his CIA assassins could never have foretold.
Viewers aware of Guevara's political life, however, presumably constitute a sizable portion of the audience for The Motorcycle Diaries, based on his and a companion's memoirs of a youthful journey on the vehicle of the title.
In the early 1950s, the 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), a medical student, and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a biochemist, embark on an epic trek of thousands of miles by motorcycle through several countries and a variety of landscapes in South America. Their trip takes them from their comfortable, affluent neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina, through Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela before they end up at their destination on the Amazon River, where they pursue their special medical interests at a leper colony.
Taken initially in a spirit of fun and adventure, the journey naturally introduces them to a different world beyond the life of students and members of the prosperous bourgeoisie. Generally short of money, and consequently often without food and shelter, with their decrepit, overloaded motorcycle frequently breaking down, the two young men learn to live by their wits, hitching rides wherever they can, posing as doctors to cadge meals, cajoling young women to take pity on them. They also encounter the harsh reality of a terrible economic and social injustice wherever they travel --- impoverished towns and squalid neighborhoods, sick people without medical care, peasants forced off their lands by rich owners, miners cruelly exploited by American companies.
For Ernesto and Alberto the long journey obviously constitutes an initiatory experience, presumably part of the process that transforms Guevara and his less famous companion from happy-go-lucky adventurers to committed political activists. They begin the trip with comical gusto and end with a fuller sense of some mission in life. Ernesto wants to help the oppressed and unite the countries of South America, while his friend takes a job in a hospital. Alberto goes on to serve an important role in the health care system of Cuba, while Ernesto, of course, becomes the famous Che, something like the Garibaldi of his generation.
Despite the importance of its central character and the documentary nature of its story, the picture essentially belongs with all those familiar buddy pictures and road flicks. The relationship between the handsome, sensitive, asthmatic Che and his extroverted, boastful, earthy companion recalls all sorts of traveling odd couples, from Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to Captain America and Billy the Kid in another motorcycle movie, Easy Rider. As the journey lengthens and grows more arduous and the life they observe seems ever more harsh and desperate, Che assumes a passive saintliness, while Alberto continues his constant search for booze and women.
That saintly sweetness in Che suggests a perhaps too adorational attitude on the part of the filmmakers. His flouting the rules at the leper colony, his Christlike kindness to the peasants he meets, his poetic voiceovers, his generally sappy, soppy spirituality demonstrate his special goodness of heart.
The movie, unfortunately, fails to hint at what must have been the steel in the young man's nature, the qualities that made him a forceful thinker, speaker, writer, and fighter for his causes. Viewers anticipating a tough, aggressive rebel in search of a cause may be somewhat disappointed in Saint Ernesto of The Motorcycle Diaries.
Like most road narratives in fiction and film, however, the picture comes most fully alive when it sets its characters in motion and keeps them there, tending to slow down when, for one reason or another, they must stop. Their journey takes them and the camera through some spectacular and rugged country --- plains, mountains, deserts, rivers --- providing a sort of travelogue of picturesque South America, and some occasionally comical mishaps, too often repeating itself or exaggerating its pratfalls and underlining its jokes.
In the great tradition of the classic road novel or movie the journey itself in The Motorcycle Diaries means more and engages our attention more fully than the actual or even the spiritual destination. That is exactly as it should be: as Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarity tells us in On the Road, "the road is life."
The Motorcycle Diaries (R), starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna. Based on the memoirs of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Alberto Granado; screenplay by José Rivera; directed by Walter Salles. Little Theatre, Pittsford Cinema