One of South America’s most brilliantly talented filmmakers has made a political road movie: the story of a young man who sets out on a journey of discovery and self-discovery through his vast continent. An essay in the higher vagabondage, you might call it, since this vulnerable hero, like most of the people he encounters en route, travels with few provisions other than his wits. The way is hard for him; and hanging over it, like a perpetual low cloud cover, is the weight of past struggles and present injustice. The young fellow, you see, has a tendency to brood. Fortunately, though, he also knows how to look, and so finds vividness and beauty welling up everywhere to sustain him (and the audience, too).
I won’t claim the film is completely successful; but as a travelogue it’s so intensely personal, as a political fable it’s so alive with sharp observation, that I wish you could run out now and see it.
Too bad. El Viaje, by the extraordinary Argentine director Fernando Solanas, has gone undistributed in the United States since its completion in 1992. All we get is The Motorcycle Diaries.
It is a based-on-a-true-story movie–the same story, for all I know, that might have inspired El Viaje. In 1952, the 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara (not yet known as Che) set out with his 29-year-old buddy Alberto Granado on a trip that would take them from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, then across to Chile, up the spine of the Andes and into Venezuela. The friends, born of the middle class and poised for professional careers, had between them a sole vehicle for this adventure: a sputtering and unsteady motorcycle, vintage 1939.
Imagine, if you will, a few episodes where the motorcycle skids out of control and crashes on this or that country road. Imagine the inevitable final cough of the engine, far from the proposed destination, and the friends’ decision to forge ahead anyway, on foot and by thumb. There will be quarrels and reconciliations, youthful pranks and attempts to get laid. And, of course, there will be an awakening of conscience–because, my God, there are poor people on this continent! Lots and lots of poor people! Think of their faces, staring in soulful forthrightness into the camera, while the film stock is changed to black and white for that forever-in-memory effect.
If you can picture all this–or, rather, predict it–then you’ve as good as seen The Motorcycle Diaries. No need to rely on director Walter Salles, whose dramatic sense and image-making skills don’t merely lean on convention but embrace it, celebrate it, in direct contradiction to his protagonist’s spirit.
Habits of mind are “a most terrible force,” wrote the author V.I. Lenin, with whose works Che Guevara seems to have been familiar. Generations of romantics and revolutionaries accordingly strove to break with routine patterns of seeing and speaking. That they often failed in this struggle–or, worse, came to enforce their own deadly regime of clichés–neither invalidates the project nor blots it from history. But what socialist realism could not wipe out, liberal self-congratulation may yet turn to mush. You will know what I mean if you’ve seen Salles’s Central Station, the film that made Cinema Novo into something Disney might have produced; and you will anticipate from The Motorcycle Diaries a similarly Mickey Mouse Che.
He’s played by Gael García Bernal, the slim and foxfaced young actor from Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También–not an ideal match for the historic figure, but a canny substitute at the present moment, when Che has returned as a trendy T-shirt. García Bernal makes a sweet loverboy Guevara, whose principal traits in the movie are weak bronchial tubes and a charming awkwardness on the dance floor. Think, in other words, of a Che from the strung-out waif era of fashion photography. Serving as his foil, and little else, is Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna): a more robust type, outfitted with an old-style movie-star mustache, who is characterized in José Rivera’s screenplay mostly by a venal horniness, until he awakens to his friend’s spiritual superiority.