The Motorcycle Diaries
Although Walter Salles's "The Motorcycle Diaries" has serious flaws, it is well worth seeing. It is especially recommended for those who are only familiar with Che Guevara through the mystique so well expressed by the ubiquitous t-shirts.
In January 1952, the 24 year old Che
Guevara, who had just graduated medical school, mounted a beat-up Norton
motorcycle with his good friend Alberto Granado, a
fellow Argentine and biochemist, with the intention of traveling the length of
To start with the good things, Salles
is a poet with a camera. In a very real sense, the main character in his film
is the Latin American countryside. The pampas of
Although "The Motorcycle Diaries" includes
well-chosen excerpts from Che's journal, they are
regrettably far too brief to convey the power of his prose. Although Salles clearly understands that an audience does not go to
a movie to be read to, we hope that some will be motivated to read the book.
The discrepancy between word and image is most keenly felt in the scene where Che and Alberto stroll about silently in the
"But the site which archaeologically and touristically outweighs all others in the region is
It is also disappointing that Salles chose to overemphasize incidents that occurred on the trip for the sake of meeting what he must have assumed would be conventional audience expectations. For example, in one extended scene that takes place in a provincial Chilean city, Che and Alberto are literally chased out of town on their motorcycle by an angry mob of Chilean men after an inebriated Che makes a pass at one of their wives on the dance floor of the local pub. It can best be described as an art movie version of the sort of fraternity humor found in "Animal House." In the book, they are chased out of the pub, but leave without incident the next day. The entire episode takes up two paragraphs.
Instead of devoting precious film resources on what is really an atypical moment in this trip, it would have been far more interesting to see Che and Alberto in extended conversations with the people they meet on the trip. For example, when they meet a Chilean miner and his wife on the road, few words are exchanged. Had I been the screenwriter of "The Motorcycle Diaries," I would have chosen to amplify this moment at the expense of the pub scene even at the risk of boring those members of the audience with a short attention-span.
Finally, the movie really fails to succeed in conveying Che's character. In the film, he comes across as a passive and diffident sideline observer. The real Che, as is obvious in his journal and in Jon Lee Anderson's very good if politically tainted biography, is far more assertive and voluble. Throughout his entire life, Che challenged cultural and political conventions. He was brash, outspoken and even confrontational. This side of his personality is totally absent in Salles's film. Someday a screenwriter will rise to the occasion and come up with a film play that is faithful to one of the 20th century's great humanitarians and revolutionaries. In the meantime, Salles's "The Motorcycle Diaries" can be acknowledged as a modest, decent and positive contribution toward understanding that larger-than-life personality.