The Motorcycle Diaries


Posted to on November 10, 2004


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 Latin America. The journal Che kept during this trip was published in 1995 as "The Motorcycle Diaries: a Journey Around South America". This beautifully written miniature might strike one as a leftwing version of "On the Road." Kerouac's wanderlust novel was an attempt to connect with ordinary people in the United States who are seen as more genuine. Che's journal is written in the same spirit, but is deeply imbued with the social conscience that would propel him a few years later into the ranks of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. With the deep class divide of Latin America, it would have been difficult for a sensitive young man like Che to see things as Kerouac did. "On the Road" was a book in flight from the sterility of post-WWII affluence. "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a rite of passage on the way to an all-consuming political commitment that would eventually cost Che his life.


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 Argentina, the mountains of Chile and the Incan ruins of Peru are presented in all their splendor. Salles has a filmic affinity for the open road. In my review of Salles's first film "Central Station," I described it as a "'road movie' that takes a bitter old woman and a child deep into Brazil's countryside, and into the recesses of their own hearts. Through a series of mishaps, the two find the journey much more daunting than they first expected. They learn to rely on each other's emotional support and street smarts." In many ways, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is simply a continuation of the preoccupations found in Salles's "Central Station", with Che and Alberto Granado cast in a similar relationship.


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 Machu Picchu ruins of Peru. In the film, the two men seem interested in the ruins as relics, but for the historical Che, they had much more interest as a symbol of the Latin American tragedy:


"But the site which archaeologically and touristically outweighs all others in the region is Machu Picchu. In the local language this means 'old mountain', a name in no way connected with the place which sheltered the last survivors of a free people within its walls. Bingham, the archaeologist who discovered the ruins, thought that rather than a last refuge against the invaders, this was where the dominant Quechua race originally came from and a holy place for them. It was only later, during the Spanish Conquest, that it also became a refuge for the defeated forces. At a cursory glance, several things suggest the American archaeologist was right. In Ollantaytambo, for instance, the most important defence constructions look away from Machu Picchu, even though the slope behind is not steep enough for the defenders to feel secure against attack from there, which suggests they felt they had their backs covered in that direction. Another indication is their obvious concern to keep the site hidden from outsiders, even after all resistance had been crushed."


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.