Motorcycle Diaries (9/10)

by Tony Medley

What do you know about Ernesto “Ché” Guevara? That he was a wild-eyed leader of Castro’s takeover of Cuba? That Castro dumped him because he was too leftwing, even for Fidel? That he was executed in the Bolivian jungle, leading a band of revolutionaries? Not a pretty picture.

The view we get of Ché here is half a decade before he joined up with Castro. Ernesto “Ché” Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal), a 22 year-old medical student takes an 8,000 mile odyssey throughout South America with his buddy, 29 year-old Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Granado, still alive in Cuba) on a 13 year old motorcycle. The film is expertly directed by Walter Salles, from a screenplay by Jose Rivera, based on books by Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries) and Granado (Traveling with Ché). While Granado wrote actual entries documenting his observations on the road,  Ché  wrote a memoir. The film was shot on the actual locations visited by Guevara and Granado; Buenos Aires and Bariloche in Argentina; Temeuco, The Atacama Desert, and Valparaiso, in Chile, And Iquitos and Machu Picchu in Peru, and using indigenous peoples in the cast.

Ché starts out as a quiet, but enthusiastic, young man in love with a girl he’s leaving behind, much to her dismay. As the film progresses and the young men live through their experiences, he slowly changes. Salles says, “(T)he layers are delicately superimposed in such a way that you understand that these young men have been transformed by the journey…(W)e needed the silence in order to hear the chaos, and we needed to respect the internal timing and growth of the characters.” This is not the story of some wild-eyed revolutionary, but of two young men out for adventure. But we do get a glimpse of what influenced Ché to become a revolutionary.

One always wonders at the accuracy of biographical films. Given the political bias of the producers, a certain amount of skepticism about this film’s sympathetic portrayal of Ché is probably warranted. Regardless of what your preconceived opinions are of Ché, however, this is an entertaining film of two guys taking the trip of their lifetime, and how it changes them. Don’t leave when the credits come on because they include archival photos of the real Ché  and Granado taken on their trip.

This is a fascinating and entertaining story with terrific cinematography (Eric Gautier) of exotic locales. Unfortunately, the film is marred by a graphic inserted at the end that seems to imply that Ché was executed with CIA approval. In fact, contrary to the film’s assertion, the CIA’s instructions were to “do everything to keep him alive” and Walt Rostow, senior advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, in a White House memo dated October 11, 1967, only a day or two after Ché’s death, said that his execution was “stupid.” Despite this, there are two possibilities. The first is that two Cuban born CIA operatives, Félix Rodríguez and Gustavo Villoldo, either participated in, or maybe ordered, Ché’s execution but their participation would have been contrary to specific, unambiguous orders. The second is that Fidel wanted Ché dead, and the execution was in accordance with his orders. In any event, the evidence seems to support the act being accomplished by a Bolivian officer.  Producer Robert Redford would have been much better off leaving his doctrinaire politics out of this fine film. In Spanish with subtitles.

September 17, 2004

The End