Stephen Philip applauds The Motorcycle Diaries, an inspiring cinematic portrait of the making of a revolutionary
We set out on a wondrous journey in The Motorcycle Diaries.
The journey is not just through a beautiful landscape meeting its brave, oppressed people, but also into a time of political self-discovery. It’s a road movie with a difference.
More than the usual ribald tale of wine, women and song on the road (although there’s plenty of that), it traces the germination of an idea within the mind of an extraordinary figure.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara wasn’t born a revolutionary – he became one.
The film begins with Che as a 23 year old medical student making plans for a gap year with Alberto Granado, his hedonistic buddy, to traverse the Latin American continent by Alberto’s thirtieth birthday.
Che leaves behind his beloved girlfriend and doting middle class family for an adventure on a ramshackle, clapped-out Norton motorbike.
It’s a tale that illuminates all sides of Che’s character at that time. There are some delightfully humorous moments that vary from slapstick fun with the bike to cheeky, impudent comedy.
At one point the pair become local celebrities when they pretend to be eminent physicians in order to get a mechanic to fix their bike.
But then the mechanic’s wife takes a fancy to Che – and all hell breaks loose.
For the most part, Che and Alberto are typical middle class lads, flirting around and enjoying the experience.
But the more serious minded Che finds himself increasingly absorbed into the lives of the poor.
With the bike now kaput, they begin hitchhiking across the continent. Che listens patiently to the stories of poor peasant farmers, and makes his first personal protest against the treatment of Communist mine workers.
As he contemplates the magnificent relics of the ancient Incas, Che can only think of what a desperate situation the poor of this once-magnificent continent continue to endure.
To Alberto’s frustration, Che gives the money he has saved to buy his girlfriend a present to an itinerant peasant couple.
From thereon Alberto realises a change in Che and develops a newfound respect for him.
A symbolic turning point for Che is his experience at a leper colony. He rebels against the unnecessarily harsh rules that guard against physical contact with leprosy victims.
One night, as Che contemplates the lives of those unfortunate people living in desperate circumstances, he risks his life in a gesture of solidarity by swimming across the river to spend one last evening with them.
Walter Salles, who also directed the wonderful Central Station, directs with subtlety and enormous sympathy for his subject. “Guevara has resonance today because his quest never ended,” he says.
He takes an honestly written screenplay based on the diaries of Che and Alberto, and shows how a gradual accumulation of experiences gave Che insights into the life of the dispossessed.
Gael Garcia Bernal – last seen in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education – gives a brilliantly natural and charismatic performance as Che.
Salles also uses non-actors with their character-rich faces to powerful poignant effect.
Che has re-emerged as an icon for a new generation of anti-capitalists.
What we have is a marvel of sorts – a movie that shows us a rounded portrait of man in transition to becoming a revolutionary.
The film lays bare the human qualities that drove Che’s quest – his unerring honesty, his enormous compassion for the underdog, and his idealism.
It’s a stirring inspiration for all those dedicated to turning the world upside down.
Che Guevara’s book The Motorcycle Diaries, which the film is based on, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £7.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com