Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Motorcycle Diaries

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES

5/10

Diarios di motocicleta : USA (USA-UK-Ger-Arg-Chi-Per) 2004 : Walter SALLES : 126 mins

One of Hollywood’s most notoriously on-off projects is the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – Francis Ford Coppola’s version seems like it’s been on the “upcoming” slate for at least two decades. In the meantime, the closest we may get is this Robert Redford production about the spectacular road-trip undertaken by a pair of aspiring Argentinian medics – 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal) and 29-year-old Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) – through South American in 1952.

two wheels good?Both went on to greater fame in Cuba – Guevara as ‘Che’, hero of Castro’s revolution and a million student posters; Granado as one the architects of the island’s legendary health system. And both wrote books about their trip: Guevara’s contemporary journal was published in 1994 (27 years after his death) and translated into English in 1995 as The Motorcycle Diaries. Granado’s memoir was first published in Spanish in 1978, and has most recently appeared in English under various titles such as With Che Through Latin America and Travelling with Che Guevara : The Making of a Revolutionary.

Despite being called The Motorcycle Diaries, Jose Rivera’s script is reportedly based much more on Granado’s accounts than Guevara’s relatively politicised writings – even through it’s Guevara who we mainly see writing down his impressions, and whose voice-over we hear. And the title is doubly misleading, as the motorcycle itself (a battered 1939 Norton 500 chugalong) suffers a terminal breakdown in Chile less than halfway through the adventure, forcing the pair to continue on foot and by hitch-hiking.

Guevara’s own book, meanwhile, was originally published in Spanish as Notas de Viaje : Mi Primer Gran Viaje, i.e. “Journey Notes – My First Big Journey.” The title “The Motorcycle Diaries” was presumably selected by the book’s English-language publishers to exploit an audience hungry for the kind of rebel-hero chic embodied in the fifties by the likes of Dean, Brando and Kerouac.

Thanks partly to Korda’s world-famous photograph, it’s a lineage which Guevara joined in the 1960s – and while Salles’ stated intention is to show the man behind (and before) the ‘Che’ legend, his film ends up bolstering that myth even further. The Motorcycle Diaries essentially presents us with a superhuman saint – an essentially flawless individual. He’s incorrigibly randy, of course (albeit not so satyr-like as Granado) but this mainly serves to provide touches of comic relief, and to neutralise any of those pesky homo-erotic subcurrents which so often accompany such ‘buddy’/road movies (cf Bernal’s star-making turn in Y Tu Mama Tambien!)

The hagiography culminates in a kind of miracle during the climactic sequence at Peru’s San Pablo leper colony/hospital, where Guevara and Granado work as volunteers. The staff live on one side of a wide and dangerous river, the patients on the other. Celebrating his birthday with the staff one night, Guevara – high on drink, companionship and revolutionary fervour – impulsively decides he’d rather join his friends on the other side.

As Salles puts it, “These two men come to decide at last which bank of the river they want to find themselves on for the rest of their lives – the bank of the privileged, or the bank of the common people.” And so Guevara manages this apparently unprecedented feat, alone and in spite of serious asthma. The scene plays out like Hollywood heroism of the cheesiest order. But it really did happen – kind of. In fact, Granado followed close after Guevara on a small raft, lighting the way. That wouldn’t be quite so inspiringly heroic, of course, so the facts are not-so-gently altered to fit the legend: we’re told that the river was too high for any boat to cross. So why didn’t Ernesto just accompany Granado on the raft?

In a similar vein: Granado had several nicknames for his pal, including ‘Pelao’ (‘Baldy’) and ‘Fuser’ – the latter deriving from Guevara’s prowess on the rugby field, where he was known as Furibundo Serna (‘Furious Serna’). Rivera dispenses with the unflattering ‘Pelao’ altogether, and ‘Fuser’ alone is used – but the word is never explained, and is left enigmatically untranslated in English subtitling. And isn’t it a little odd to cast Rodrigo de la Serna as Granado, rather than as his real-life distant cousin, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna? But Latin-American cinema’s current pin-up Garcia Bernal has to get the lead role – no matter that he hails from far-off Mexico.

Minor cavils, perhaps, but they add up to a nagging sense of bogusness that hangs over the whole enterprise. Salles often falls into the trap aestheticising both the travellers’ journey and the poverty of those they encounter along the way: his worst decision is to include a series of monochrome shots in which society’s underprivileged stare at the camera in poses of mute misery. These tableaux are unneccessary: it should already be clear from the dialogue and action that we’re witnessing the dawning of political consciousness in the minds of these two Argentinians, brought up in bourgeois comfort in the very Europeanised surroundings of Buenos Aires.

But even here, The Motorcycle Diaries is often frustratingly hesitant: there’s no attempt to explain any of the causes of South America’s social problems during the 1950, and Salles’ reluctance to convey his points “in layers, not in an imposing or dogmatic manner” means the film is unlikely to inspire much fervour, revolutionary or otherwise, in its viewers – except a wish to experience these amazing vistas for themselves. This is somewhat unfortunate, given the fact that many of the injustices witnessed by Guevara and Granado persist to this day. And “the cause” is far from lost:

“I don’t accept that we are living in a period of totalitarian revolutions. Reality is telling
us that every day. But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help
the poor, then I say, ‘We part company.’ I will never accept that there can be no redistribution
of wealth in society. I believe it’s better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very
revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing… Try and make your revolution, go
into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of
dreaming about utopias.”
Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, Caracas, 2004

19th August – 15th September, 2004
(seen 17th August : UGC, Edinburgh : press show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

click HERE for our full coverage of the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival

by Neil Young