Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries posterThe Motorcycle Diaries (2004) is a biopic based on the memoir of 23-year old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who would becomethe iconic Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. The film recounts his journey across South America, mainly by motorbike, with his friend Alberto Granado. The screenplay is based on Guevara's travelogue Diarios de motocicleta and Granado's book Back on the Road: A Journey Through Latin America. The pair travelled 14,000 kilometres across Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Colombia to Venezuela. Ernesto Guevara is played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, and Granado is played by Argentine Rodrigo de la Serna, who is actually Che's second cousin.

The journey begins in January 1952, a semester before Ernesto "Fuser" Guevara is due to complete his medical degree, with a specialization in leprosy. He and his 29-year old friend Alberto Granado, a biochemist, leave Buenos Aires to travel the South American continent in search of adventure. They want to cover 8,000 miles in just four months, hoping to reach Venezuela in time for Alberto's 30th birthday, on April 2. Their mode of transport is Alberto's ancient 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, christened "La Poderosa" ("The Mighty One"). Leaving behind their families in Buenos Aires, they head first to Miramar, where Ernesto's girlfriend Chichina lives with her extremely wealthy family. After spending six days at her mansion, Ernesto bids her a heartbroken goodbye, and she gives him fifteen dollars to buy her a bathing suit in case they get to America. They continue on their way, relying on the generosity of their countrymen for food and shelter, getting to know people in each place. As they cross the border into Chile, it begins to snow. They reach Temuco, Chile, where La Poderosa breaks down. Looking to get the bike repaired for free, Ernesto goes to the local newspaper and invents a big story about their being important doctors. The story convinces a mechanic to fix their bike for nothing. That night, at a dance at the Temuco city hall, the mechanic's wife gets very close to Ernesto, and the mechanic and his buddies chase Ernesto and Alberto out of town on their newly fixed bike. A few days later, however, they crash into a cow and the motorcycle is finally rendered useless. They catch a ride on the back of a truck to Valparaiso, Chile, where Ernesto receives a letter from Chichina breaking up with him. From there they embark on a hike across the hostile wasteland of the Atacama desert. They come across a pair of indigenous Communists who have been persecuted for their beliefs and wander the country searching for work, this time at the dangerous mines of Chuquicamata. When they reach the mines, Ernesto is enraged at the exploitation of the workers by the mining company.

They cross the border into Peru and stop at Cuzco, where they learn about the expropriation of the Quechua people's age-old lands, and the suffering caused by the lack of money and work in the region. Ernesto and Alberto trek the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, where Alberto is inspired by the idea of a peaceful indigenous revolution, to which Ernesto responds, "A revolution without guns? It will never work." They continue to Lima, where Dr. Hugo Pesce, a leading leprosy expert, houses and clothes them for some time. He also takes them to visit his hospital, teaches them about the history of the South American Indian, and gives them books to read about revolution. He takes them inland and puts them on a ship up the Amazon river with the destination of the San Pablo Leper Colony. The ride up the river is a slow one. Alberto falls in love with the ship's prostitute, Luz, but he has no money to pay her. He desperately asks Ernesto for his $15, but Ernesto reveals that he gave the money to the mining couple in the Atacama desert. In the end, Alberto manages to win enough at blackjack to spend the night with the lovely Luz.

Five days later, on June 8, the two Argentines reach the San Pablo Leper Colony, where they will volunteer for three weeks. The river divides the leper colony in two: one bank is inhabited by the lepers, while the other is inhabited by the healthy nuns, doctors, and volunteers that care for them. Here, Ernesto sees both physically and metaphorically the division of society between the suffering masses and the healthy ruling class. He refuses to wear rubber gloves when he visits the lepers, shaking bare hands with them despite the nuns' rules. In the following weeks, he and Alberto spend all their time with the lepers, in leisure and in helping to treat their illness. On their final night at the colony, Guevara confirms his nascent egalitarian beliefs with a birthday toast which is his first political speech. In it he evokes a pan-Latin American identity that transcends the arbitrary boundaries of nation and race. Ernesto's encounters with social injustice have transformed the way his sees the world, and by implication have motivated his later political activities as a revolutionary. Ernesto makes his symbolic final journey that night, despite his debilitating asthma, when he swims across the river to the leper's side because he would like to celebrate his birthday with them, showing his rejection of the wealth and aristocracy of his birth and foreshadowing his future struggle for the human dignity in which he believes. The two men are given a raft by the colony's doctors and embark down the Amazon on the final leg of their journey into Colombia. They finish in Caracas, Venezuela, where Alberto Granado is offered a job in the Cabo Blanco hospital there. Ernesto hitches a ride on a cargo plane back to Argentina. As they part, Ernesto tells Alberto that this voyage has given him much to think about, that "Wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. I am not me any more. At least I'm not the same me I was." At the film's end, the viewer is informed that it will be eight years until they meet again, in Havana, where Ernesto "Che" Guevara will have led the Cuban Revolution and Granado will open a hospital. Then, the real Alberto Granado, who is 82 years old, makes a cameo appearance, in a sequence interspersed with images of the indigenous people Ernesto and Alberto have encountered on their journey.

As Ernesto and Alberto cross of thousands of miles of South America, from one country to another, the borders between each country dissolve and the continent itself emerges as whole, one entity united in its people. The sweeping landscape scenes show an immense geographical diversity, from dense forests to snowy mountains to arid deserts to thick jungle, from the wild to the rural to the urban. Yet in each place the two Argentines feel that they are connected to the people, to the land, and its history. The injustices and suffering of poor Latin Americans are not confined by borders; they characterize of the continent as a whole. History has drawn a sharp line between the small number of wealthy people and the vast impoverished masses they exploit, expropriate, and ignore. How can it be that a place as mystical and intelligent as Machu Picchu has been replaced by the sprawling, ugly Lima as a centre of civilization? Something in Latin America has gone wrong, and something needs to be fixed. The testimonies of the many downtrodden South Americans that he encounters inspire Ernesto to begin his search for this solution.

The Latin America of The Motorcycle Diaries is sad, beautiful, and timeless. The vivid scenes could have taken place in the 1950s or today; they would appear the same. Although Che Guevara dedicated his life to the fight for equality of Latin Americans, it seems that the inspiration for his cause remains the same. The film's focus on the issues of indigenous rights, poverty, land rights, and alienation highlight their relevance in today's Latin America, and seek to inspire the idealistic and socially conscious core of today's generations.