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Movie Critic Article: The Motorcycle Diaries 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries

"The image of Che Guevara before he became a revolutionary symbol."

Original article by: Elnour Hamad*

Some may share my opinion that Hollywood has lost a lot of its old humane artistic outpour which marked the sixties, seventies and perhaps the eighties of last century. It has become rare for one to watch a movie based on a significantly deep literary work. The film industry has been inclined more and more towards films that generate greater income. Hence the abundance of violence and crime movies which popularize the use of new cinematic tricks launched by the graphic revolution in computer sciences, especially the so-called materialization or "virtual reality". The whole thing has been turned to leisure and entertainment, and what was prevalent before, such as the use of drama in education or enlightenment or in strengthening of human dispositions, has declined.

However, there are producers and directors in Hollywood who still insist on the production of meaningful movies. They are called independent producers. Most prominent among these is the veteran actor Robert Redford, who starred in big movies that received wide international acclaim. By way of example, Redford participated with the seasoned actress "Meryl Streep" in "Out of Africa", ​​a film that is considered one of the greatest American film classics. He also played a leading role in front of actress Demi Moore in "Indecent Proposal" and directed “Horse Whisperer” in which he was the protagonist. Robert Redford was an executive producer of the movie "The Motorcycle Diaries”. The object of this article is to tell part of the story of the early bringing into being of the revolutionary persona of the legendary "Ernesto Che Guevara".

I do not expect this movie to gain popular acclaim in the United States as it is not the nature of the American public to praise such kind of movies. And especially that everything associated with communism and the left is still seen, to a large extent, under the lens of the right-wing extremist McCarthyism era which targeted communists and leftists in the fifties of the last century. Only those producers who insist that cinema should have a clear humanitarian and educational message would address the production of such movies that usually do not generate high profits. Among these is Robert Redford, who may have run a risky financially venture producing this film.
Jose Rivera who wrote the screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries was reported as saying that he encountered real difficulty in writing the screenplay which was based on Guevara's diaries; for the diaries, in Guevara’s own handwriting, which have recently been found, do not tell more than just the travel adventure through South America which Guevara and friend Alberto Granado carried out in 1952. At that time the world did not know anything about Guevara the legendary rebel who later became an icon and a symbol for the struggle against injustice. Therefore, Rivera felt it was important for him to limit his resources to only those diaries and stay away from what happened later to Guevara's personal reputation and fame.
About the difficulty he faced in writing the script, Rivera wrote, “How can one make the legend of Che Guevara pursuant to a human being? And how does one commemorate the man without upsetting, at the same time, the credibility of history? How does one give Guevara’s companion in that journey an equal weight? For Guevara, at that time, had nothing prominent to tell him apart from his companion. How can one grasp the inner geography of the body of a young man stepping toward manhood? How to catch the sparkle of Latin America of the era before the sixties of last century? How to snipe at a young mind that devours faces, moods, cultures, races and sounds while commuting with his friend on a motorcycle across several countries!”

A brief summary of the story of the film is that Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, both from Argentina, set out on a journey from Buenos Aires across the South American continent. Ernesto Guevara was then a 23 years old medical student, while Alberto (29 years) was already a biochemist. The camera follows these two young men as they reveal, throughout their trip on an old motorcycle (a Norton 1939 model), the human and social rich and complex terrain of the continent. The trip spanned eight months in which the two riders cross the Argentine from east to west. They then traveled north across the Chile on the Pacific ocean until they crossed to Peru where they stayed a little while. The pair resumed their trip further north to Caracas in Venezuela where they parted ways and Guevara returned to Argentina.
The old bike was not able to complete the whole journey with its riders. It broke several times, and they had to repair it more than once in the villages along the way, but it stopped completely in Peru where they had to abandon it. Hence, their only choice was to hitchhike their way through on passing trucks.
The script writer believed that this early trip which was nothing more than a youth adventure had brought a shift in the structural makeup of awareness in both of these young men. Guevara who was born to a middle-class family in Buenos Aires was a medical student i.e. he had a guaranteed career awaiting him. The script writer went on to say that Guevara and his friend Alberto were in fact exploring their own depths as their journey deepened into the terra incognita of the Latin continent which they would not have known about had it not been for this long journey. In this trip their eyes were opened to the fact of that continent. They were stunned by the poverty of the rural areas; by the condition of poor people, of pastors and miners. Stunned by their tattered clothes and blackened faces; by the cloud of sadness and depression which overshadowed everything.
The contrasting characters of Guevara and Alberto gave the movie a special taste. Guevara, the younger of the two, appeared sober and quiet and perhaps shy, while Alberto was the merrier, the more humorous; the talkative one; the one more inclined to laugh.
However, the bond between them was deep and not disturbed by the ever-arising disputes. As told by the scriptwriter, the focus in the movie was to not to let the subsequent legendary image of Guevara affect the way he figured out Guevara's persona before fame.The latter Guevara had become a legend to which people added a lot from their own imagination.The movie exposed some emotional escapades the pair went through in their journey of thousands of miles.
When Guevara and friend stopped at a mechanic’s shop for their bike, in one of the villages, the mechanic’s wife was drawn to the handsomeness of the twenty three years old Guevara. In the evening when everyone came to the village pub, the mechanic’s wife, seeing her husband drunk and fallen asleep on the edge of the wood bar, sought to dance with Guevara. However, the husband suddenly awoke and a disorder took place that revealed the intention of the two to go out together. The drunken husband got enraged and turmoil set in the place. It ended in Guevara and his friend fleeing the pub with everyone else on their heels. They were only saved by jumping on their bike and darting out of the village, pursued by stones and empty bottles.

Such an incident might find little space for itself in the legendary image drawn by the world later on for Guevara as a rebel because Guevara had raised moral obligation to a top level that diverged his perceived image from that of ordinary human being when he said, “My homeland is where there is no freedom.”** This realization of the real as opposed to the perceived might lead us to contemplate the lives of great people without their greatness; putting a veil over their lives as humans. Indeed, the implications of that incident in Guevara’s life had led me to ponder on the revelations of Sheikh Babiker Badri in his own autobiography about some of his experiences as a young man and how the image of the later Babiker Badri, as a visionary leader who had left a clear mark on the modern history of Sudan, has left little space for the younger Babiker Badri who swung between right and wrong just like any other young man.

While crossing the Machu Picchu Heights, the two adventurous young men devoted some time for the relics of the ancient Inca civilization. A visit that had a great impact on them. On arriving at a leper colony (a place where people with leprosy were quarantined) deep in the Amazon jungles, they were prompted to question the worthiness of progress as defined by an economic system that did not allow the majority of people to reap its fruit. Writes the script writer,” their experience at the leper colony had awakened in the two men the perspective that would shape their later characters.That experience at the colony had identified the features of the moral and political path that both men would tread through the rest of their lives.”

Throughout the journey, Guevara was leaving his clothes to the poor people he met. He gave them the little money he had on him. When he parted with Alberto in Venezuela and took a plane back to Argentina, a new kind of consciousness had started to emerge inside him. However, the movie did not point, neither closely nor remotely, to the era of the revolutionary Guevara leaving it out deliberately so as not to influence the memoirs written in the prime of Guevara’s life, a time when he had not known what fame and what glory were in store for him.

Machu Picchu Heights
At the closing of the movie it is pointed that both Guevara and Alberto fought with Castro until the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Alberto remained in Cuba with his wife and children (he died in 2011,) As for Guevara, he left after the victory in Cuba to join Latin American rebels and resumed his activism in the jungles until his CIA-assisted execution in Bolivia in 1967.
The movie raises questions on the human side in the life of every great person which the collective imagination tends to absolve from the fluctuations of human weakness. With respect to the character of Guevara these questions remain. Was he a revolutionary or an anarchist or just a dreamer who did not read correctly the consequences of his deeds? Did he add anything of value to human history?
There is no doubt that the era of the Cold War and communist propaganda that filled the corners of the world, and the rising tide of the political left, have helped promote the image of Guevara to the level of a myth. But the choice of Guevara, the son of middle-class family, to embrace such a confrontational life style which culminated in death, remains on the other hand, a milestone in the field of morally motivated human choices. Nevertheless, Guevara’s personality, with all the divergent controversies it may raise, will remain as an inspiration correlated to the grand human dream of which only very little has been realized to date.
The film was directed by Walter Salles in Spanish with subtitles in English.
A sequel to the movie that deals with Che Guevara’s life as a rebel is said to follow.

* Visit The article writer's web page here: Dr. Elnour Hamad
** Wherever there is injustice it is my home” is the closest in meaning to the writer's quote. There are so many quotes from Guevara but there are no verifications.


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