Charting Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s formative journey through South America as a young medical student, The Motorcycle Diaries is a scrappy, full-hearted film that veers between buddy comedy and self-serious coming-of-age drama. After an unfocused first half, the story comes to life as the motorcycles are left behind and a fire is ignited in Guevara’s eyes.
Che Guevara’s reputation is divided, particularly in the West. He is seen as a beacon of hope and liberation to some, and a dangerous militant renegade to others. But The Motorcycle Diaries is not concerned with legacy: it’s a cinematic patchwork of Guevara’s origin and the vast and diverse continent from which he emerged.
“It’s a cinematic patchwork of Guevara’s origin and the vast and diverse continent from which he emerged.”
In the opening scenes Che (played by the distractingly handsome Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (the comically-talented Rodrigo De la Serna) are painted as two restless young men, with no explicit plan, other than to see an epic swathe of South America by motorcycle. It’s 1952, and despite Argentina being a world away from the battlelines of Europe and the Pacific, the political reverberations of World War II are felt.
Many stories have been told about young men on the road, making the premise barely revolutionary. But from the first intimate link with family in the first minutes, a different social dynamic is set, one unlike the anti-traditional youthquake visions of Beat Generation America (Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al): these men seem to still be attached to their familial roots.
After a short stay at a very middle class gathering at a country estate (the duo joke “Are we in Switzerland?”), they traverse the Argentine plains and mountains. The country here is open and sparsely populated—like we see in classic American road trip movies, it’s two buddies against an epic, windswept landscape.
The pair almost immediately encounter a string of bad luck and Che is forced to give medical advice in exchange for food and shelter. The Argentine elements are unforgiving to two cocky (and seemingly unprepared) travellers, and their recklessness leads to sometimes funny, but also frustrating, situations. It makes one think: why are these two capable young men so reliant on the resources of others?
“Their voyage, now informed by that pivotal moment in desert, becomes less about two young men on an adventure, and more about the dire impact of colonisation on the Native American population.”
That question is pulled into focus when their trip continues through Chile and into the Atacama Desert where they encounter a couple of other, less-privileged, nomads. On a cold desert night, as they sit around a campfire, Che listens to stories of worker exploitation and poverty. In a nakedly political moment, his eyes widen, and his destination becomes more defined. The next day they head north, into thicker tropical air. Their voyage, now informed by that pivotal moment in desert, becomes less about two young men on an adventure, and more about the dire impact of colonisation on the Native American population. We see Che start to grow into his own mythology when he faces a very physical manifestation of the continent’s societal divisions.
The potency of The Motorcycle Diaries lies in the parallels between the physical journey and the political awakening of the story’s central character. The first half of the film sees the camera tracking across long roads and plains, creating a carefree atmosphere in which Che and Alberto enjoy a breezy camaraderie. But as they approach the Peruvian jungle and its dispossessed first peoples, the camera steps in closer and goes lower—suddenly the mood feels more intimate, more human.
Filmmaker Walter Salles—who also directed 2012’s On the Road, based on the classic Kerouac novel—has woven together a film that captures the texture of a specific time through believable period details (the costumes and buildings have a lived-in quality) and bumpy, restless camerawork. But it is Bernal’s charismatic portrayal of this idealist figure that makes this feel like a window into the social climate and transformative politics of mid-century Latin America.