The Motorcycle Diaries (15)

Here's the myth, where's the man?
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The Independent Culture

Walter Salles's road movie charts each stage of the odyssey two young Argentinians make around South America by flashing up the number of kilometres they have covered, first on a motorbike, then on foot and by boat. By the end of their eight-month journey, which has taken them through Argentina, Chile, the Amazon Basin, Peru and Venezuela, the total stands at around 12,000km. So much for the geography - the implication is that the emotional distance the two friends have travelled is infinitely greater. Of course, any number of backpacking students could claim to have been changed by the peregrinations of their year off; the difference here is that one of the travellers was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who would become better known as Che, revolutionary, idealist and the sainted face on T-shirts and posters the world over.

Walter Salles's road movie charts each stage of the odyssey two young Argentinians make around South America by flashing up the number of kilometres they have covered, first on a motorbike, then on foot and by boat. By the end of their eight-month journey, which has taken them through Argentina, Chile, the Amazon Basin, Peru and Venezuela, the total stands at around 12,000km. So much for the geography - the implication is that the emotional distance the two friends have travelled is infinitely greater. Of course, any number of backpacking students could claim to have been changed by the peregrinations of their year off; the difference here is that one of the travellers was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who would become better known as Che, revolutionary, idealist and the sainted face on T-shirts and posters the world over.

It is 1952 when 23-year-old medical student Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal), one of five in a loving, well-to-do family in Bueno Aires, decides to take to the road with his biochemist pal Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna). Their transport is an ancient Norton motorbike that sputters and wheezes and will more than once pitch them both into the dirt, but these two are carefree souls, undismayed by having to sleep beneath the stars or scrounge for food. Salles and his screenwriter, Jose Rivera, take care to render the early stages of the journey as a boisterous kind of picaresque. The plump, jovial Alberto is the more dominant of the pair; older by five years, he charms the ladies with his dance steps while Ernesto plays the wallflower, unable to tell a tango from a mambo.

Further differences between them gradually emerge. Whereas Alberto flatters and dissembles to gain an advantage, Ernesto, perhaps mindful of his name, feels beholden to tell the truth. When a farmer whose hospitality they've battened onto seeks a medical opinion about the lump on his neck, Ernesto examines it briefly and tells him that it's cancer. "You could help out with a little lie once in a while", grumbles Alberto. Later, when a friend asks him what he thinks of the novel he has written, Ernesto looks seriously at him and declares it "basically unreadable". The film sees this truth-telling as uncomplicatedly honourable, instead of something that might be perhaps gauche and unfeeling.

As the movie proceeds one senses increasingly an idealising tendency on the film-makers' part. Just arrived in Chile, the trainee doctor is called to the bedside of a sick old woman, who fortunately is too weak to ask him if she's dying. Ernesto deals very tenderly with her, and leaves some medicine - his own medicine, in fact, which he takes for chronic asthma.

He is also a dutiful son, recording his travels in fond letters to his mother back home. His behaviour towards well-born girlfriend Chichina (Mia Maestro) is puppyishly sweet, and oddly sexless. Later, when a married woman at a dance starts making eyes at him, he somehow contrives to louse up his chances and flees the scene with Alberto, pursued by a mob of outraged Chileans; so he escapes being a cad, too. How far Guevara's book (on which the movie is partly based) bears him out as a noble-souled youth I couldn't say, but any real-life character treated so emolliently is bound to rouse suspicion.

Salles makes The Motorcycle Diaries a movie of two halves; whereas the sunny first part could almost be a Latin American Easy Rider, the second darkens perceptibly into a chronicle of burgeoning political conscious- ness as Ernesto and Alberto witness dispossession and poverty on a massive scale. Abandoning their clapped-out motorbike, they encounter migrant workers thrown off their own land, and a homeless couple travelling to a local mine in search of work. In Peru they begin to realise how "progress" is far from an unchallengeable boon, contrasting the ruined Incan city of Machu Picchu with the gruesome sprawl of Lima. These experiences would be powerful enough to affect any revolutionary leader in the making; what slightly dulls the impact is the film's suggestion that Ernesto has been waiting for this spiritual epiphany all along. We feel no surprise at the way he is affected by the plight of the peasants because Salles and Rivera have been insistent throughout about what a fine, upstanding man this is. If there had been some flaw in his make-up - arrogance, indifference, the smallest hint of narcissism - we might be able to see some drama in his self-discovery. But the self he discovers was already beatific to begin with, so there's no room for a drama to unfold.

It's a terrific-looking film, certainly, and Eric Gautier's cinematography catches the changing landscapes of South America - desert, green valleys, snow-clad mountains - quite wonderfully. Gael Garcia Bernal brings all his doe-eyed soulfulness to bear, though one gets the feeling that he's intent on honouring the legend rather than inhabiting the role. I suppose for a Latino actor it is rather like being asked to play Christ. Ernesto doesn't ever walk on water, though he does prove himself a prodigious swimmer. One hears death flutter its wings at certain moments, such as at the deeply eerie sight of Ernesto lying stricken by asthma, pale as a ghost - it foreshadows the famous photograph of his corpse, surrounded by Bolivian soldiers.

The epilogue renders his untimely end even more poignant, for it presents living history in the lined face of the man who companioned Guevara on his journey: Alberto Granado, in person. Yet his appearance, moving though it is, does little to dislodge the suspicion that The Motorcycle Diaries is a homage to the myth Guevara would become, rather than a portrait of the man he was.

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