Making films about the early lives of famous historical figures is always a bit tricky. Either you spend all your time trying to account for their later behaviour, or run the risk of presenting them as paragons of virtue to be worshipped. To a certain extent The Motorcycle Diaries falls into both of these traps.
It details the journey made by the young Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and his older friend Alberto Granado, as they travel across South America. Along the way they bicker, chat up women, bond and discuss Marxist revolutionary politics. At all times the young Che is presented as noble, idealistic, brave and honest. As a character study I’m not sure it really works. Also I’m always a bit uncomfortable with movies that present revolutionary heroes that look like they’ve just stepped out of the pages of GQ magazine, complete with designer stubble. For someone who has supposedly spent nine months roughing it on some of the harshest terrain on Earth, Guevaro ends the film looking like he’s just been to the country club for the weekend.
Where I think the film does succeed brilliantly, is in showing the political, economic and social conditions of South America in the 1950s. As they travel they discover a land of staggering contrasts, between sprawling metropolises, jungles, farmland, mountains and deserts. Some parts seem almost untouched since the beginning of the world, with little or no sign of humans ever having been there. There are similar contrasts between rich and poor. At the beginning of their journey the two visit the home of Ernesto’s girlfriend, who lives in something resembling an Austrian Castle. Later on they encounter a couple unjustly driven from their land because of their communist beliefs. They are now used as virtual slave labour by the mining companies.
What is perhaps most depressing is how little things seem to have changed. South America paradoxically has managed to evolve into a continent full of Western style economies and a prosperous middle class, while still retaining a huge level of poverty, inequality and exploitation. It’s easy to see why young people faced with this at the time would have seen armed struggle as the best way forwards.
For me though, the real strength of the film is the way that it highlights the situation of the indigenous population. I don’t think that this is something that is shown enough in modern cinema. Whole civilizations were wiped out by Western colonialists, and the scandal is that it’s still going on today as we delve even further into the Amazon rain forest.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in some ways. Both are films about men going on a journey, looking to find something intangible. In this case they seem to find it, and it shapes their later lives in ways they couldn’t have imagined. For anyone unfamilar with the life of Che Guevara it’s as good a place to begin as any.
Here is the trailer for The Motorcycle Diaries: