Review: Motorcycle diaries

What forms revolutionaries? Maybe they are not so different to everyone else but are the ones who realise first that something has to be done. They are the ones who can’t just shrug their shoulders about injustice and get on with their lives.

In Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera explain the turn in Che Guevara’s life that pointed him on the course of revolution. This they do by portraying the young student’s character – his resourcefulness, his self-sacrifice and especially his steely determination – but above all by his encounter with a world full of injustice. This is a road movie with a difference. The road does not end at the end of the film but continues as the credits roll. As his friend flies off to a comfortable medical practice back in Argentina, Che is just starting on the road of revolution.

Based on Che Guevara’s journal, Motorcycle Diaries is the true story of the journey undertaken by Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granado through South America. Setting off from their home in Buenos Aires in Argentina in 1952, these two medical students leave behind their comfortable middle-class lifestyle and set off on an old Norton motorbike to chase girls and find out about the rest of America. But Che discovers oppressive injustice on this journey. The rest is history.

It is a journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia ending in Venezuela that takes these two privileged students on an expedition into the real life of the South American masses. Soon they run out of money (and tearfully scrap the bike) and try to scam and charm their way through the towns and cities of South America. But they really survive through the generosity of the poorest people who help them along their way.

Then they discover the real South America. As we travel with them through stunning scenes of natural beauty, they share life with the landless labourers evicted from their land by the big landlords, the indigenous peoples forced to sell their labour, the workers forced to travel to beg for work in the mines in the mountains, the peoples trying to build a new life around the Amazon and they discover the monumental injustice that grips the continent then and now. Many of the people featured in the film are not actors but people telling the truth about life now just the same as in 1952.

According to the film, this is the journey that propels medical student Ernesto Guevara into revolutionary Che. As well as acquiring the nickname "Che" because of his Argentinian accent, Guevara becomes convinced that he has to struggle against the injustices afflicting the continent.

In particular, encounters with itinerant workers looking for work in the mines of the Andes affect Che. He finds out about the desperate search for work as miners are selected daily by the foreman in the same way as Irish and British dockers were recruited in the "pen" at the beginning of the 20th century. And he discovers the oppression meted out to those who fight the system when he meets two penniless communists, a miner and his wife, downtrodden but defiant. In a way this meeting is "the turning point" because Ernesto, who has been carefully guarding a few dollars to buy his girlfriend a bikini in the United States, preferring not to eat for days rather than spend it, slips the couple the money, something that enrages his friend when he finds out a few weeks later.

The film reaches its climax at a leper colony in Peru when Che proclaims there is no real distinction between the peoples of the countries of the continent and declares for a "United America" rejecting the artifical national barriers erected by imperialism between the different South American countries. But his is not a purely anti-imperialist call. Unlike some demagogues who call for the unity of Latin America, he turns first to the multi-million masses and the downtrodden and symbolically swims the Amazon to join the most oppressed, the inmates of the leper colony.

Motorcycle Diaries charts the beginning of Che Guevara’s journey to fight for the social emancipation and unity of the peoples of South America. The story is so enthralling that it takes us with him. It doesn’t explain his later ideas or the mistakes that he made. It just shows what changed him into a revolutionary. But the film also underlines that the same oppression exists today and new Ches are being created.

And revolutions inspire those who do at first shrug their shoulders. The film ends with the real Alberto Granado, now 81 years of age. He did fly off to his medical practice in Argentina, but ten years later, inspired by the Cuban revolution and the example of his friend, he gave it all up to assist the health service in Cuba.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2004