Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Megan Hearst

Ernesto “Che” Guevara is without a doubt one of the most iconic people of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to make it through college without seeing his likeness gracing a t-shirt or the walls of a dorm room. Che has been mythologized, valorized and demonized to the extent that man and myth have seemingly melded into one. This is arguably the biggest challenge “The Motorcycle Diaries” has to face. For although this film was brought to campus for the first Off-Campus Studies film festival, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is no simple adventure film. 

Watching “The Motorcycle Diaries” is almost like watching a superhero origin story. The premise is simple enough, Ernesto Guevara known fondly as “Fuser” takes a break from medical school to join his friend Alberto Granado on an 8,700 mile journey across South America to celebrate Granado’s thirtieth birthday. The year is 1952 and revolution is far from the mind of twenty-three year-old Guevara, but that will all change after his fateful journey.

Much of the film’s earlier portion is spent humanizing Guevara. At 23 Guevara is an asthmatic rugby player with a flirtatious side. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal convincingly captures Guevara’s boyish charm and unabashed idealism. This performance is nicely contrasted with the comical, lecherous, but no less idealistic Granado, played by Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna. The film is greatly helped by the humor Serna’s portrayal lends the otherwise serious subject matter and the chemistry between the two is a joy to watch.

The film works best at these more humorous, grounded moments where we get to see Guevara the man, rather than Guevara the myth. In its great pains to illuminate the origins of Guevara’s Marxist views the film loses some of its humanity. Great swathes of the movie are occupied with Guevara’s grandiose thoughts, distracting from the events occurring on screen. The film is most potent when we can see Guevara’s philosophy in action, when he’s caring for the sick or speaking with the indigenous people he meets along his way. By striving to give these philosophies a basis the film distracts from the philosophy itself, the simple moments which give the film its power.

The film has a decidedly pro-Che standpoint, which is due in part to its source material taken directly from Guevara and Granado’s memoirs. The real-life Alberto Granado was deeply invested in the film to the point that he actually makes an appearance at the very end. While this involvement does give some wonderful insights, it can be hard to reconcile the “Fuser” of Granado’s memories with the Che of the communist revolution. Even at the end, the film makes no remarks upon Che’s violent tendencies and his executions of political adversaries. The only hint this side of Guevara is when Granado remarks that he would love to stage a peaceful protest on the behalf of the indigenous and Che replies, “A revolution without guns. Impossible.” This is perhaps why the pair’s friendship is emphasized over their politics, but as the film goes on it becomes more and more politically charged.

There’s a reason why Off-Campus Studies would choose to screen “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Guevara and Granado’s  journey takes them all the way from Guevara’s hometown in Buenos Aires, Argentina to Caracas, Venezuela in a loop, stopping off in Chile, Peru and Colombia. The diverse beauty of these locales are deftly captured in sweeping panoramas as the duo travel through mountains, deserts and rainforests. These images are contrasted with the squalor of the slums and the desperation of the people living in there. The film rapidly cuts to stark, black-and-white images of the impoverished natives Guevara encounters, jarring the viewer out of their lull. It’s this dissonance which allows the film to transcend from travelogue to political statement.

Regardless of the viewer’s political stance, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a beautiful film to look at, and a perfect advertisement for the countries Guevara and Granado explore. Just remember as you travel, laugh and cry along with this pair of friends, that there are other stories which need to be told.