Sunday, November 21, 2010

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004): The Butcher of la Cabana*

Movie critic James Berardinelli wrote this about The Motorcycle Diaries and Ernesto “Che” Guevara:
“As portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, he is an ordinary 23-year old whose exposure to the realities of poverty and disease cause a monumental spiritual upheaval.  The transformation is presented slowly and subtly, and, although it is pretty much complete by the time the end credits roll, only those who are aware of Guevara’s role in history will understand what comes next.”
It’s not an attribute of a movie or of a movie critic to rely upon a movie audience to play dumb.  Yes, some movie critics and audience members “are aware of Guevara’s role in history,” and I imagine it would be quite difficult for some of them to put that knowledge aside and enjoy the film for its own sake.  The first forty-five minutes of The Motorcycle Diaries contain footage of some of the most beautiful scenery ever filmed, and we are almost taken in by the two charming hucksters that ride their motorcycle across South America.  Then we see the gradual “transformation” take place, though it’s not as slow and subtle as Mr. Berardinelli would have us believe.  After an hour into this film, we see The Motorcycle Diaries for what it is: a selective use of quotes and figures, a denial of history (almost a fairy tale), and a clumsy attempt to romanticize a sinister figure.
In 1952, the two friends, Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), begin their 8,000-mile trip in Argentina by starting out riding a 1939 Norton Motorcycle – the “Mighty One” is what they call the bike.  They then travel from Argentina to Chile to Bolivia and finally end up in a leper colony in Peru.  Guevara is 24 years old, handsome, delicate and asthmatic, and also happens to be one month away from completing his stint in medical school.  Granado is a 29-year old biochemist, slightly overweight, and is an extremely brash and loud talker.  They first meet Guevara’s rich girlfriend, who is unwilling to wait for him while he completes his trip.  They then continue on their way taking lots of spills on the motorcycle while trying to maneuver it through the snow in the altitude of the Andes’ Mountains.  Guevara almost gets himself killed after flirting with the wife of a jealous and drunken husband.  They manage to keep themselves fed by presenting a bogus newspaper representing the two of them as famous physicians whose mission is to cure leprosy.  They meet women along the way and sometimes are lucky in love, but usually they are not.  In Bolivia, the “Mighty One” dies, and from then on they must make it by hitchhiking or by boat.

The real transformation takes place in Guevara when the two cross over into Peru.  Though the pair has already traveled several thousand miles, only then does Guevara seem to recognize something called poverty.  They meet a couple who have been persecuted for being Communists and, while camping high up in the mountains, the couple tells Guevara and Granado about their plight.  Here we see Guevara woefully and thoughtfully looking on at the couple while the couple speaks.  The couple has come to work in a Peruvian mine because no one else will hire them.  The next day, we see the injustice intensify even more when the mining company will only hire on the husband - thus leaving the wife no other options.  (We find out later that Guevara has given the couple fifteen American dollars he had been saving since leaving his girlfriend in Argentina.  This infuriates Granado who is occasionally turned off by Guevara’s “f**king honesty.”)

The pair treks on and sees a large number of faces of the poor as the two make their way to their destination.  At night, Guevara and Granado sometimes speak of the injustice in the world and all of the misery they have seen (while quoting the poet Neruda).  Once Granado asks why the people do not revolt.  Guevara, coming closest to being his alter ego “Che” says in his deadpan way: “A revolution without guns will never work.”  (Though “Che” purportedly did actually say this, Granado reported him as saying this with a lot more glee.)  Guevara also once says in the film that the problem of a revolution is the problem of the land.**  Finally, Guevara vicariously experiences exploitation by viewing the Inca ruins.  While looking down at the remnants of the great civilization, Guevara imagines that at one time there was a place where there was heaven on earth before the Conquistadors brought it all down.  (It never dawns on him that the Incas also knew poverty and class-difference before the Spaniards ever even came to shore in America.)

Guevara and Granado make their way up the Amazon by boat to the leper colony.  All the while, Guevara stares at the boat being towed behind them that is used to house the poor and who can’t afford the tickets on the luxurious boat in front of them.  Guevara and Granado work three weeks in the leper colony while failing to abide by some of the rules set down by the nuns that run the colony.  The medical staff stays on the shores of the river while the lepers stay on the other side.  On his 24th birthday, Guevara does not want to leave the lepers out of the celebration.  Rather than stay on the side of the medical staff, he jumps in the river and swims across (an utterly foolish seeming action).  However, even with his asthma, Guevara (in Rocky Balboa fashion) succeeds in making it across.  Guevara, while making a toast, maintains that he considered the South Americans to be of one race and one nation from Mexico to the Magellan Straits.  As the movie ends, we are told that Guevara continued to carry his ideals on into the Cuban revolution, and yet later tried to spread those ideals across all of South America before he was purportedly killed by a CIA backed plot in Bolivia in 1967.  The credits also mention that the two friends were not to again meet for another eight years - at a time when Guevara was second in Cuba only to Castro.  Granado was then put in charge of creating the Cuban healthcare system (that has lately been so highly touted by Michael Moore in the movie Sicko).  The film quotes Guevara at the end as saying that maybe his conclusions were “too rigid – maybe.” 

All through the movie Guevara sends love to his mother in the form of some milk-toast correspondence and tells her of all of the injustice going on around him.  So is it conceivable that the quiet and studious young lad could transform himself in such a short time into a saintly person (as portrayed in the film), and then just a few years later have once again been transformed – this time into a monster (which is not portrayed in the film)?  In 1954, two years after the events of this movie ended and at a time when he is trying to prevent the Armas regime from coming to power in Guatemala, Guevara wrote this to his mother: “It was all a lot of fun, what with the bombs, speeches and other distractions to break the monotony I was living in.”  Considering how somber Guevara became during the last half of the movie, I’m happy to note that he did have some fun later in life.

If we don’t look at the facts close enough, we’d have to conclude from watching The Motorcycle Diaries that Guevara was a great man.  Self-sacrificing to a fault (as shown in the film), some nurses once had to steal some food while at the leper colony to keep Guevara fed.  Of a historical note, in approximately 1956 witnesses claim a young boy stole some food from a guerilla camp from which Guevara was in charge, and Guevara, to maintain the strict “ideological purity,” then had the boy shot.  Guevara, while working at the leper colony in the movie, treated the patients with compassion and dignity.  “Che” Guevara, while in charge of la Cabana Prison in 1959 purportedly had at least 200 political prisoners executed.  Guevara himself allegedly personally shot one of these individuals - a teenager who came to protest the execution of his own father.  Guevara, in the movie, talks knowingly about the practicality of revolution.  Unfortunately, he did not seem to be so practical in later years.  When “Che” Guevara was sent by Castro to meet the Russian Premier in 1962, Guevara boasted to Khrushchev that he intended to use the Soviet missiles located in Cuba both on New York City and Washington D.C.   Khrushchev withdrew the missiles to avoid World War III.  Again and again, in the movie, we hear Guevara speak in wonder about the causes of injustice.  Listen to the voice of the real Guevara (as opposed to the poetic and dull figure in The Motorcycle Diaries) who speaks with less wonder when he says: “Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines.  Our soldiers must be thus.  A people without hatred cannot vanish a brutal enemy.”  (“Che” Guevara’s 1967 “Message to Tri-continental.”)

In the written material that director, Walter Salles, used as an inspiration for this movie is a quote that he left out and was purported to be Guevara’s very words.  This little gem goes as follows: “I feel my nostrils dilate, savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, of the enemy’s death.  I brace my body, ready for combat.”  The key word here is “purported” because we don’t know if Guevara actually said this.  In fact, we don’t know if he actually said anything we hear in The Motorcycle Diaries.  The diaries never saw the light of day until 1994, twenty-seven years after Guevara’s death, and no one can be sure what was added, deleted or amended in the diaries during this intervening period.  Between 1967 and 1994, due to propaganda efforts of the Cuban government, Guevara became iconic and ceased forever to be remembered as a human being.  This film is just one more step in the process of Guevara’s undeserved canonization.  For if it was Guevara’s mission to help the poor, then he failed.  He failed in Guatemala, the Congo, Bolivia and, most of all, Cuba.  Even assuming he did his best, none of these nations are better off and all became worse off due to his “good intentions.”  To be more specific, thousands died following Guevara while waging guerilla war to liberate themselves from their enemy.  Thousands more died in the show trials ordered by Guevara to purge the nations of their imperialist captors (or for other reasons not altogether clear).  Tens of thousands died from poverty or disease due to his economic policies.  Guevara was so compassionate that he would have killed many more had Castro not reined him in to prevent the Soviet Union from withdrawing all economic support for Cuba.  Only as a dead icon could anyone ever say that Guevara was a success as a leader, and ironically he owed that success to Capitalist marketing of his face on numerous posters and t-shirts.

I have a constant argument with a friend about the role of historical events in the depiction of storytelling.  He’s of the opinion that if it advances the aims of the storytellers, artistic license can be taken.  I’m of the opinion that part of the art of storytelling is to tell the story honestly right down to the setting, the emotions of the character and use of every branch of knowledge – including history.  Every facet of the story is interconnected – including that portion of the story that goes untold.  I do not believe in “art for art’s sake.”  I believe the aim and meaning behind the story is as important in eliciting thoughts and emotions as is scenery, action and dialogue.  The obvious problem with the distortion of the facts comes down to the sugarcoating of history.  But it also points to the inability of a storyteller to analyze and understand a true-life character thus leading to the storyteller replacing an individual with a myth.  That is especially obvious in The Motorcycle Diaries.

We’re supposed to be able to enjoy The Motorcycle Diaries even if we disagree with the ideology of the main character.  Yet the movie would hold no interest whatsoever if the name of the main character did not happen to be Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  And in this movie, since we don’t get to see the soldier, the fanatic or the killer, all we have to differentiate him from other men is his ideology.  Guevara may actually have believed in his ideals in the beginning.  So probably too did Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and Castro - before the killings began.  The same story as in this movie has been monotonously repeated so many times that the question should be asked: why did these ideals, instead of bringing about real reform, become rhetoric of bilge?

Even if every single event depicted in The Motorcycle Diaries was absolute truth, I still could not excuse director, Walter Salles, for having the movie end where it does.  Nobody would end a story about Stalin in seminary school or Hitler as a failed artist without some foreboding of things to come.  Likewise, no one would depict the life of a saint like Joan of Arc without at the same time reminding us that her fate would have a tragic ending.  We’re told at the end of The Motorcycle Diaries what was to become of “Che” Guevara, but we are only told that in the most sanitized of fashions.  At best, The Motorcycle Diaries is an interesting travelogue and a one-sided character study.  By ending the film while Guevara is only twenty-four, Salles conveniently excuses himself from even having to deal with the difficulties of the protagonist that he presents.  Salles apparently did not have the courage to offend the loyal and deluded admirers of Guevara.  And it’s those followers, and not the exiled Cubans that fled the Castro regime, that would attend a movie like this one.
*  This review coincides with the announcement that Fidel Castro has stepped down as head in Cuba.
** Guevara put this idea into practice with a number of property reforms in Cuba where private property was outlawed - perhaps also causing a number of unintended consequences such as the collapse of Cuba’s sugar market and the malnourishment of thousands of people.  Coincidentally, Robert Redford was an executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries and is widely credited for making distribution of the movie possible in the United States.  However, Redford’s name is conspicuously absent from the credits.  Perhaps this is because Redford founded Sunset Studios and Sunset Ski Resort, which consists of several thousand privately owned acres just outside of Provo, Utah – land that Guevara would have annexed. 
February 19, 2007
 © Robert S. Miller 2007

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