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On the road to Revolution

Flick Chick


Published October 20, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

I am not exactly a child of the Cuban revolution. But as a teenager I was once among several "decoys" helping activist friends who were Havana-bound, by way of Eastern Europe, in defiance of a travel ban. Those genuine lawbreakers and we faux tourists with suitcases fanned out to different airlines for different flights to different destinations. The pretenders did not buy tickets or board planes. This successful plan was meant to confuse the FBI, who wouldn't know which potential passengers to follow.

My memories of that four-decade-old event were rekindled while watching The Motorcycle Diaries at September's Toronto International Film Festival. It's about the young Che Guevara, a legendary figure who fueled my adolescent imagination in an era when political commitment seemed so simple.

Despite the complexity of contemporary global issues, I still see Che as a vivid personification of my generation's ideals. It doesn't hurt that he was a hippie prototype: a long-haired, bearded, handsome bohemian in a beret. His martyrdom in October 1967 at age 39 fostered the iconic image that's been emblazoned ever since on T-shirts and other paraphernalia.

Brazilian director Walter Salles' Diaries, now playing in Burlington, tackles Ernesto Guevara long before he discovered that armed struggle would be his destiny. There's only a hint, in fact, that his nickname would eventually become "Che."

Adapted by Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera from Guevera's published memoir and a journal kept by his sidekick Alberto Granado, the picture traces their 8000-mile journey through Latin America in 1952. They are young Argentineans, just 23 and 29, respectively.

Boisterous Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) is a biochemist with a 1939 Norton-500 bike, dubbed "The Mighty One," that transports them part of the way. The comfortably middle-class Ernesto, played by Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal, takes a break before graduating from med school to pursue this initially glorious adventure.

They dream of a four-month lark spent enjoying lush landscapes and enjoying new escapades. From the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Basin, Eric Gautier's cinematography captures the breathtaking scope of a continent that was then largely untamed.

But various mishaps force Ernesto and Alberto to double their original time frame. The Mighty One can't live up to its name. At one point, that means pushing the bike through a Chilean snowstorm. A complete mechanical breakdown forces them to hitchhike and do a lot of walking. When their money runs out, the duo cleverly cajoles strangers into coming to their aid.

Periodically, Ernesto's asthma kicks up. His medical bag disappears during a long ferry ride, but Alberto manages to finagle a vial of life-saving adrenaline.

The romantic interludes are amusing, as Alberto beds women in several countries. Ernesto's a bit shy. De la Serna, who has a mischievous presence, provides most of the comic relief, in contrast to Bernal's more sober delivery.

Outside Valparaiso, they encounter a homeless couple searching for work. Ernesto in particular is galvanized by their tale of woe. In another sequence, indigenous Peruvians explain how they've been uprooted from their land. These eye-opening injustices make a deep impression on the future Che. The not-so-easy-rider road movie evolves into a saga about awakening consciousness.

Although Bernal (who appears as a reckless, randy kid in Y Tu Mama Tambien) doesn't really resemble the mythic character he portrays, the actor displays just the right gravitas. His performance is nicely restrained while conveying a sensitive man with a sharp intellect and strong convictions.

Ernesto's skills as a physician are most apparent when the two buddies reach a remote colony for people afflicted with leprosy, the disease that's been his academic specialty. The authenticity is evident in these wrenching scenes shot on the actual site, and including a number of patients once treated by Guevara.

The only misstep in an otherwise wonderfully evocative story is when Salles allows his depiction of Che to assume heroic proportions. The incident in question may or may not be historically factual, but it's presented with far too much fanfare.

Whatever its faults, The Motorcycle Diaries revived my own early fantasies of fighting for a better world. After leaving the Toronto theater last month, I passed by a souvenir shop selling the perfect leftie tchochka: a small packet of red tissues with Che's face imprinted in black. The brand name, Sniff, suggests to me that this absorbent paper product can wipe away tears of revolutionary nostalgia.

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