In January 1952, an asthmatic 23-year-old medical student, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal), and his biochemist friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), two upper-middle-class Argentines, set out on a battered motorcycle to explore the South America they knew only from books. Their journey took them across the Andes and the Atacama Desert, the Amazon Basin, and ultimately the San Pablo leper colony near Iquitos, Peru. The Motorcycle Diaries, which is based on memoirs written by Granado and by Guevara, who would become the revolutionary “El Che,” is structured as an inspirational road movie in which Ernesto “discovers” himself in the process of witnessing social injustice. A voice-over at the beginning tells us that this is “not a tale of heroic feats,” but that’s just what it is. Directed by Walter Salles in cooperation with Guevara’s family and the 82-year-old Granado, the film is a deeply felt and beautifully acted hagiography—a portrait of a citizen of the world as a young man. Ernesto may not have known that he would become Che, but we are never left in any doubt.
The film’s thesis is that true revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love—as opposed to, say, a desire for power or fame. From the start, in contrast to the carousing Alberto, Ernesto is almost poetically sensitive; his brimming eyes take everything in—the aggrieved miners and lepers, the tattered descendants of a once-great Incan civilization. Even his asthma attacks symbolize a kind of romanticized frailty uniting him with the sick and the poor, whose faces, of course, are presented without exception as tragic and accusatory. He refuses to wear gloves to shake the hands of the lepers, and this action is meant to be emblematic, just as it is when Ernesto, celebrating his birthday with the colony’s caregivers, swims across the Amazon to the far shore where the lepers have been segregated. About the only thing one can say against Ernesto is that he can’t mambo—and I have a sneaking suspicion that this is also meant as a plus. Saints aren’t meant to dance.
“Ernesto transcends politics—which makes his sainthood less controversial.”
The Motorcycle Diaries may be a sophisticated snow job, but it’s also true that the brutalities it serves up are not fictions and, in many ways, still exist in Latin America. Ernesto may not be the “real” Che—his diaries, for one thing, were written several years after the trip, when he was already embossing his image—but he represents a wish-fulfillment fantasy of how virtuous and humane we would be if we were revolutionaries. And since Salles doesn’t deeply explore Ernesto’s nascent communism, the film has the odd and no doubt intentional effect of seeming depoliticized. The young man of this movie transcends politics—which, of course, is the way to make his sainthood less controversial.
Pop culture, in fact, has already done that. Che’s murder by the CIA in 1967 sealed his martyrdom and made him a counterculture hero in the seventies—it was the rare college-dorm wall that didn’t sport his portrait. Today, Che’s image is on designer bags toted by people who have no idea who he was at all. If those same people see The Motorcycle Diaries, they still won’t really know who he is, but they’ll feel a lot more virtuous showing off those bags.
John Waters’s recent movies, including Cecil B. Demented, Pecker, and Serial Mom, have been altogether too tame, and so I had high hopes for the NC-17-rated A Dirty Shame, about a straitlaced working-class Baltimore community thrown into an uproar by a gaggle of sex maniacs. (They become this way after suffering accidental concussions—don’t try this at home.) It’s impossible to scandalize audiences anymore with scenes of shocking bad taste. Well, almost: Tracy Ullman, as the prudish matron turned lust fiend Sylvia Stickles, performs the Hokey Pokey at an old-age home and lifts a bottle with her vagina. (The shock is that the scene is as funny as it is.) Despite its exuberant perversities, Waters’s take on erotomania is almost quaint, like something out of the nudie-cutie fifties, when “nature” films of topless volleyball games were the porno rage. Waters actually makes use of grainy, black-and-white sexploitation footage from that era, as well as party records like “Eager Beaver Baby” and “Tony’s Got Hot Nuts.” But I’d say Waters’s nuts were lukewarm.