The Motorcycle Diaries is a road trip movie that veers off escapist highways onto more committed paths. It's a rite of passage into Communism: the story of how Ernesto transformed himself into Che.
In 1952, Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) was a middle-class med school student in Buenos Aires, 23 and fed up with the corruption of Peronismo (as depicted in Evita). As an Argentinean with a strong sense of international Hispanic identity, he's been taught more about the history of Europe than about his own Latin American culture. What better way to remedy ignorance than to hop on a motorbike with Alberto Granado (the mischievous, irrepressible Rodrigo de la Serna) and see Chile, Bolivia and Peru firsthand?
The strength of the Diaries lies in its subtle portrayal of small steps in the ascent to consciousness-raising. Ernesto befriends workers desperate to get day-work at a copper mine, then lashes out at a foreman's callous disregard. He talks with a Peruvian peasant, kicked off his land but still in solidarity with other subsistence farmers. He cruises up the Amazon, only to notice that trailing behind is a shanty boat stuffed with destitute laborers dangling from hammocks. Volunteering at a leper colony, Che lives up to his nickname (Argentine slang for "buddy") by treating patients as humans not freaks. The two companions' discovery of Machu Picchu, as rendered in Eric Gautier's gloomy, dramatic cinematography, ignites Guevara's awareness of the indigenous culture that predated the corrupting Spaniards. In the development of Che, in other words, there's no single Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.
The highlight of this disc's special features is a visit with the real Granado, now in his 80s, a retired physician in Havana who still reveres his friend. "When I have doubts," he says, "I don't ask myself what my wife or Fidel might say. I ask myself what Ernesto would say." It's the Cuban revolutionaries' WWJD moment.
Che was shot by the Bolivian army (with CIA connivance, or worse) in October 1967. But the Diaries remain rooted in his experiences of 15 years before. They don't record Che as architect of failed revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, or Che as the hard-liner who admired Stalin and had people executed. What they record is the birth of youthful idealism. In an era when U.S. imperialism is debated worldwide, Che Guevara should mean more to all of us than just a photo plastered on a T-shirt.