Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries is a 2004 film based on the diaries of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that follows the journey of Ernesto and his friend Alberto Granado as they traverse South America, visiting its many and varied places and people. Along the way, his discoveries of the injustices and inequality scattered across the land transform him into a passionate revolutionary. The film is a wonderful piece of work with its film-work catching the beauty of the countryside (though the rougher road scenes could have very much done without that shaky, “la poderosa” feel). It also manages to mix an entertaining dialogue and plot with the historical aspects of Guevara’s travels. While simplified or curtailed in places, The Motorcycle Diaries communicates well the experiences that molded Guevara as he journeys from an open, adventurous youth to a strong-minded revolutionary.
The film begins with Guevera’s departure from Buenos Aires with Granado. Initially, their goals seem light-hearted enough – to see as much of South America as they could, meet its people, and in some cases, woo their women. This rings true to Guevara’s background as an educated, privileged, male. No stranger to travel, he approached his journey through the romanticized goggles of the explorer. In doing this, Guevara attempted to distance from the label of “tourist” in his travels (Elena 32). However, the extent of his privilege led him to sympathize, but not fully grasp the complex worlds of some of his encounters. This is most pointedly noted in his recollection of the indigenous people he encounters. While he sees their injustice and feels for them, he depicts a helpless, fatalistic Indian people living in a static world who must be championed instead of empowered (Drinot 107).
As the film matures, so does Guevara. In having to endure the hardships of travel and encountering the victims of injustice, he begins to realize his desire for change. His transformation is shown in a few key scenes – opting to give his girlfriend’s money to a couple in need, defying the church authority at the leper colony by not attending mass then working with the lepers sans gloves, and finally by swimming across the lake at San Pablo. In doing this, he takes on the role of “Che,” the youthful revolutionary (Drinot 90).
While Guevara’s travels did much to mold his worldviews and ideals, it also served to make them more rigid. As Elena notes, “Guevara’s trajectory ran counter to the wisdom about travel: the more he journeyed the less he apparently saw and the more his outlook on the world became reduced” (Elena 47-48). This demeanor became more and more pronounced in his travels, molding Guevara into the immovable revolutionary, but also led to his downfall. Ultimately, the rigid views augmented by the inability to take in the ever-changing and expanding complexities of all the places he visited in his travels led him to attempt the same stratagem that worked in the Cuban Revolution in Bolivia. This oversight eventually led to an all-out failure in Bolivia and later Guevara’s death (Zulawski 202-204).