The Motorcycle Diaries

The 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, chronicles a 23-year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado on their journey across South America. The central theme of the film is to show how Guevara was changed during his trip, as his experiences with the indigenous poor of South America begin to shape his political ideology. The film is based on Guevara’s own diary he kept on the trip.

Guevara’s character is established as a youthful idealist, and romantic. This seems to be true of Guevara, as historian Ann Zulawski mention how Guevara talks about the Aymara people in Bolivia in terms of their history of resisting Inca control. Guevara’s interest in the past is shown in the movie with numerous comments on how much he admires the works of the Inca, at one point wondering how a people capable of such elaborate terraced landscape could now be living in cities of squalor and poverty. However, while Guevara views the indian population as prideful, Zulawski writes that he too believes them to be impervious to modern political realities. Zulawski further contends that Guevara’s ignorance of Boliva’s situation in the 1950’s, the time period he was passing through the country, that would ultimately contribute to his defeat there in 1967. While this may be true, both in the movie and real Guevara is stubborn, and determined to do things in his own way. This is shown through him refusing Granado’s wishes to spend the 15 dollars his girlfriend gave him for a bathing-suit on food or shelter even when they are short on both.

Eduardo Elena’s major complaint with the film is that it fails to show the migration of other South Americans taking place during Guevara and Granado’s own trip. While this might be true, there is one key seen where the two men meet and spend the night with a man and his wife as they are moving to find work. Elena’s desire is establish the true history of Guevara and what his trip meant both down the road, and at the time Guevara and Grando were making it. Small details aside, Motorcycle Diaries does do a very good job of convincing the audience that 1950’s South America was a place of great economic and social inequality.  Che is constantly trying to fight this in the film and his own life. His decision to move away from the Peronism and nationalism that was beginning to take form in his native Argentina.

Guevara himself wants nothing to do with any ideology that is aimed at drawing distinctions. In the film Che makes a point of shaking the Leper’s hands without wearing gloves despite the insistence of the nuns because he believed it to be the right thing to do. In watching Motorcycle Diaries it becomes difficult to recognize the young and idealistic Che in the older revolutionist. But as Paulo Drinot writes, in as early as 1952 Guevara wrote that Peru “still waits for the blood of a truly emancipating revolution.” While Guevara’s political views of freedom and equality are admirable, it is odd that he is seemingly spoiling for a fight with the establishment and the upper class. Guevara does this in the film mostly through passive aggression, from throwing rocks at the mine operators to his swimming out in the river his last night at the leper colony despite his asthma. Overall, the film does a good job of portraying South America in the 1950’s and Guevara’s life altering journey.