From an entertainment perspective, The Motorcycle Diaries offers little to complain about. Well-paced and well-acted with an impressive cinematography and score, it highlights the advances made in film since the days of Sergei Eisenstein or even Mikhail Kalatozov. Tracing young Ernesto Guevara’s journey through the South American continent and toward an altered state of social consciousness, the movie is a highly sympathetic portrayal of the future revolutionary. More subtly than openly propagandist Soviet films, it calls attention to certain inequalities among contemporary Latin American societies, an unmistakable comment on the ideologies that would lead ‘Che’ to join revolutionary movements throughout the region. Subtle though it may be, as a film “based on a true story,” it necessarily simplifies Guevara’s life and experiences, losing the nuance of reality in the process.
This is most evident in the attempts to turn Che Guevara into a sympathetic figure, if not a hero: in the film, this takes the form of Guevara giving money away to the indigenous couple evicted from their land and seeking work in the mines, as well as in his insistence that he avoid wearing gloves at the leper colony, despite regulations. These poignant moments, as well as his impassioned birthday speech extolling the virtues of one united mestizo Latin America, point to a man who embodies all of Guevara’s most celebrated qualities, and in particular his reputation as a fighter for universal freedom against oppression. (This speech is taken directly from Guevara’s diary, indicating a deep conviction in these ideals; his and Granada’s writings also reveal a seemingly genuine concern for the lepers and the importance of treating them as human beings [Drinot 114.]) But despite the validity of these sentiments and what could arguably be considered excellent intentions, Salles ignores the mixed nature of Guevara’s own life and legacy.
As concerns Guevara’s early life and The Motorcycle Diaries, one of the most important aspects omitted from the film would seem to be a tendency on Guevara’s part to oversimplify the world, just as Salles oversimplifies Guevara. In his zeal to empower the working classes and peasants against the elite (a class to which he himself could have belonged) he seems to have frequently overlooked the importance of race as a tool of oppression. Despite using indigenous and mestizo Latin Americans as props for his Communist-inspired guerrilla warfare, he was prone to buy into what Zulawski refers to as “an educated tourist” viewpoint (Zulawski 184.)
Guevara came from a respectable family with access to wealth and education; his sex, the color of his skin, and his position as a medical student opened many doors to him (Elena 24.) And in many ways, his privileges blinded him to his outsider’s view of indigenous cultures, described by Drinot as “dichotomous and somewhat Manichaean” (Drinot 101.) Even as he wonders at the complex civilizations taken down by advanced Spanish weaponry and disease, Guevara is guilty of a casual racism toward indigenous cultures, blaming the victims of oppression for not rising up against the bourgeois landowners and dismissing “the Indian” as a “defeated race” (Elena 38-39, Drinot 107.) While it is obvious that Guevara took exception to legitimized oppression, Zulawski points out that he rarely took the initiative of learning more about the people whose rights he defended, and certainly not by learning from the indigenous themselves (Zulawski 193-194.)
Guevara’s shortsighted views may have led to his failure in Bolivia, Zulawski further suggests, observing that he never met the Bolivian miners who could have given him insight to the revolution, and that he overgeneralized after his Cuban successes, erroneously assuming the he could utilize the same strategies in other countries (Zulawski 198, 202.) In this way his shortcomings are crucial to understanding his legacy, and while The Motorcycle Diaries makes wonderful entertainment, it cannot (or will not) fully convey the complexities and contradictions of the historical Che Guevara.