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International Film: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Written by Film

The image of the ‘Guerillero Heroico’ is known globally, the famous photograph of the revolutionary Che Guevara taken in Havana cementing his place as a cultural icon of the 20th century. But what of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna? Walter Salle’s 2004 biopic The Motorcycle Diaries [Spanish: Diarios de motocicleta] documents the travels of the young medical student who would one day become a controversial leader, and revolutionary figurehead.
Mexican actor Gael García Bernal stared as the young communist revolutionary in The Motorcycle Diaries. Image:IMDB

In 1952, seven-years before he became a major figure of the Cuban revolution, Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967) (Gael García Bernal) and his close friend Alberto Granado (1922-2011) (Rodrigo de la Serna) embarked on a journey through Latin America to experience life before they would settle down into cushy middle-class jobs. This film is based on Guevara’s written account of that time .What the trip reveals, however, is the revolutionary spirit inside Guevara, ignited by meeting and living with Latin America’s descalzos ( ‘those without shoes’) victimised and oppressed by ‘yankee’ capitalism.

This map shows the route the pair took on their epic journey. The blue arrows represent travels by motorcycle & the red by plane.
Image:Wikimediacommons

As much a coming of age story as it is a road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries tracks the change in Guevara as he moves from a quietly wide-eyed youth into a man incensed by the dispossession he sees around him. Garcia Bernal is backed up by de la Serna as Granado, the smooth-talking foil to Guevara’s seriousness.

The Motorcycle Diaries is not so much about action as one would expect from a biopic of such a figure; In fact, the film is rather slow, poignant, and poetic – Guevara and Granado often sharing excerpts from poets such as Neruda and Lorca, important revolutionaries in Hispanic literature and politics in their own right. The film does not force the viewer to adopt the politics of its subject, rather showing them why Guevara came to the conclusions he did about the poor and indigenous people of his continent.

Supporter or detractor, The Motorcycle Diaries is important viewing for those interested in the man who would become Che Guevara. Revealed in the film is a side to the figure perhaps less freely shown: intellectual, passionate, caring. Based closely on the memoirs of both main characters, the film is also a lesson in the history of Latin America, and more importantly of the voiceless who could not write it themselves.

Last modified: 18th March 2020

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