We Travel to Travel
During his youth, Ernesto Guevara was inquisitive, a gentle medical student in search of understanding and full of empathy. This is the point of departure for The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’ thoughtful portrait of Che before he became renowned as “El Che,” a revolutionary in Cuba or an image on Jay-Z’s t-shirt.
Based on Guevara’s own memoir and fellow student/companion Alberto Granado’s Traveling with Che Guevara, the movie chronicles an eight-month, 8,000-mile journey though South America in 1952. Historical but also fantastic figures, Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) embody an imminent ideology and galvanizing idealism; however you read the later Che, this film makes him at optimistic and inspiring, or at least in sincere pursuit of inspiration. The boys soon find their own purpose changing. At first, they see their trip as an adventure. Though their terrain is certainly different from that typically found in U.S. boys-on-the-road movies—featuring spectacular mountainscapes, rural communities, and vast coastal expanses—they embark with a sort of exuberance and recklessness that might seem vaguely familiar to Ashton Kutcher fans.
Indeed, before he became Che, Salles’ movie proposes, Ernesto was a child of privilege, born into the Argentine bourgeoisie, asthmatic and occasionally fragile, barely aware of a world beyond his comfortable experience. When he and Alberto decide to ride off on their chuggedy Norton 500—which they deem La Poderosa (“The Mighty One”)—they’re seeking picturesque vistas and colorful local experiences. Little do they know that their upcoming encounters throughout Latin America, with workers in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, or lepers and doctors in a San Pablo colony, will change not only their conception of the world, but of their relationship to it.
Their first stop reveals what they will choose to abandon, though initially, Ernesto imagines he will return to the Miramar chalet where his girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra (Mía Maestro) lives. Lovely and almost perilously seductive, Chichina proposes that he stay (“We could do many things,” she promises), but, leaving her with a German shepherd puppy, he assures her he’ll be back, and continues, despite her expressed frustration (“Do you think I will wait forever?”). Ernesto and Alberto feel a dreamy destiny awaits them, and so they keep on. “We travel to travel,” Ernesto says, less an effort to persuade his companion or anyone else than a declaration of fact. It’s what they must do, whether or not they “end up” somewhere specific.
The film takes this proposition as its own romantic premise, initiating some two hours of often breathtaking imagery (Salles and DP Eric Gautier decided to shoot the film in chronological sequence, as if to recapture or at least reimagine the journey as recorded in the diaries). They visit a fish market, attend a community dance, spend time with Indians, share empanadas with pretty girls and, The motorcycle carries the boys through rain, sunshine, and freezing snow, before it gives out completely in Chile. From here, they continue on foot or by hitching rides, their chance meetings with women and angry husbands, hardscrabble workers or an urban intellectual equally edifying and moving.
Episodic and lyrical, the film suggests that, as Ernesto felt himself coming “closer to this strange human race,” he also came to understand his own role as a leader, someone with vision and drive. When Chichina sends him a Dear John letter, Ernesto appears broken, but at the same time, or more accurately, moments later, he knows he has something greater to do with his future, that the girl and the dog and the bourgie life were all distractions, a past best forsaken.
The film’s eventual “climax” (if it can be called that, given its lack of punch) comes when Ernesto and Alberto spend several weeks at the leprosarium, near the Amazon. Informed that the illness is not contagious, Ernesto makes the decision not to wear gloves when shaking the patients’ hands, surprising them, but also instantly making him appear connected and trustworthy, a young man of principle and even courage.
His time at the colony brings Ernesto to a particular revelation. Following their sojourn here, he parts company with Alberto, who goes on to intern at a hospital and become a doctor (and later, it is reported in an epigraph, works with Che in other parts of the world). Ernesto’s own course is relatively less conventional, of course, as he will become the guy with the beret and the affiliation with Fidel Castro. Here, however, he remains youthful, optimistic, moved by his dealings with troubled and desirous individuals.
His shift in sensibility, from observer to participant, even leader, is marked in Motorcycle Diaries by a singular event, seemingly accidental but utterly symbolic. During his scheduled last days at the colony, Ernesto celebrates his birthday, with a party thrown for him by the much appreciative doctors and nuns. Here, perhaps already sad at the prospect of leaving, he drinks too much, then, standing on the river bank, suddenly realizes that he must also share his night with the lepers, who live on the opposite bank.
While his perception is clearly altered by the liquor, he decides solemnly to “do right,” that is, to swim across the Amazon, from the doctors’ side celebration to the lepers’ area. His doctor friends yell at him to desist, to come back before he drowns. Having left his asthma inhaler left behind, Ernesto looks done for, wheezing and sputtering his way across the seeming expanse, both sides of the metaphorical divide first aghast and then cheering him on, to make his way across, to reach the community representing his potential and his hope.
If Motorcycle Diaries is apparently unconcerned with the controversy and violence that attends that potential, it doesn’t exactly shy from the complexities that drove and also thwarted the later Ernesto. A seemingly simple, profoundly reverential, and often insightful portrait of the young revolutionary in his earliest coming to consciousness, it mythologizes him and yet also takes him at his word, then.