the Disillusioned kid: On Yer Bike!
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Saturday, September 04, 2004

On Yer Bike!

The Motorcycle Diaries is one of those unusual films which is made in a foreign language but still manages to get released quite widely and attract considerable attention here in the UK. The reason for the attention is a combination of its being very good and the significance of the central character: Ernesto - later 'Che' -Guevara. Having heard almost universally good things about it, not to mention being as guilty of using the Guevara icon as anybody, I thought I'd wonder along and check it out. In case you're wondering it was, as I'd hoped pretty good. The friend who accompanied me (if you read this, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section) , even went so far as to describe it as "the film of the year", not without good reason. If nothing else, it's infinitely better than the execrable Troy.

The film tells the story of Guevara and friend Alberto Granado as they journey across 1950s Latin America. It reveals some of the experiences which led the young Ernesto, then studying to be a doctor, to become the famed revolutionary leader we think of today. Guevara is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, described by the Big Issue as a "Mexican heartthrob", though this isn't something I feel qualified to comment on. I'm not familiar with much of Bernal's other work apart from the very good El Crimen Del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), but he is a strong actor and carries the role well. Bernal apparently also carried out extensive research into Guevara, even meeting the late revolutionary's family. I'm not sure how far this influenced how he played the role, but given his confident acting it seems fair to suggest that it paid off.

Alberto Granado is played by Rodrigo de la Serna, although Granado himself makes a brief appearance during a touching epilogue. Arguably his role is easier, who has even heard of Granado before, anyway? Nonetheless the character he presents is sympathetic, being fun-loving and committed in equal measures, and entirely believable. His friendly bickering with Guevara is also amusing, without ever becoming overtly comedic.

The film is essentially a road movie (the New York Times apparently described the book, from which the film is drawn, as "Das Kapital meets Easy Rider") detailing the events which take place during the pair's eight month journey. We see the pair encounter the poor and downtrodden of the region and the first inklings of the ideas which would motivate Guevara to join the Cuban revolution. Two Chilean communists, for instance, recount the repression they have suffered and how the husband is now forced to seek work in a dangerous copper mine. The pair's political development perhaps reached its climax, at least as far as the film is concerned, with a speech Guevara gives during birthday celebrations at a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon.

The film is shot in an almost documentary-esque style. When following the two on their bike, the camera bounces around, clearly on some kind of vehicle and when Guevara and Granado converse with locals, it hovers around like an interested observer. Occasionally this made the film feel more realistic, but for the most part, its effect was almost Brechtian reminding you that this is not a recording of reality, but a fictionalised account. (If anyone's actually read any Brecht and thinks I've got him all wrong, please feel free to jump in: drama was never one of my strong points.) This effect is compounded by black and white shots of those the pair met on their journey, standing in silence, staring at the camera. As my friend pointed out, this served to remind you that these characters were people, the very people who would later become Guevara's constituency, and not simply cannon fodder as in so many Hollywood blockbusters.

This is the bit where the political commentary on Che should go. On this count I have little to say. Che was probably less important as a revolutionary than people think. There is some debate about his contribution to the Cuban revolution and his intervention in struggles in Congo and Bolivia did little to further those causes, the latter resulting in his death, apparently with US complicity. One can also debate at length the merits of the Cuban revolution (if anyone cares for my opinion, I tend to think that Castro is probably one of the world's most benevolent dictators, but this doesn't change the fact that he is a dictator, a position no human should hold). The reason Che is important is because of what he (and his image) represent: resistance, freedom, justice etc. These are timeless ideas and as such the icon of Che will probably be timeless as well. That being the case, its a good thing the film about his life looks like it'll be able to stand the test of time.

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