On the road: Travels with Che and Alberto
Every young person should take a Great Road Trip, seeing the country or the world with little or no money. It's more difficult and dangerous now than it was in the 1950s when Jack Kerouac was "On the Road," but difficulty and danger were always part of the attraction.
Not everyone who says they took such a trip in their youth really did; many meant to but didn't got up the nerve or never got around to it. That doesn't mean they won't relate to The Motorcycle Diaries, a wonderful film about just such a trip. The main character asks, "How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?" But he does, and so will you.
The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de Motocicleto) would be a great film if that main character were Jose Schmoe. That he is Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal)– and we know he will become the revered and despised revolutionary Che– makes it work on another level because we see him molded by what he observes into the man he was to become.
That's the thing about those road trips. For the journey to be successful it must be internal as well as external, and Guevara's certainly is. On January 4, 1952, at the age of 23 with one semester of medical school remaining, he leaves his middle-class family in Buenos Aires and hops on the back of a 1939 Norton 500 driven by his friend, 29-year-old Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a biochemist.
Ernesto calls Alberto "Mial," and Alberto calls him "Fuser." They plan to travel 8000 kilometers in four months, going through Chile and Peru to Venezuela. In Peru they will visit a leper colony, leprosy being Guevara's specialty in med school.
Of course these horny twentysomethings are looking to have some fun on the road too, and they do; but as their money runs out and their transportation dies, they leave the middle-class behind and spend more time among indigenous people, many of them homeless because their land has been taken from them.
Visiting Machu Picchu and then Lima, Ernesto wonders what the continent would look like if the Spaniards hadn't conquered the Incas. In a climactic speech he talks about uniting Latin America: the people are one and the land should be too.
Alberto, a champion BSer, uses their medical credentials, somewhat exaggerated, to score food, lodging, and sex. Ernesto, who's straight-arrow honest, uses his medical knowledge to help people. He displays such compassion that this film should be required viewing in medical schools so they'll turn out more health care professionals instead of health care profe$$ionals.
Two months into the trip, our heroes are already one month behind schedule, and that's while the bike is still running. But they ultimately go everywhere and do everything they had planned. In Lima a doctor they had contacted in advance gives them "clothes, food, money, and ideas" and sends them on to the San Pablo leper colony, where "the (Amazon) river segregates the ill from the healthy."
Filmed in four countries, The Motorcycle Diaries has some travelogue aspects, but it also lets us see poverty and injustice through and in Guevara's eyes. We hear his thoughts only once in an entry in the journal of the title, but several more times because he writes to his mama tambien.
Brazilian Director Walter Salles (Central Station), working in Spanish, combines the film's many aspects seamlessly: drama and comedy, politics and medicine, landscape and mindscape, poetry and prose.
As for the nickname, two Chilean women they flirt with know the men are from Argentina because Argentineans always say "Che."
The next time you get the urge for a road trip, instead save on gas by heading to the nearest theater showing The Motorcycle Diaries. Chances are your own trip wouldn't turn out nearly as well.