My favorite photograph of Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna, the most photogenic political figure of the 20th century, is reprinted in Jon Lee Anderson's definitive biography of a few years ago. It's not the famous one by Albert Korda, but a picture taken in the Havana airport, shortly after the revolution of 1959, in which Guevara's parents are seeing him for the first time in over five years. In the photo, Che and his parents are in the center of a mob, with his mother looking fiercely at the camera, as if to say, "This is my son." Che, meanwhile, is looking at his father with a smile that seems to inquire, "Aren't you proud of me?" It's a fantastic picture because it captures a central fact of Ernesto Che Guevara, that he was, at the core, an intelligent, well-behaved but sickly middle-class boy who shook off his intended future of bourgeois respectability to become a revolutionary firebrand, and, for a time, succeeded. And in the United States, Europe and elsewhere during the 1960s, a whole generation of well-bred college boys longed to duplicate his makeover. Most went no further than growing beards, reading Mao's Little Red Book and spouting revolutionary slogans.
In the ensuing decades, Che has become a pop icon and a socialist equivalent of Christ, thanks largely to Korda's endlessly reproduced photograph. Although the cult of Che continues to have some political meaning in Latin America--to judge by the frequency with which I encountered his name or image in the poor neighborhoods of Bogota, Lima and other South American cities a few years ago--in the United States he's been reduced to dorm room kitsch.
Now we've got Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, and it doesn't do anything to challenge the pop cultural romance with a man who was iron-willed, unforgiving of weakness or hypocrisy, and who was the most dangerous of men: one willing to die for his cause. This isn't to necessarily condemn the choices Che Guevara made with his life; rather, it's to point out that the real Che was an extraordinary, nearly superhuman individual who literally took arms against a sea of troubles, most of which he blamed on the world's richest and most powerful nation. (The same could be said, of course, of Osama bin Laden.)
Salles' film covers a six month period of Guevara's life when he took time off from his medical studies and embarked on a long motorcycle trip across the continent with his older friend Alberto Granado, a radical biochemist (a radical what?). The object of the trip, after a detour to visit Ernesto's wealthy girlfriend, was to see as much of their continent as possible, before doing an internship at a leper colony in the Amazon. In the myth of Che, it is during this trip that he began to understand his revolutionary destiny, that he would no longer be an asthmatic, eccentric and overachieving (he completed a six-year program of medical study in three) member of the middle class.
The script, by Jose Rivera, is based on accounts of the trip written by both men, and he clearly decided to focus on the picaresque and the picturesque. Che's book certainly includes shaggy dog stories--many of which are in the film--but it also contains long analyses of South American economic conditions, ruminations on the destruction of indigenous culture, even a qualified admiration for the conquistadors. It was his intellectual journey--and probably some serious megalomania--that turned young Ernesto into a feared revolutionary (the Cubans gave him the name "Che" later on, because of his Argentine origins--Spanish speakers associate the interjection "che" with Argentines the way Anglophones associate "eh" with Canadians). It's true that these cogitative processes are more difficult to dramatize than cafe flirting, good-natured male banter and eye candy shots of the awesome South American landscape, but experiences of this kind are available to any hardy backpacker.
What Salles could have dramatized, but doesn't, is the brutal clashes going on during that time between Communist-led unions and repressive, American-backed governments. Instead, he settles for a single vague sequence in which Ernesto and Alberto encounter two fugitive Communists--faces artfully smudged as if from a Walker Evans photo--on the Chilean altiplano. And picturesque poverty is what we see all the way through the film. In his memoir, Che reported that Quechua women in Cuzco, Peru wore skirts that were caked over with shit, since they used them to wipe their children's butts. The colorfully dressed Quechua women in the film, however, appear to have stepped out of a National Geographic photo shoot. Most egregiously, Salles includes black and white "poverty is noble" photos over his end credits instead of showing, for example, recent newsreel footage of Bolivian peasants rioting in Cochabamba against the sale of their water rights to the American company Bechtel--an indigenous revolt of the kind that Che gave his life foolishly attempting to instigate from the outside.
The angelic, moist-eyed Gael Garcia Bernal is the hottest thing going in the movies, and he was marvelous in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mam Tambien. He's good here, too, but the script asks so little of him except to be beautiful and to empathize, much like Princess Diana holding a sickly African baby. Under Salles' direction, Garc'a Bernal's young Ernesto is reduced to being a figure that flatters its audience: "You, too," the film seems to say, "can strap on a pack, bushwhack through the interior of an impoverished continent, witness injustice and become a really good-looking revolutionary." It's a comforting thought, and it's one born entirely of the movies.
To be sure, Che's iconic status owes a lot to his good looks, but not entirely: He had something in him that the rest of us don't. Sometime (perhaps a long time) after the real Ernesto returned to Buenos Aires from the trip recounted in this film, he added one final entry to the manuscript that would become The Motorcycle Diaries. It's a curious chapter, one more reminiscent of Hebrew prophets, Dostoevsky and Neruda than of the resolutely rationalist young doctor from Argentina. In it, he describes a mystical, dreamlike encounter with a stranger somewhere during his travels. A long passage bears reprinting:
"... you will die [said the stranger] with your fist clenched and your jaw tense, the perfect manifestation of hatred and struggle, because ... you are an authentic member of the society to be destroyed. [...] You don't realize how useful your contribution is to the society that sacrifices you."
I saw his teeth and the playful grin with which he foretold history. [...] I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonist halves, I will be with the people. And I know it because I see it imprinted on the night that I, the eclectic dissector of doctrines and psychoanalyst of dogmas, howling like a man possessed, will assail the barricades and trenches, will stain my weapon with blood and, consumed with rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then, as if an immense weariness were consuming my recent exhilaration, I see myself being sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveler of individual will, pronouncing the exemplary mea culpa. I feel my nostrils dilate, savoring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, of the enemy's death; I brace my body, ready for combat, and prepare myself to be a sacred precinct within which the bestial howl of the victorious proletariat can resound with new vigor and new hope.
Needless to say, this "dissector of doctrines" (in the service of better doctrines, of course) is nowhere to be found in the performance of Garcia Bernal or anywhere else in Salles' genteel and inoffensive The Motorcycle Diaries.