The Motorcycle Diaries: Revolution and Change

The name Che Guevara often invokes images of the revolutions in Cuba. In Walter Salles’ film, Motorcycle Diaries, however, a softer, more poignant glimpse is offered of Ernesto Guevara, the boy who would become known as “Che.” Utilizing a variety of cinematic techniques, Salles creates a brilliant psuedo-documentary. The film spans Guevara and his best friend Alberto Granado’s journey from Buenos Aires to Caracas. Based upon the diaries of Guevara and the writings of Granado, the film is centered on their travels.Playing the role of Che Guevara – a figure recognized and notorious not only in Cuba, but across the globe – was a difficult task, one only an extremely talented actor could assume. Gael Garcia Bernal was just such an actor, stepping into Guevara’s shoes with charisma and energy. Rodrigo de la Serna, cast as Granado, was successful in his role as the sidekick, often serving as a source of comic relief in an otherwise serious picture. Juxtaposed with these great talents were a wide variety of South American natives who had never acted before. These natives seemed to have been discovered during the filming process, just as the two adventurers, decades ago, had encountered them on their journey. Because of this, Salles created a realistic portrayal of what life on the road might have really been like in 1950s South America.This use of indigenous people helped to create a documentary-esque feel as well. The reenactment of Guevara and Granado’s journey of self-discovery came across as if it was an actual recording of the events that took place. Despite little use of a hand-held camera (as is often used in documentaries), the film still gives the effect of realism. Modern technological advancements provide the film the clarity moviegoers are accustomed to. Salles’ directorial decisions, such as time stamps, on-location shooting and native amateur actors, take the film from simple narrative to an in-depth look into the past, at Guevara and who he was before his name became synonymous with revolution.Another aspect of Motorcycle Diaries that lends itself to realism is the use of black and white photography. Salles does not just use snapshots, but also posed and framed shots, in which, when one looks closely, movement, breathing or other minor signs of life can be seen. Sprinkled throughout the film as if they were travel mementos, these “stills” are effective in adding to the documentary-like impression and also in revealing the heart and humanism of the film and the people depicted in it. A long montage of these images is shown at the end of the narrative, solidifying the empathy for the people and the rawness of the journey on which both the travelers and the audience have imparted. One might think the insertion of these black and white stills could interrupt the flow of the film, yet we believe they are an asset in helping to obtain an accurate portrayal of the people.Throughout Salles’ film, the camera pays close attention to not only the characters, but to the land itself. Each country through which the two men travel is given a distinct portrait through the cinematography. In the first scene, we are shown a city, its civilization and its inhabitants. Later, we are shown the ruins of Peru in a way that allows the history and majesty of the mountains to speak for themselves. Whenever the two travel to a new location, it is presented in such a way that it dominates the screen; the countryside is not just a background in this film. Indeed, it seems as if the landscape itself becomes a character that Guevara and Granado meet along the way. Overall, the color and photographic quality of the film really gives an impression to the viewer of not only what South America might have looked like, but how it might have felt during the 1950s as well.Another aspect of Motorcycle Diaries that contributes to the realism and the cultural ambiance is the music. Guevara’s lack of dancing skills proved constant throughout the film. Whether with friends or strangers, Guevara’s inability to follow a beat or know the difference between a mambo and a tango is made readily apparent. Whenever the men begin to learn about a new country and are accepted by a new group of people, music and dancing are the way they connect and cross social barriers. Another common theme throughout this film is Guevara’s honest nature. The audience is able to watch the development of his beliefs as he attempts to find himself. During his travels around South America, Guevara has plenty of opportunities to dabble in dishonesty; however, he holds true to his morals, sometimes with painful insistency. Although his companion Grenado does not hold such strict principles, Guevara makes his own decisions and is never influenced by anyone. Even in the face of starvation, pain and sickness, Guevara chooses to do what he considers honorable and what he believes is necessary. When he has money he does not spend it on himself, but instead gives it away to the less fortunate. From the acting to the cinematography, Motorcycle Diaries succeeds in revealing how life must have appeared on the back of a bike in South America during the 1950s. Even more, it reveals how one great man became a revolutionary. This film would be extraordinary to see in a 35mm format, and you have your chance tonight at 7 p.m. in Golden Auditorium, as a feature movie of the Friday Night Film Series.