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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004
On the road to revolution
People talk a lot these days about the recent "boom" in Latin American cinema, but they're really only holding up a handful of (very good) films: "Central Station," "City of God," "Amores perros," and "Y tu mama tambien." Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles directed the first and produced the second, while Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal shot to stardom in the latter two. Putting these two guys together in the same movie was a no-brainer, but the only question was: what?
The answer hits the screens this month in "The Motorcycle Diaries," a Robert Redford-produced biopic about the young, pre-revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. The film draws from journals of Che (played by Bernal), written when he was a 23-year-old medical student, and had embarked on an epic road-trip across South America on the back of an old 1939 Norton motorcycle. Accompanying him was an older friend, biochemist Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), whose own memoirs and advice were also used to round out the film's portrait of Che. Salles' film is such a gorgeously shot travelogue, all glowing sunsets over the Amazon and dusty Andes mountain trails, it seems at times to be only incidentally about one of the 20th century's greatest icons.
Both Guevara and Granado were from well-off, bourgeois Argentine families. In choosing to drop out and hit the road, to see the land with their own eyes and to experience life beyond the narrow confines of class and country, they were blazing a trail that the next generation would follow. In a sense, Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries" was the Latin equivalent of Jack Kerouac's concurrent "On The Road," a quest for kicks and wisdom, of choosing to drift and open oneself up to experience.
Salles' film captures this wanderlust particularly well, perhaps because that's the spirit in which it was made. Cast and crew hit the road for 86 days, retracing the trail of Che's journey up the Pacific coast, through Chile, Peru and Colombia.
Salles shot on the same mountain roads where Guevara's bike crashed, in the same leper colony on the Amazon River where the boys apprenticed with a doctor, and the same destitute neighborhoods surrounding the Inca relics at Macchu Picchu. Some things haven't changed. Despite working off a thoroughly researched script, Salles -- an admitted fan of the Italian Neo-Realists -- kept himself open to the experience of the road, often incorporating people they met into the film's vignettes, or wandering off with just his cameraman and two lead actors to improvise on the fly.
Bernal gives an excellent performance, showing us Che's sensitivity and kindness, as well as his obstinate side, which would become problematic later in life. He also draws on his own experience, as a young unknown actor with international superstardom suddenly laid before him, to show us how Che gradually came to recognize his own charisma, his innate ability to lead by example, and the way in which others would follow.
Offering good comic relief is de la Serna, who's all devil next to Bernal's saintlier Che. His Granado never looks happier than when he's putting the moves on some girl while dancing a tango, while Che -- too shy to dance -- seems most fired up by indignation, like when the "charitable" nuns of the leper colony won't serve lunch to anyone who missed mass.
Che is remembered for his fiery revolutionary idealism ("It is better to die standing than to live on your knees!"), for fighting with Castro's guerrillas in Cuba, and for dying -- at the hands of the CIA -- after a failed attempt to export the revolution to Bolivia in 1966. The specific brand of ideology he wound up attached to -- communism -- has since lost its shine, but Salles doesn't go there. He's less interested in Che's ultimate answer -- violent resistance to imperialism and oligarchy -- than the questions that drove him to take this path.
And to find those, one must turn to Che's life on the road, and his reactions to the deep poverty and injustice he found there. Perhaps the film's darkest scene comes one cold night in the Andes, where Che meets workers from an American-run copper mine, dying from lung disease and treated little better than slaves. All Che can do is futilely throw a rock at the boss' truck, but history will show that this moment never left him.
Fortunately, Salles is no Oliver Stone, and he's given us a movie that, for the most part, makes its points lightly, organically. The film starts off light and comic, with Che and Granado more like the boys in "Y tu mama' 's road trip, hungry for freedom and eager to get laid. Adversity soon kicks in as their bike breaks down, their money runs out, and Che gets a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend.
Curiously enough, it's here that the film starts to mirror Salles' "Central Station," with its own "road" lesson: There's nothing like being down and out to learn a bit of empathy. Che's greatest epiphany is the simple notion "I want to be useful to people"; Salles' film makes clear that such simple notions are often the strongest.