vendredi, août 27, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries

Here's the myth, where's the man?

Reviewed by Anthony Quinn

27 August 2004

Walter Salles's road movie charts each stage of the odyssey two young Argentinians make around South America by flashing up the number of kilometres they have covered, first on a motorbike, then on foot and by boat. By the end of their eight-month journey, which has taken them through Argentina, Chile, the Amazon Basin, Peru and Venezuela, the total stands at around 12,000km. So much for the geography - the implication is that the emotional distance the two friends have travelled is infinitely greater. Of course, any number of backpacking students could claim to have been changed by the peregrinations of their year off; the difference here is that one of the travellers was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who would become better known as Che, revolutionary, idealist and the sainted face on T-shirts and posters the world over.

It is 1952 when 23-year-old medical student Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal), one of five in a loving, well-to-do family in Bueno Aires, decides to take to the road with his biochemist pal Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna). Their transport is an ancient Norton motorbike that sputters and wheezes and will more than once pitch them both into the dirt, but these two are carefree souls, undismayed by having to sleep beneath the stars or scrounge for food. Salles and his screenwriter, Jose Rivera, take care to render the early stages of the journey as a boisterous kind of picaresque. The plump, jovial Alberto is the more dominant of the pair; older by five years, he charms the ladies with his dance steps while Ernesto plays the wallflower, unable to tell a tango from a mambo.

Further differences between them gradually emerge. Whereas Alberto flatters and dissembles to gain an advantage, Ernesto, perhaps mindful of his name, feels beholden to tell the truth. When a farmer whose hospitality they've battened onto seeks a medical opinion about the lump on his neck, Ernesto examines it briefly and tells him that it's cancer. "You could help out with a little lie once in a while", grumbles Alberto. Later, when a friend asks him what he thinks of the novel he has written, Ernesto looks seriously at him and declares it "basically unreadable". The film sees this truth-telling as uncomplicatedly honourable, instead of something that might be perhaps gauche and unfeeling.

As the movie proceeds one senses increasingly an idealising tendency on the film-makers' part. Just arrived in Chile, the trainee doctor is called to the bedside of a sick old woman, who fortunately is too weak to ask him if she's dying. Ernesto deals very tenderly with her, and leaves some medicine - his own medicine, in fact, which he takes for chronic asthma.

He is also a dutiful son, recording his travels in fond letters to his mother back home. His behaviour towards well-born girlfriend Chichina (Mia Maestro) is puppyishly sweet, and oddly sexless. Later, when a married woman at a dance starts making eyes at him, he somehow contrives to louse up his chances and flees the scene with Alberto, pursued by a mob of outraged Chileans; so he escapes being a cad, too. How far Guevara's book (on which the movie is partly based) bears him out as a noble-souled youth I couldn't say, but any real-life character treated so emolliently is bound to rouse suspicion.

Salles makes The Motorcycle Diaries a movie of two halves; whereas the sunny first part could almost be a Latin American Easy Rider, the second darkens perceptibly into a chronicle of burgeoning political conscious- ness as Ernesto and Alberto witness dispossession and poverty on a massive scale. Abandoning their clapped-out motorbike, they encounter migrant workers thrown off their own land, and a homeless couple travelling to a local mine in search of work. In Peru they begin to realise how "progress" is far from an unchallengeable boon, contrasting the ruined Incan city of Machu Picchu with the gruesome sprawl of Lima. These experiences would be powerful enough to affect any revolutionary leader in the making; what slightly dulls the impact is the film's suggestion that Ernesto has been waiting for this spiritual epiphany all along. We feel no surprise at the way he is affected by the plight of the peasants because Salles and Rivera have been insistent throughout about what a fine, upstanding man this is. If there had been some flaw in his make-up - arrogance, indifference, the smallest hint of narcissism - we might be able to see some drama in his self-discovery. But the self he discovers was already beatific to begin with, so there's no room for a drama to unfold.

It's a terrific-looking film, certainly, and Eric Gautier's cinematography catches the changing landscapes of South America - desert, green valleys, snow-clad mountains - quite wonderfully. Gael Garcia Bernal brings all his doe-eyed soulfulness to bear, though one gets the feeling that he's intent on honouring the legend rather than inhabiting the role. I suppose for a Latino actor it is rather like being asked to play Christ. Ernesto doesn't ever walk on water, though he does prove himself a prodigious swimmer. One hears death flutter its wings at certain moments, such as at the deeply eerie sight of Ernesto lying stricken by asthma, pale as a ghost - it foreshadows the famous photograph of his corpse, surrounded by Bolivian soldiers.

The epilogue renders his untimely end even more poignant, for it presents living history in the lined face of the man who companioned Guevara on his journey: Alberto Granado, in person. Yet his appearance, moving though it is, does little to dislodge the suspicion that The Motorcycle Diaries is a homage to the myth Guevara would become, rather than a portrait of the man he was.

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

Che Guevara: When the reality becomes myth

By Paul Vallely

28 August 2004

Even given its critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, which opened across the country yesterday, has created unusually large amounts of pre-publicity. Surprisingly, you might think, if all you knew about it was that it is the story of a journey across Latin America by two men on a Norton 500 who uncover, on the way, the deep poverty of the continent in the early 1950s.

What changes everything is that one of the two men later went on to become the archetype of the contemporary revolutionary, Che Guevara. At the end of that motorbike journey he announced: "I want to link my destiny to that of the poor of this world." But the real journey here is not one from Argentina across a continent to Guatemala. It is not even Guevara's transition from bourgeois complacency to fiery rebel. It is a voyage from reality into myth.

Such was Che Guevara's hold on the imagination of his time that Jean-Paul Sartre called him "the most complete man in history", and Time magazine, that embodiment of all the American values which Guevara so despised, declared him to be "the icon of the 20th century". In 1968 - the great year of political, cultural and social revolution that followed his death - the slogan "Che lives" appeared on walls from Paris to Prague, Berkeley to Belfast and anywhere else that the old order seemed under threat by what felt like an unstoppable wave of youthful opposition. It was the era of anti-Vietnam War protest and student barricades. The times they were a-changing and the image of Che Guevara, dead but resurrected in a billion bedsit posters, was the most potent symbol of this new generation of power.

It is not difficult to deconstruct the power of the man and his myth. He was sultry and sexy: there is no myth around his revolutionary comrade Fidel Castro, who also made the mistake of staying alive. Che Guevara, by contrast, died young, as all the heroes of the age, from James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, did and should. Hope I die before I get old was the maxim of the moment.

He was, like so many of his devotees across the world, someone from a middle-class background who had rejected the cosy cocoon of affluence. He had attended medical school in Buenos Aires but, after the long exposure to his continent's poverty in that celebrated 1952 motorbike epic, everything changed. It was not just the urban and rural deprivation, the migrant workers driven from their land and the degradation of the native Mayan Indians. In Guatemala he witnessed the overthrow of its progressive leftist government in a CIA-backed coup and became convinced him that social progress was impossible without violent revolution. From there he went to Mexico to join up with Fidel Castro, and in 1956 landed in Cuba to carry on a guerrilla campaign against the US-backed dictator Batista.

He was physically brave. He carried on the invasion despite being wounded in the neck, fatally he thought at the time, in an ambush.

He was the ultimate emblematic figure of the counterculture, who had made real the aspiration that, against all the odds, things could actually be changed. This was the man, after all, who had entered Cuban and then worldwide revolutionary folklore in a battle where he and a few hundred rebels defeated 10,000 Cuban government troops in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and turned an impossible adventure into a real revolution. Ordinary people could triumph over their masters, was his message, which seemed so much more radical than the alternatives of anarchist hippies such as Abbie Hoffman, whose ultimate rebellion was the instruction to bookstore shoppers to "Steal This Book". Even as a member of Castro's elite after the revolution, he refused the privilege and luxury granted to other Cuban leaders, insisting on drawing only the average wage.

He had the gift of being able to encapsulate his idealism and his philosophy in pithy and memorable phrases. "It is better to die standing than to live on your knees." "I don't regard only Argentina as my native country but whole of America." "We have a rendezvous with history, and we simply cannot permit ourselves to be afraid!"

And like so many of his youthful devotees, he did not allow his idealism to be sullied by the drudge of daily existence. He was briefly, and not very successfully, made governor of the National Bank of Cuba - and got his portrait on the three-peso note - and was then for a short time minister of industry. But he soon got fed up with the quotidian dreary detail of trying to make Marxism work and, after a period roaming the world as Cuba's ambassador, sought once again the purity of political commitment in far-off lands. In 1965 he led a covert and unsuccessful Cuban intervention in the civil war in the former Belgian Congo and then, in the following year, went to Bolivia to try to foment a Marxist revolution there. Failing to understand the cultural differences there, his revolution was a dismal failure and, dishevelled and defeated, he was captured by government troops and handed over to the CIA for interrogation. Characteristically Guevara refused to talk and was shot the next day.

Yet even in the banality of his execution the myth was fed. The executioner bungled his first attempt. (He averted his eyes while he shot at Guevara, who lay trussed on a slab.) The revolutionary hero told the man to get on with it with the reported last words: "Shoot, coward! You are going to kill a man." It was a romantic death, at least as it later entered the mythology, a man who was not afraid to die for what he believed in.

Much of what has been written about Che Guevara in recent times has been an attempt to explode this myth. Critics have shone the light on his dark side: his direct responsibility for dozens of executions of defectors and Batista loyalists; his devotion to the monstrous Soviet dictator Stalin; his reported willingness to have unleashed nuclear weapons had the Cubans had their fingers on the button of the Soviet missiles in the Bay of Pigs crisis; even on the fact that he was contemptuous of homosexuals.

Much of this criticism is ignorant; by 1963 Che had realised that Russian Stalinism was a shambles after a visit to Russia where he saw the conditions of the majority of the people. More of it is historically unsound, since it decontextualises him from the political perceptions and realities of his time and expects him to have behaved as a 21st-century man ought, rather than someone locked into a Cold War world dominated by two oppositional worldviews in which the American CIA was as capable of bad behaviour as the Soviets - violently overthrowing foreign regimes, supporting Latin American death squads and allying itself with the Mafia in the fight against communism.

But most of all such criticism misses the point. For there is more to Che Guevara than historical fact. There is more to him even than myth, or perhaps one should say there is less to him than myth. For now he is not even a myth; he is an image.

It is no coincidence that the most famous picture of Che was taken by a fashion photographer. The classic shot of Guevara - wild-haired, bearded, wearing a single red star in his beret and a look of visionary detachment in his eyes - was snapped by Alberto Korda as Guevara stood beside Castro on a balcony in Havana on 5 March 1960. Korda said afterwards he was struck by the man's "absolute look of steely defiance". So much so that the photographer refused to collect royalties for the picture, which no doubt assisted its repeated use. "In it, Che appears as the ultimate revolutionary icon," writes Jon Lee Anderson, in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, "his eyes staring boldly into the future, his expression a virile embodiment of outrage at social injustice."

Soon the photograph became familiar all over the world. It soon spread from political circles to rock bands seeking to advertise their subversive credentials. But then the revolutionary became chic. Andy Warhol used it alongside images of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean in the iconography of pop art. By 1970 the defiant image had become, in the words of the British pop artist Peter Blake, "one of the great icons of the 20th century", appearing on posters, T-shirts, badges and postcards and, before long, appearing in utterly debased forms to advertise jeans, china mugs, canned beer, skis, holidays and even soap powder. Swatch released a watch with Che's image on its face. Madonna used it on a CD cover. Smirnoff slapped it on their vodka ads. (Korda sued over that.) The total inversion of everything Guevara stood for was a recent newspaper photographing showing Liz Hurley club-hopping across London in a Che T-shirt and clutching a $4,500 Louis Vuitton handbag.

But the final truth about Guevara is to be found in the slogan "Che lives". It is a formula which is generally used only in a few cases: Jesus and Elvis are among the other historical figures to whom it applies. Deconstruct the semiotics and what it tells us is that our culture here is recognising the truth that some things, and individuals, are greater than mere historical reality can contain. Che Guevara is a kind of secular saint and his image is the contemporary equivalent of what the icon and the relic were in medieval times. Like all saints, Guevara's virtues have been upheld and his weaknesses overlooked.

When they killed him they cut off his hands for identification. To leave the world in no doubt of his identity, his captors instructed some local nuns to wash his face, tidy his bedraggled hair and beard, then photographed his corpse. But the image which circulated the world, almost as powerfully as Korda's original one, was not what they had intended. There he lay, white and irenic as the dead Christ taken down from the cross in so many of the great pietà images of the paintings and statues of 2,000 years of church history. "It's as if the dead Guevara," wrote Jorge Castañeda in his book on Che called Compañero, "looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering." If only he had he lived the myth would have died. Or never come to pass.


Born: 14 June 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, the first of five children to an upper-middle-class family. Father a construction engineer; mother an aristocrat.

Family: First wife: Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian Marxist; one daughter. Second wife: Aleida March de la Torre, of Castro's army; four children.

Education: Buenos Aries University. Qualified as a doctor in 1953, specialising in dermatology.

Career: After Cuban revolution, commander of La Cabana Fortress (1959-1963). Also governor of the National Bank 1959 and then minister of industry 1961. Worldwide ambassador for Cuba 1961 to 1965. Moved to Bolivia to foment revolution, executed on 9 October 1967.

He said...: "Always be capable of feeling deep inside any injustice committed against anyone anywhere in the world. It is the finest quality of a revolutionary."

They said...: "The most complete human being of our age." - Jean-Paul Sartre

"One of the most oversold figures of the past half century." - Daniel Wolf, journalist and broadcaster

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd