Genuine revolutionary heroes are a rarity on the silver screen. Hollywood prefers its rebels to be apolitical, self-destructive and defeated. For every film that even dares to mention a Lenin, a Trotsky or a Castro, there are a dozen celluloid rebels without causes (not to mention scores of crypto-fascist Schwarzeneggers and every other shade of reactionary in the bourgeois palette). This thematic hobbling of a potent catalyst for social change is a hallmark of capitalism’s squandering of the greatest art form: the cinema.
But, hope for humanity – and for the cinema – springs eternal. So, in approaching Walter Salle’s new film, The Motorcycle Diaries(2004), based on journals written by the young Che Guevara during an extended motorcycle trip, I found myself cautious about its potential and hoping for greatness. However, the film is problematic on two levels. The first is its use of politics as a come-on; the second is its cultish celebration of a dubious political icon.
For a mass audience, The Motorcycle Diaries has many appealing elements: it’s a road movie, a buddy picture, a young man’s sexual odyssey and an exotic travelogue, all lent dignity by its hero’s philosophic journey towards adult social commitment. However, it substitutes a tone of reverence bordering on worship for outright politics. In fact, if you changed the household name of its protagonist, this could be the story of any of thousands of young men from every generation who are seized with a desire to help suffering humanity – through doctoring, scientific research, or less laudably, charity or the priesthood. It’s 1952, and Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal) is a 23-year-old medical student. Almost finished training, he leaves his upper-middle class home in Buenos Aires to go on a road trip with friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna), a robust biochemist. The two ride off on a temperamental Norton 500, to fulfill a dream: to explore their native Latin America. These set-up scenes are treated with poignancy and humor. In the course of their eight-month journey – through the Andes, along the coast of Chile, across the Atacama Desert, into the Peruvian Amazon and on to Venezuela – their perspectives shift: they begin to see a Latin America from which their class privilege has insulated them. At a leper colony deep in the Peruvian Amazon, the two begin to question the economic system that denies medicine, education and a decent livelihood to so many. Their experience awakens in them the men they will later become. One will return to his research with a renewed sense of purpose. The other will go on to become a major revolutionary leader of the 20th century.
Potential comparisons with other “rite of passage” films abound. For those who go way back, Easy Rider(1969) set the template, and its nihilism and narcissistic despair contrast sharply with the liberal humanism of The Motorcycle Diaries. Hollywood usually depicts rebels as outlaws. Bonnie and Clyde (1967), made the year Che was murdered by the CIA-backed Bolivian army, typified Hollywood’s penchant for linking iconoclastic views with criminality. Its bank-robbing lovers were portrayed as (apolitical) rebels against the Depression-era squalor in which they were trapped. A mega-hit, Bonnie and Clyde stood as a thinly-veiled warning to a radicalized generation that had started to take politics into the streets in unprecedented numbers. Film students analyzed and movie critics reveled in the gory climax. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the murders at Kent State, Jackson and Attica followed soon after.
Faux rebels were suddenly “hot”. Two years later, Easy Rider’s chopper-riding “hippies” (who bore greater resemblance to Hell’s Angels) contextualized Hollywood-style libertarian rebellion with a big heroin sale in the film’s opening moments. Easy Rider’s central conceit was that, for the ‘Sixties generation, these itinerant lumpen embodied the very essence of “freedom”. It is indicative of the film’s real politics that, in today’s Haliburton/Enron culture, they look like mildly eccentric entrepreneurs. Leftist politics was nowhere in sight, and I shed no tears when its biker heroes, Captain America and Billy, were martyred by forces even more Neanderthal than they.
Che Guevara attained iconic status in these years as well, and, while the era’s fictitious symbols have faded, Che’s face has shown real staying power. Is this purely because he reflects continuing radical sentiments, or because, for his largely-Catholic following, his myth and fate resemble that of Jesus Christ’s? Either way, in the right hands, his legend is perpetually exploitable.
In 1969, Hollywood cashed in with Che! starring Omar Sharif, and Jack Palance as Castro. The film is a veteran of many “10 Worst” lists. It was deemed so offensive in Chile and Argentina that – in a fine, early example of “interactive cinema” – Molotov cocktails were thrown at the screen in some theaters.
Che Guevara’s life and legacy have been subjects of heated debate among socialists, as well. In the eyes of some, he is an unqualified hero who sacrificed himself in open warfare with the bourgeois state. As a leader of the Cuban revolution, his credentials and his sacrifice seem unimpeachable. However, to others, he was a deluded romantic who sowed ultra-left illusions among the workers and peasants of Latin America, utterly failed to build a peasant-based revolutionary movement, and was martyred uselessly and tragically while leading a futile (and elitist) guerilla struggle against overwhelming odds. Whatever your opinion, Che’s place in Hollywood’s pantheon of idealistic martyrs is assured.
Why? His noble failure appeals to middle class film makers and the wealthy who finance the industry. These films allow empathy with the oppressed and their well-meaning (and misguided) champions, but bluntly reassert ruling class justice right before the final curtain. Bonnie and Clyde, Captain America and Billy – even Spartacus and Jesus Christ – are all destroyed while bucking the social order. In the arena of cinematic finger-wagging, rebels – “good” and “bad” – always get their comeuppance, courtesy of the bourgeois (or Roman) state.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a liberal-humanist work of modest appeal. Its direction and cinematography are refreshingly free of the overproduced hyper-realism of contemporary Hollywood. It reflects the youthful exuberance of its protagonists in an artful and witty manner and delineates the sentimental education – I hesitate to say “radicalization” – of Che Guevara. But it fails as the political primer it could and should be. The climax of the film involves a symbolic gesture, ostensibly made by Che, when, despite his asthma, he swims across a dark and dangerous river from a staff party on the leper colony’s mainland, to an island where the most serious cases are quarantined. The film then cuts to group photos of the afflicted with a smiling Doctor Che “in solidarity” with his patients, indifferent to the threat of contagion – and clearly pleased at his self-conscious manufacture of a legend-building moment. Lacking even the mild charm of the journey scenes, this pretentious climax sinks the film rather than helping it transcend its anemic ambition.
The production circumstances of The Motorcycle Diaries are somewhat unusual: it was made by Serenade Films, a company created on a self-styled “egalitarian business model” in which the filming team works for extremely low but equal fees and then shares equally in the revenue from the sale and distribution of the film. Think of it as “Socialism in One Company.” Does this make the film worth supporting?
Well, before we envision a guerilla band of filmmaker-revolutionaries on the loose, making films that will spark the masses into action, let’s listen to its executive producer talk about the project. He expresses the ambivalence of the class of people who marshal this powerful medium, when faced with rebels who question their privileges: “Che Guevara can be such a tricky subject. I knew Walter (Salles, the director) would handle the story with lyricism and humanity rather than focusing on the politics of who Ernesto would later become.” The executive producer is Robert Redford. The phrase “lyricism and humanity rather than focusing on the politics” perfectly defines the limitations imposed on artists who deal with political subjects. For producers like Redford, a man noted for refined, liberal taste, “lyricism and humanity” represent truths of a higher order.
So, are we to be thankful for the generosity of a group of wealthy liberals who take it on themselves to lecture us about the fate of good intentions? Should we be grateful for these crumbs of “hope” from the bourgeois table? Is the production well-intentioned? Do its producers deserve credit for illuminating what their publicity flack calls “the most important revolutionary of the 20th century”? Or do all those T-shirts and contemporary anti-imperialist sentiment just represent a fine business opportunity for middle class aesthetes who like an occasional flirtation with dangerous ideas?
Che Guevara is the kind of revolutionary the ruling class prefers (with reservations, of course!): he operated far from the urban proletariat, free from the prying eyes of the press, isolated in mountainous jungle where he was easily mythologized – and murdered. He fought a guerilla war in which he was hopelessly outgunned by state forces. He never got a single peasant to join him. He was romantic, wrong-headed, defeated and martyred: a pretty face suitable for framing, the embodiment of the certain failure (they hope!) of youthful revolutionary aspirations everywhere. The Motorcycle Diaries is Chapter One. Next year, Chapter Two – a new film about Che’s bloody annihilation – will appear. By glorifying and fetishizing them, bourgeois culture sets up these media caricature-straw men in order to knock them down, again and again.
NOTE: Steven Soderberg’s 2-part film on CHE (2008) is a compelling treatment of Che’s participation in the Cuban revolution, and his ill-fated Bolivian guerilla campaign. Although far better on every level than The Motorcycle Diaries, Soderberg’s epic was criticized for lack of psychological insight by some critics. Part 2 is especially powerful, despite its lengthy and melancholy deliniation of Che’s futile efforts to lead a revolution in Bolivia. And, true to Hollywood form, it ends with the defeat of our hero. That’s the way – uh-huh, uh-huh – they like it!