This is not a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be. It is a glimpse of two lives running parallel for a time, with similar hopes and convergent dreams. - Opening line in ‘The motorcycle diaries’
Retracing the route that took the biochemist Alberto Granado and medical student Ernesto Guevara from their country Argentina, into Chile, Andes and finally into Peru, director Walter Salles, brings to life what would otherwise be an overlooked but crucial period of Ernesto Guevara’s life. A period that I feel shaped him into a revolutionary.
The year is 1952 and two young men with a background in medicine decide to put their schooling on hold and travel across Latin America with the aim to explore, drink as much wine as they can(it clearly appears as such) and to volunteer at the leper colony in Peru. They intend to do this with the help of an old, tired motorcycle.
What begins as a journey of a touristic nature, becomes an exposure to the cold realities of many South American countries in the 1950s. The two men despite being excited about the green, fertile, lush environments that surround them are made uneasy by the level of poverty in the areas they visit, more so because this poverty is a direct result of the exploitation of workers done by foreign industrial companies.
Is it possible to be nostalgic for a world you never knew?
Ernesto and Alberto pen down their observations in their diaries, and they do it so beautifully that their writings have been quoted in the film on more than one occasion. Ernesto Guevara seems to be the more affected character in the film by what he sees in many of the Latin American countries, he develops a detached but determined demeanor over time and he demonstrates signs of his growing revolutionary spirit in one of the film’s most moving scenes:
Separated by the Amazon River, the leper colony in Peru faces the doctors’ and nurses’ labs and premises and so divides them, symbolically implying that the lepers are infectious. Science of course assures us that leprosy is not contagious. Guevara is made furious by this injustice and so on his birthday, like the great revolutionary who he’s unaware he’ll become, swims across the Amazon against the council of his friend Alberto and the faith of the nuns. Being asthmatic, everyone thinks that he won’t make it, but with the cheer and loud support from the lepers on the other side of the river, Guevara makes it across the river and spends his last day in Peru, his birthday, with the lepers.
The day Ernesto and Alberto part, Ernesto feels conflicted, he doesn’t plan to resume his studies because of a feeling that something much greater is waiting for him and it is.
A revolution without guns? It would never work
Despite the fact that Ernesto Guevara would die later in Bolivia whilst attempting to start a political revolution there, his philosophy of fighting for justice lives on till this day. His face appears on countless t-shirts, graffiti art and has quite literally become a symbol of revolution.
If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you a comrade of mine. - Ernesto [Che] Guevara.
Do watch the film if you can, and for a full experience of Ernesto’s excellent story telling, read his book: ‘The motorcycle diaries - Notes of a Latin American Journey’.