The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Posted: July 15, 2009 in Norman Madarasz
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The Motorcycle Diaries
DVD: The Motorcycle Diaries

Brazil’s Bid at a Continental Cinema
Walter Salles Jr.’s Motorcycle Diaries in context

by Norman Madarasz

By awarding Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d’Or, the 2004 Cannes Film Festival jury, presided by Quentin Tarentino, only did what was natural at this moment in time for art. It used the film to denounce the tyranny of Bush and the neocons for having intensified the violence and terror they claim to have been eradicating, and for doing so primarily to seize central Asian natural resources for personal and family gain. France happened to be the ideal place to declare such a message for more reasons than one.

Apart from the country’s opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the festival was also set against the social strife affecting France’s arts industry workers—the “intermittents du spectacle.” In the summer of 2003, they had managed to bring the Avignon Theatre Festival to a halt in protest of the Chirac government’s attempt to rid their status of job security and unemployment benefits. In the end, neither the intermittents nor the American occupation of Iraq made the Cannes dream-machine flicker into a fade out. Nor was there much discussion about the stance that art ought to take on the world’s current flow.


Back in 1968

Instead, the American culture system proved able to deploy irony in the face of opposition and protest. Back in 1968 the Cannes film festival was no less insurgent against the American invasion of South Vietnam and authoritarianism of the French political system. Yet its protests struck out on an international tone in a bid to broaden people’s power of decision-making in Western democracies. What has changed 36 years later is that the United States manages to monopolize the stages of protest as well as those of aggression. Meanwhile, under the cool shade of the Mediterranean palms, the rest of the world was blazing new, separate trails.

Less ironically, only in the United States can the question still be raised seriously as to whether cinema has a political potential. The seventh art has, nonetheless, shifted its stride. With Serguei Eisenstein in the Soviet Union and D. W. Griffith in the United States, cinema provided these countries with modern-day epics by which nations recognize their historical purpose. Decades later, out came a line from World War II with Italian neo-realism in the work of Roberto Rossellini, and the French New Wave of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker. These movements brought documentary techniques to project the real-time struggle against what the world marshaled by the United States and the Soviet Union had become. Image strategies were reorganized to expand public imagination as reality was identified with spectacle.

Brazil: Differences Within Similarities

Nowadays, with a documentary holding the Palme d’Or for the first time in 48 years, it seems that cinema has been compelled to take up the failure of journalism, at least as it is manufactured by the corporate -owned and -run mass media. But journalism and news documentary are not akin to art. It’s even questionable whether journalism manages to come close to telling audiences the truths whose expression distinctly occurs within art’s domain.

Cinema has always offered a glimpse into the imaginary, even in its least escapist form. As worthy as Michael Moore’s struggles might be, the 2004 Cannes film festival only reiterated what was in the Establishment’s shrunken mind. Political cinema can be criticism, but insofar as it becomes a variation on journalism, it ends up evaporating its dream component. Were this component to equate with what drives the cinematic art itself and the criterion by which the Palme is awarded, Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’s Diarios de motocicleta—also in this year’s official selection—would have been its victor.

Set in Spanish, but conceived by a Brazilian, Motorcycle Diaries is a southern Latin American film. Foreign audiences may not grasp the sense and importance of that implication. General ignorance of South America is draped by a skewed geography. Too many keep forgetting that Spanish is not the language spoken in Brazil, the continent’s largest country. As one of the great veterans of the 1960s’ Cinema Novo movement, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, recently said, “The political divisions invented for Latin America are completely artificial. Our peoples are so close, so similar. Walter Salles’s film shows this dimension.”

Yet there is difference within the similarities. Not only are its cultural and political traditions Portuguese and Italian, but Brazilian culture is steeped in an African and Indian admixture atypical even for the American continent. So while South America sports a common market zone, the Mercosul (in Portuguese) or Mercosur (in Spanish), it’s difficult to speak of the area as sharing a historically linear plight of common struggle.

For a Brazilian to prime his film as Latin American is also a gesture of ambition, hope. It’s precisely the stuff cinema is made of. In that regard, there may be no more perfect a figure from the continent to carry a screenplay on the theme than the Argentine-born Cuban and Latin American revolutionary, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a.k.a. “Ché.”

It’s the Venture

Motorcycle Diaries is Ché’s Bildungsroman, his coming-of-age tale. As a precursor of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), though not translated into English until 1995, Guevara’s memoirs are much closer to an egalitarian version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. There’s no Dean Moriarty or Sancho Panza in Ernesto’s partner, Alberto Granado—whose own memoirs, With Ché Through Latin America, stands as the complementary basis for José Rivera’s screenplay. Equality between these two “brothers” sets the basis from which their political egalitarianism will arise.

Don Quixote de la Mancha recapitulated the entire tradition of knighthood adventures, turning the sum into a massive delirium in recursivity. As a road novelist, Ernesto was breaking new ground by making healing his primary purpose. Gifted with as much culture as any of North America’s “Beat Generation,” social change for him was not merely cultural euphoria and lifestyle challenges. His art was not the book, but the journey itself.

The film is a venture back to a time prior to the Cuban revolution, the peasant and popular uprisings, and the wars of decolonization in which Ché fulfilled a hero’s purpose, which included his role as Cuba’s Minister of Industry from 1961 to 1965. For decades since, the nation that bankrolled his killers, the United States itself, has tried various ways to demonize him. It seems to have best succeeded simply by dropping him into banality: a freeze-framed image on a t-shirt iron-on or a poster. North American suburban middle-class kids can titillate their clued-out parents by wearing Ché’s icon while his gaze drifts eternally through pop culture trends, as inane as anything produced by the United States’ gift to the world.

For anyone who has witnessed the pictures of Ché after his assassination by a CIA goon squad in the Bolivian jungle in 1967, another image wrenches us out of oblivion. Behind the death mask is a physically vulnerable, saintly figure. An asthmatic from his earliest days, Ernesto was a trained physician, specializing in leprology. Motorcycle Diaries recounts his apprenticeship. In his art’s emergence, his devotion to the disenfranchised would soon become the guiding light to his political radicalism.

The film shows Ernesto (played by Gale Garcia Bernal), 23 and still in medical school, heading off with his best friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), on the back of a 1939 Norton 500 for a continent-long adventure. It is 1952. The friends leave from the urban upper-middle to rural upper-class comforts in Argentina to encounter nature’s gigantic splendors on the world’s most spectacular continent. From the Argentine pampas to the stark Andean isolation of the country’s border with Chile, the pair encounters a land almost barren of humans.

When their Norton breaks down in the Atacama Desert, the road begins to unfold into a land. Hand in hand, the film’s temporal setting evaporates into contemporaneity. The eternity of post-Inca subsistence and struggle turns the film’s tables into world historical fate. Alberto and Ernesto ascend the heights of Machu Picchu like Moses—here joined by Aaron—receiving the Ten Commandments.

Later, as they wander through the streets of the Inca capital of Cuzco, change has primed them to reawaken the ancestral split history of South America. One line stretches from the descendants of the pure or mixed-blood native Indians, enslaved in one form or another for centuries. Another one condenses the European heritage of those whose barbarity exceeded all limits to make them the continent’s rulers. A young Inca boy, one of a slew of non-professional actors caught throughout the journey for the camera’s pleasure in a match for its free-style hand-held movement, sums up South America’s history as its twists between two strides and two memories. Pointing to ancient masonry, incredible even by our modern standards, the boy utters, “This wall was built by Incas; that one there was built by the useless Spanish.”

Crying Through Wisdom

The film then turns into Ché’s diaries themselves. Cinematographer Eric Gautier’s striking chiaroscuro tones, set against the exploding greenery of the film’s first part, morph into a semblance of El Greco’s grayish hues. From its fissures, black-and-white stills tear away from the film’s narrative surface, left for the memory of viewers to inscribe. The color scheme shift beckons an inflexion in the narrative. In a decisive moment at every great story’s turn, the explorer faces an existential moment over which he has no control but to choose: either he accepts his mentor or slides into quixotic wandering. For “Fuster,” as Ernesto is nicknamed by Alberto, this mentor is one of their own: a physician, Dr. Bresciani.

The first step in Che’s mission takes flight from within the medical profession. Che’s mentor-physician is a struggling author, whose calling is to give him and Alberto his manuscript to comment on. In an atypical act of humility, the master submits to the student’s judgment. While Alberto shies from the responsibility of appraising the work, Ernesto leaps at it as if to underscore that the gift his mentor hands down is a task and a striving: to care for patients in a leper colony on the Amazon. Ernesto and Alberto spend the film’s most stable moments there, perfecting their arts and their sciences.

Motorcycle Diaries is also, and foremost, a Brazilian film. Its release comes on the heels of a series of outstanding works that have renewed the activity of Latin America’s former great film-producing country. What was the cause of film making’s interruption? Singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso unequivocally charged the dictatorial period of 1964–1988 with having destroyed the bossa nova, Tropicalismo and Mineira art movements. After 1968 and Institutional Act 5 (AI-5), civil liberties were suspended and parliament was forced into permanent recess. As successor to President General Arthur da Costa e Silva, President General Em?lio Garrastazu Médici soon implemented an anticommunist national security terror state in Brazil. For ten years, expression became a life-threatening contest.

Scores of artists, intellectuals, and political organizers were forced into exile—when they were famous. Those not as lucky were imprisoned, often tortured, and sometimes killed. Lyndon Johnson supported the 1964 coup, offering American military assistance if anything were to go wrong in the meantime. Throughout Latin America’s darkest period, the United States helped organize intelligence networks, such as the Plano Condor (a.k.a. Operation Condor), to annihilate popular uprisings.

Though hardly comparable in scale to Joseph Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, Brazil’s military dictatorship wrought similar effects on culture: the creative edge of the nation’s arts drifted into hibernation.

Written for classical guitar, Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack evokes the struggles of the continent. It reminds viewers that South America, and Brazil in particular, is the preeminent space for guitar composition and virtuosity today. Inspiring the soundtrack is the ambitious project of composer and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti. His work on native Amazonian song and rhythm, as well as the cover photo of Zig Zag depicting the majestic Iguaçu Falls—which straddle the border between the three nations of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay—is an ode to the transnational continuity of the land.

Perhaps through ambivalence or embarrassment about the Cuban revolution, some critics have pleaded for viewing the film in suspension from Ché’s later life. Others have denigrated it for not linking the two sufficiently. As much as we might rationally succeed in rejecting historical determinism as the drive through which to consider history—that is, as inevitable if not prewritten in some form—our imagination ends up interfering. Imagination compels us to use historical inevitability as only one among other possibilities that twist various lines together to form our conception of history. How else can we be thrilled by moments of suspense in historical dramas whose outcomes are known well beforehand? As Ché decides to overcome his frail health and the dangers of tropical waters by swimming across the Amazon at night to share his birthday party with the leper colony he has helped care for, we are gripped and yearn for his success.

The Cuban revolution to which Ché did so much to lend its festive features has lasted against sizeable odds. In that regard, Frei Betto, the liberation theologian and current special adviser to Brazilian president Lula da Silva, does well to remind us. He hopes “the panel at Jose Marti Airport in Havana welcoming visitors to the country will remain long into the future. [It declares:] ‘Tonight, millions of children will sleep in the streets of the world. None of them is Cuban.’” Yet Cuba’s successes, as extraordinary as they are when considering the American colossus against which it rose up and has had to defend itself, were drawn toward the bottom from the outset. As a result, political egalitarianism has been identified with poverty.

If American conservatives and Cuban émigrés living in Florida lament that Cuba is not a beach and casino resort arrayed with the finest mulattas of the Caribbean to be subjected to prostitution for the rich, progressives cannot be easily satisfied either with the impoverished state of the project. Motorcycle Diaries ends with words to remind us of Cuba, where Alberto Granado and Ché’s family still reside. But through its images, the film captures something equally difficult to understand: how some persons become world historical figures. Figures like Ché, Franz Fanon, or Gamal Abdel-Nasser concentrated the courage of people living under colonial subjection and worked to bring them toward self-determination and betterment.

Courage is the color of this type of cinema.

As anyone can testify while watching Walter Salles’s film, Ché was someone whom most of us would have adored to have as a best friend. Even with its violence, his revolution was based on love. It’s what made him all the more dangerous to the imperial masters and their CIA and mafia henchmen.

In an emotional portrayal so typical to Latin America, Salles has confronted viewers with the task of feeling in deep emotional hues while they think through rationalized anger. The American Michael Moore can make viewers rage or laugh. The Brazilian Salles has taught us to cry through hope and wisdom while ditching the woes and despondency. In the same stroke, he reminds us about what a film of hope otherwise means.

Motorcycle Diaries is guidance for today’s youth worldwide. Ideas emerge from venturing, journeying. Pick up your bags, learn another language, and explore other cultures. Learn about yourself is its message.

Author’s Note:

Looking back at some of the more outstanding moments of the dreadful W. Bush years, Walter Salles’ film was timely in that it helped shift attention away from the beloved American narrative of “On the Road”. In Bush’s America, not even the Beats seemed to stand out as exceptions.

This was published by the good folk at Islam on Line in 2004.

Apparently, it was picked up by a local Portuguese newspaper in Vancouver.

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