The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of a motorcycle journey taken in 1952 by the 23 year old Che Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his 29 year old friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). Che was a medical student nearing the end of his studies at the time, and his friend was a biochemist. Their journey was a roundabout trip through much of South America, to temporary volunteer jobs at a Peruvian leper colony.
The journey lasts several months—this is basically a “road” picture—during which time the duo’s carefree youthful attitudes are challenged by the poverty and injustice they constantly encounter—it’s a political “coming-of-age” picture too.
Guevara is presented as a moral purist, largely unable to lie or be disloyal, even in a good cause. Interesting, then, that later in life he seemingly had no trouble at all lying, killing, and doing all the things that soldiers and violent revolutionaries do when they’re convinced they’re on the right side.
Yes, it’s clear why he was radicalized. After all, you pretty much have to be willfully blind not to oppose the way the most ruthless people end up on top in this world, and the people at the bottom suffer horribly. But I don’t mean it’s left unexplained why he ended up on the side he did. I mean the film raises for me the question of why an ethical, principled person transitions from refusing to do bad things, to only doing them in service to a cause that will (supposedly) reduce the total of such bad things. Or to put it in technical philosophical terms, what converted him from a non-consequentialist to a consequentialist?
This is not a sensationalist film. It has political points to make, and it’s pro-Guevara, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with its message, nor move at a thrill-a-minute Hollywood pace.
That’s not to deny that there are peaks, where the intensity is bumped up noticeably. For instance, the scene of the asthmatic Guevara imprudently swimming across the Amazon to spend the night with the lepers rather than in the doctors’ quarters is quite powerful. (I have no idea how close, if at all, that scene is to anything that happened in real life.)
But mostly The Motorcycle Diaries is a slow, thoughtful movie with some truly beautiful scenery—from deserts to snowy mountains—that held my interest to only a moderate degree. I’m left with an overall positive impression of the film, and here and there I even experienced it as inspiring, but it was also a bit of a chore to sit through.