Before Che, There Was Ernesto

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Away from the dictums of Mao and Castro, two twenty something Argentinians embarked on a motorcycle trip across the landscape of Latin America. It was the summer of 1952, and the travelers were Ernesto Guevera (Gael Garcia Barnel) – who would later be recognized as Che, seen on the millions of T-shirts across the globe – and his plump pal Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). Their scintillating and resonating travelogue is recapitulated in the Spanish flick The Motorcycle Diaries.

Uncorrupted by any political tinge, The Diaries, present the audience with the first encounter that young Che had with the continent and populace of Latin America. Albeit, he had yet to grasp the scenario that shadowed the South America of the 1950s, The Diaries illustrates his deep sympathies towards the impoverished people of his homeland.

Engaged to a lass belonging to a wealthy family, Ernesto is just one month away from completing his medical degree. But, when his 29 year old biochemist friend, Granado, insists that Ernesto accompany him on a road trip, traversing more than 8, 000 kilometers and covering six countries, for his thirtieth birthday, Ernesto, the scion of a bourgeois Buenos Aires family agrees. Their journey is not futile, the duo aspires to accomplish two objectives; garner the experience of the Latin lands, which is virgin of any civilization and to rope all the women of these lands who would fall for their hollow words.

Although the 1939 bike, Norton 500 of The Diaries, also known as ‘La Poderosa’, the mighty one, skids and eventually meets its demise within half an hour into the movie, the pair, reaches their final destination, a leper camp on the pinnacle of Peru, and completes the rest of their journey via boat, ferries and sometimes even on feet.

It is not the destination – it is the journey that epitomizes the soul of not just the film but of the two main characters. Especially Ernesto, brilliantly lived on screen by the mesmerizing Mexican actor Gael Garcia Barnel. As the young Che, who is still Ernesto, a dilettante, asthmatic, and one who is vague of guns and barrels, Barnel evinces a portrait of a humane hero who would not lie and stand by the polemics that he might not even grasp. Above all, Barnel with his fuzzy eyes, prowls us to believe that, one day, this medical student could be remembered for not scavenging human flesh in the Cuban remotes, but as an apostle of peace and humanity.

This debauching hoax could be accredited to the writer, Jose Rivera, who mercifully adapted memoirs of Che Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries, published in 1993) and Alberto Granado (With Che Through Latin America) into an appeasing screenplay, where we not only see buddy squabbles between the two travelers, but also some startlingly hilarious moments. In one, after leaving their bike, the mighty one, at a local mechanic shop in Chile, the two Argentines lead off to pick up women in a bar. And end up, running from the rampaging villagers after uncouth Granado is discovered with the wife of the same mechanic who has the mighty one.

Kudos also to Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of this travelogue cum biopic, known for his 1998 haunting Central Station, Salles shoots the movie, in a documentary style, giving it the much needed immediacy stroke. Walter revisits the path taken by the bikers, fifty years ago and captures the scenes on the same locations. His effort, since the inchoative shot, with the Ernesto’s voice over is not to narrate to us the tale of a legend, but that of a 23-year-old boy, who believes in love and equality. The director’s sincerity is admirable.

The intention of The Diaries has never been to justify what Ernesto became in the later part of his life or how and why he became a treacherous, inhumane and blood trenching Che. The one who roamed around the lanes of the Congo, in the farms and the Palace of Cuba, and ending up on the valley of Bolivia, swallowed by the CIA. The flick just does not show the travesties of the Latin heartland of the fifties, drained in the gallows of capitalism. It also show a sensitive Che who cries after an encounter with a famished labourer couple, glooms when he sees the inequality rampant across the continent – where dark skinned folks had to travel on a separate tiny boat, while a light skinned American commutes on a colossal ferry – and throw stones on the exploiters at a coal mine.

That the rectitude of Ernesto here outweighs the revolutionary image of Che is the victory of this cinematic piece. And there in lies its beauty and innocence.

The Motorcycle Diaries no doubt has made a solemn effort to encapsulate the seldom seen lyricism of the Latin heartland. Much of its credit must be attributed to French cinematographer Eric Gautier. Shooting the dazzling landscapes in 35-milimeter and then following it up with super 16 shots of the impoverished Indians of Peru, Gautier ascends and compliments the efforts of the magnificent cast and crew. A special mention should also be made of Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna, who plays Ernesto’s uncouth and lecherous, yet loyal friend Alberto Granado.

At the end of it, it is not an epitaph carved in Che’s memorial, but an honest representation of the boy who could have made much difference in the world if he had chosen a variant and more tougher path of peace rather than violence. Nevertheless, the 8000 kilometers journey that he had made has made this movie a requiem of traveling songs. Not an easy, but a necessary and recommended watch.

Parakh Chouhan


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