Finding the Spirit of a Journey, Walter Salles on “Motorcycle Diaries”
by Erica Abeel
“Motorcycle Diaries” has made Walter Salles the current golden boy of Latin American cinema. The Brazilian’s director’s biopic about the young Che Guevara’s formative journey through South America was rapturously greeted in Sundance, earned a fifteen minute standing O in Cannes, and drew applause at the press screening in Toronto. Yes, a few naysayers tax the film with moist-eyed liberalism and populist pandering, but “Motorcycle” looks destined for a worldwide commercial life and success beyond the artclub, because its themes and spirit resonate in these vexed times. The film makes political engagement sexy (partly by casting Gael Garcia Bernal as Che); and its infectious idealism and revolutionary fervor offer hope for the human project.
Drawing on memoirs by Guevara and co-traveler Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), Salles reenacts the exact route of their Latin odyssey — and reinvents the road movie as a primer in social awakening, or what he calls the “re-baptizing” of Ernesto Guevara before he became the iconic “El Che.” The year is 1952 and Ernesto, a twenty-three-year-old med student from a comfortable Argentinian family, and Alberto, a biochemist, hit the road on a spluttering Norton 500 motorbike. In their travels through the Andes, Chile, and Peru, they encounter homeless miners exploited by foreign-owned companies and Indian farmers evicted from their cultivated lands; and view ugly urban sprawls that have replaced the continent’s Incan heritage. The journey culminates in a three-week stay at a leper colony in the Amazon that marks Ernesto’s transformation from introverted child of privilege to doctor of the people.
The journey would seem to be Salle’s vehicle of choice for his abiding concern: exposing his country’s social ills. Like “Motorcycle,” art-house hit “Central Station” also used a sort of road trip to tour the country’s shantytowns and non-tourist locales. And as a producer, Salles is attracted to projects such as “City of God,” which illumined the underbelly of the Rio de Janeiro slums. Next up is another road movie — this time about four brothers confronting apartheid in Sao Paulo. Though Brazil is his lodestone, for “Motorcyle” Salles assembled a pan-American team: Mexican and Argentinian actors Bernal and de la Serna; Puerto Rican screenwriter Jose Rivera; and the American producer who initiated the project, Robert Redford. Recently in Toronto, indieWIRE caught up with the peripatetic Salles, who is multi-lingual and handsome, with a modest, obliging manner not often encountered in the hurlyburly of film festivals. We discussed transformations, soft-pedaling dramatic highpoints, and roots.
indieWIRE: You’ve said that in retracing Ernesto and Alberto’s trip through South America, you were also transformed. In what ways?
Walter Salles: We wanted to be receptive to the spirit of their trip — that is, not only to the road, but what these two young men found on the margins of the road. Ernesto and Alberto were transformed by the people they met, who were very different from the ones they knew in Buenos Aires. As actors and film crew, we also encountered people and unexpected situations, which we then tried to incorporate into the film.
This ended up altering our perception of the world. When you encounter Malpuchi Indians in the frontier between Argentina and Chile, and realize that the same conflicts that are in Guevara’s book still reverberate today, you cannot help but be profoundly moved. And when you go to Cuzco and Machu Picchu and you understand that civilization was so much more refined than that of the Spanish conquistadors who destroyed it, that leaves a strong echo in your mind. So we started to go through the same internal journey as our characters had fifty years earlier. On a purely personal level, I started this film feeling essentially like a Brazilian filmmaker. Months later, after I finished it, I felt I’m also essentially a Latin American filmmaker. The frontiers of my house are now a little bit larger than they were before. I know much more about my own roots and who we are. That’s true for Gael and Rodrigo and the technicians. We were all in love with what we were finding. We jumped into this without thinking about anything else besides the film.
iW: Doesn’t filmmaking always require total absorption?
WS: Nothing before this one compares to what we felt during this shoot. How could it be otherwise? We crossed a whole continent as a family. And this family hasn’t dissolved after the shoot. Today we’re very close friends. There’s not one week when I don’t speak with Gael or exchange emails.
iW: Did the inclusion of the unexpected throw off your schedule and budget?
WS: We left room for improvised scenes to find their way into the film. You can only improvise if there’s a strong architecture to the screenplay. It’s like jazz: you can only explore new sounds when you can always find your way back into the melody. So you have scenes with the Indian women in Cuzco who invite our travelers to share the experience of chewing the coca leaes — a completely legal and organic product, by the way, that helps you with altitude and to survive the cold. The improvs were also possible because Gael and Rodrigo were so much in synch with their characters they could invent lines on the spot.
iW: Here’s a film without a high concept plot, no romance at the center, and no obvious epiphany. What makes a movie lacking all those elements work?
WS: Conflict in the “Motorcycle Diaries” is not external, it’s internal. These characters re-baptize themselves when they are confronted with a world that was unknown to them. It’s a film about the ethical and moral choices that you make in life when you are suddenly facing injustice and you realize that a choice must be made. And that is in many ways much more interesting than the fabricated external impulse that is at the origin of so many Hollywood stories.
The film is also built in layers. It doesn’t have moments that are artifically heightened or imposed on you. We thought of the film as walking in a gentle rain — two hours later you realize you’re wet. It’s really a more impressionistic quality that guides the narrative.
iW: Why did you decide to avoid an “Aha” moment or major dramatic turning point?
WS: Because when we interviewed Granado [a “young 83-year-old” doctor who lives in Cuba], he told us that what transformed the two men by journey’s end was really the accumulation of events and encounters. They were very porous…”
iW: Uh, receptive?
WS: Yes, to the human and physical geography they encountered on the road, and also on the margins of the road. So the change was…”
WS: Yes. There was not one abrupt event that made them change. And we were very respectful in not over-dramatizing.
iW: I can imagine what Hollywood would have done with this material.
WS: I prefer not to imagine.
iW: Unlike so many films, yours has no erotic center.
WS: It’s about the search for idealism and the capacity to be permeable to a world that is very different from the one you had imagined. Sexuality is not at the core of this story. Though it is a story about the loss of innocence bourgeois innocence. About understanding one’s place in the world. That’s what was important to us in that narrative.
iW: Some dissenters have called the film a hagiography.
WS: This is about Che before he became history. It’s about finding the young man before the myth and humanizing the icon. The way I react to that observation is that well, here you have a young man at the beginning of the story who is introspective, asthmatic, not successful with women, can’t dance — that information goes completely against the image of a heroic figure. The beauty of what Gael offers is that he doesn’t “hero-ify” he plays in a very economical manner, offers a young Ernesto full of doubts.
iW: You’ve spoken of collaborating with your actors on this film.
WS: This was a very collective work. The film was not made by one individual, but by co-authors. I consider Gael and Rodrigo the true co-authors of this story.
iW: It’s rumored that you come from a wealthy backgound, which interests me, since like your characters you’ve come down on the side of economic justice.
WS: My father came from a small town in the interior of Brazil, traveled six hours to school, and was the first of his family to have a higher education. He became successful and had a second life as a diplomat. So I lived in several countries. I always had the awareness that this privileged life was not the same life my grandparents had led. All of us working in Latin American cinema come from recently or older privileged families. You have to make a choice: on which bank of the river do you want to stay? It’s obvious there are not two choices and you have to fight for a fairer society.
iW: Do you think your movie will reach people who are not part of the choir?
WS: That’s not a question I can answer now — I know it was also asked regarding the Michael Moore film. We didn’t want the film to have a didactic quality or impose certitudes on you.
iW: Yet it’s pretty clear who the bad guys are. The Anaconda Mining company, etc.
WS: But we do have sympathetic portraits of privileged people. Like the doctor who lives in comfortable conditions, but is also a man who develops the research to fight leprosy. So people in those social classes are not seen in a reductive manner.
iW: One of the film’s most affecting moments is when Ernesto swims across the Amazon to be on the bank with the lepers. Did that actually happen?
WS: Granado gave us ten hours of interviews, and we asked him: if we had to pick one moment to make it clear that the young Ernesto was re-baptizing himself, what would it be? Granado said, I think it would be the crossing of the river. It was emblematic of the political situation we were living in: the “healthy” people on one bank, the deprived on another bank. The North/South polarization. The lepers on the South bank, the nuns and doctors, the dominant subculture, on the North.
iW: Why is that significant?
WS: The North/South debate is crucial in Latin America. From our perspective we are in the South, and Europe and North America are in the North – and the colonization of our continent was done with that kind of conflict in mind, The conquistadores, Cortes, etc. came from North. But here’s an interesting interpretation: in Ernesto’s book, the crossing of the river is one paragraph — he didn’t impose it on you. While Granado said, “that’s when I understood he had no desire to be a private doctor, and wanted to be a doctor of the people.” This became a film about the choice of the bank of the river where you want to spend your life.
iW: Do you want to work in Hollywood?
WS: I did one film in English recently [“Dark Water” with Jennifer Connolly], but I’m above all a Brazilian or Latin American filmmaker. My immediate desire is to do a small film in Sao Paulo. I’m not interested in a “career” — meaning doing only films that you’re offered. I’m more interested in generating my own material. And my solidarity with other Latin American filmmakers was heightened by the journey of this film.