Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries”; On the Road, Without Much Substance
by Peter Brunette
Because of its blatant populist appeal and very soft-core leftist politics, many critics and ordinary viewers will be automatically wild about Walter Salles‘ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” but they will be wrong. This film that explores a real-life motorcycle trip taken by the 24-year-old Che Guevara and a friend around South America in the early 1950s hits all the right notes, but for this critic, at least, the piano’s badly in need of tuning. Salles, the director of the much-loved but even more manipulative “Central Station” a number of years back, is up to his old tricks once again, but the more recent film, even on a basic formal and dramatic level — and despite all the praise it got at its Sundance premiere in January — is simply not very interesting.
When Che Guevara is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, the Mexican heartthrob who also stars in Pedro Almodovar‘s competition film, “Bad Education,” of course you want to like the film. And the idea of two young men, setting out to explore life and their continent — like another young man around the same time in North America, Jack Kerouac — is an instantly sympathetic one. But the things that actually happen to them — road accidents, picking up girls, going to parties, running out of money, all liberally sprinkled with gorgeous shots of the magnificent countryside — couldn’t be more pedestrian. In fact, most of the events that occur would be completely uninvolving if you didn’t know that they were happening to Che Guevara. So the viewer finds him- or herself basically waiting for this solidly upper-middle-class, spoiled kid from Buenos Aires, this doctor-in-training, to finally encounter the People and start becoming the Che Guevara that, depending on our politics, we love or hate.
About halfway through the film, after what has in effect been little more than a long travelogue, Che and his friend Alberto, who incarnates the standard, lovable Sancho Panza sidekick figure (played by Rodrigo de la Serna), finally discover the landless, exploited Indians and begin to develop a social conscience. Nowhere is this sentiment really explored in depth, however, and Salles doesn’t even go near any political analysis of the causes of the unjust economic system that prevails in Latin America. Instead, we learn by the end of the film that there is “injustice,” as though it were a fact of nature, which has the wonderful effect of completely isolating viewers from any blame. Salles’ appeal is solely to the mushy, bleeding-heart, limousine-liberal kind of folks that the right takes so much delight in ridiculing.
The last part of the picture shows Che and Alberto working in a leper colony, once again demonstrating their closeness to the People (whom Salles evokes with black-and-white images distributed frequently throughout the film, especially in its coda). There is an immense party thrown for them when they leave (which Salles, Spielberg-like, milks for all it’s worth emotionally) but it all ends up seeming kind of phony when you realize they’ve only been there for three weeks. Salles also focuses on a death-defying stunt Che pulled, swimming across the Amazon at night in order to show his solidarity with the poor, with the purpose of adding as much drama to this pretty limp plot as possible, but it all seems totally artificial even if it did happen. Here at the end, Salles is so eager to manipulate (like Spielberg at the end of “Schindler’s List“) that he basically shows us three different farewell scenes in a row. And just in case someone in the audience didn’t know that this was, in fact, all about THE Che Guevara, Salles spells out the future, letter by letter, in condescending titles.
The ultra-rich, politically liberal Salles’ heart was undoubtedly in the right place when he made this movie, but virtually every aspect of it is aimed at evoking the most unthinking baseline of emotional responses. There’s no depth anywhere, no examination of the conflicts that any upper-class kid must feel about fighting for justice vs. selfishly living the good life, no demonstration that, of course, poor people aren’t necessarily more noble or better people just because they’re poor. Nothing of any substance whatsoever. All we get here is the most facile yanking of the heartstrings of liberals everywhere, and at this point in the history of this increasingly dangerous world, this is no longer enough.