.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Doctor recommended for optimal cerebral hygiene 

The Motorcycle Diaries

Monday, October 18, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries, a beautiful film by Walter Salles, was possibly the best movie I could have watched amidst the tremendously boring 2004 presidential campaign. For at least a couple of days, I temporarily escaped the bickering over war, taxes, and homosexuals, and with blissful ignorance joined the Cult of Che.

In some ways, I feel great anger toward Paul Berman, whose Slate review burst my bubble. For a short, lovely time my thoughts were filled with visions of a Marxist utopia. Inspired by the film to shed the denial I normally live under as a very privileged white, U.S., middle class male, a denial that enables me to carry on with my life as it is despite the fact that so many millions of people are suffering in poverty and oppression, I couldn't help imagining a world where the concept of equality was more manifest than the empty political rhetoric we have now. Berman put a stop to all that.
The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's "labor camp" system - the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination. In the famous essay in which he issued his ringing call for "two, three, many Vietnams," he also spoke about martyrdom and managed to compose a number of chilling phrases: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become..." - and so on. He was killed in Bolivia in 1967, leading a guerrilla movement that had failed to enlist a single Bolivian peasant. And yet he succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands of middle class Latin-Americans to exit the universities and organize guerrilla insurgencies of their own. And these insurgencies likewise accomplished nothing, except to bring about the death of hundreds of thousands, and to set back the cause of Latin-American democracy - a tragedy on the hugest scale.
That said, I think Berman seriously overreacted to Salles' film and comes across as having missed the point. He is so caught up in his hatred towards Communism that he can't see the value in the story of a bourgeois Argentinian medical student who is transformed by his journey into the heart of South America, leaving behind the comfort of his sheltered family life, and discovering the incredible beauty of greater Latin America, as well as the terrible injustice that existed, and in many ways still exists today. He rants that the film, "...exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death...", yet I would say that the young Che is more comparable to a young Buddha than Christ. Berman blasts Communism, yet he conveniently omits that the U.S. reaction to the emergence and spreading of Communism in Central and South America greatly contributed to how bloody a period of history it was. Paul Berman strikes me as the kind of self-righteous, narrow-minded person who, in response to criticism of U.S. democracy reflexively says, "What? So you think Communism is any better?", as if these were the only two options available indefinitely.

No, this was a sweet film, a film about the loss of innocence, a film about two young men setting out on an adventure, two men who, despite their frequent bickering, a bickering more due to their very different ways of responding to hardship than anything else, stand by one another through thick and thin. A.O. Scott, in The New York Times, got it right.
In declining to follow the subsequent course of that passion -- into the Sierra Maestre, the Congo and the mountains of Bolivia, where Guevara met his bloody end -- Mr. Salles risks being accused of idealizing his subject. It's a fair charge, but one that misses the director's fidelity to his literary sources. Guevara's diaries, discovered in a knapsack long after his death, were published in 1993, and much of their appeal lies in the sense of immediacy they convey. Their author did not know who he would become, even as the notebooks themselves dramatize a crucial stage in his development.
The Motorcycle Diaries is gorgeous to look at, including views of Machu Pichu and the surrounding Andes, not to mention the Peruvian Amazon. The two lead actors are wonderful to watch and their dialogue, while admittedly loaded with profanity, is very natural and never pedantic or preachy. Berman gives the impression that the film is like an advertisement for Communism, yet specific politics are barely explored, and the filmmakers did a wonderful job of exercising essential "showing" rather than "telling". For example, one need only watch Che's friend Alberto, quietly observing the changes he sees taking place in his companion, slowly suspecting that their original plans to eventually work together in the medical profession would not materialize and that they would likely head down separate paths. There is no melodramatic showdown between the two with grandiose speeches, while there is much respect here for the viewer's ability to read between the lines of the action.

Now it's Monday. It's back to work. I must reapply the blinders. I have a wife and child to support. People are counting on me.