The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Rated R Our ratings: V-2 ; L-5 ; S/N-2

(Note: The last paragraph and the questions contain spoilers, so stop if you have not seen the film.)

O LORD, my Lord, my strong deliverer, you have covered my head in the day of battle.
Do not grant, O LORD, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot. Selah Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!
Do not let the slanderer be established in the land; let evil speedily hunt down the violent!
I know that the LORD maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor.
Psalm 140:7-12

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
Isaiah 61:1-3

Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ Then Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Luke 5:12-13

The Motorcycle Diaries

As you might guess from the title, director Walter Salles’ film is a road trip movie, very much in the mindset of that paragon of Sixties films, Easy Rider. But aside from genre, the film is unusual in its portrayal of the transformation of the young man who became the worshipped and the condemned figure known as “Che” Guevara. Screenwriter Jose Rivera based his script on The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and With Che Through Latin America by Alberto Granado. No matter what one may think of Guevara’s later Communist ideology and his attempts to stir up revolution throughout Latin America, one can appreciate this insightful character study, made so real and beautiful by skillful acting and glorious cinemaphotography.

In 1952 the two students, deciding to fulfill their long talked-over dream of an epic trip despite the fears of their families and their relatively small purse, set forth resolutely on their wheezy 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, which they optimistically dub “The Mighty One.” Young Guevara himself is a bit wheezy from his asthma, so he keeps an inhaler ever ready. After a stop over for a visit with Guevara’s girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra (Mia Maestro), whose parents do not approve, the two head north. They flirt and con their way for free drinks and meals, and at times for motorcycle repairs. In one city they pose as “famous” medical experts in leprosy, Che soliciting in the local newspaper office an interview. A copy of this comes in very handy when their motorcycle breaks down and they have no funds to pay for it. The suspicious mechanic and his friends have read the story and are “honored” to be of service to two such “humanitarians.” Finally, however, after being run out of one town, “The Mighty One” fails to live up to its name, so the two have to hitch hike and walk the rest of the way to Peru.

This proves to be pivotal in the development of Guevara, because only during the slow-paced portion of their journey do they have the time to see the peasants and their misery. The stark images of the native-dressed mestizos whom they meet and converse with along the highways and in the stark barrios of cities are unforgettable. One night they meet a young couple who had subsisted by working in the mines. The husband recounts their tale of being put out of work and their home, and of his hope of finding work in a mine. The next morning the travelers observe the cruel way in which the labor contractor selects hirees from the eager crowd, the man seeming to enjoy trampling on their innate dignity. Angered by this, Guevara hurls a rock at the truck as it heads for the mine, this being a foreshadowing of the ruthless revolutionary he will later become.

In Cuzco the destitute, ragged pair are befriended by a doctor who pays for their boat passage to the San Pablo leper colony down the Amazon. This is their destination, the two apparently having volunteered to serve at the institution for three weeks. Guevara is distressed to learn that the medical staff and nuns live across the wide river from the leprosy victims whom they serve. He is also upset by the rules and regulations of the Mother Superior—one of these rules being that no one eats on Sunday if they have not attended mass. As soon as the two step off the boat, Guevara violates the first rule by refusing to put on gloves. Everyone knows that leprosy is not contagious, but the Mother Superior has insisted on continuing this old practice, which the medical staff had gone along with. Even when they cross the river, Guevara refuses to don gloves, and he spontaneously embraces one patient after another. Needless to say, the lepers take to him immediately.

The climax of the film comes on the last night of the young men’s stay. A big party has been thrown to celebrate Guevara’s birthday. However, as he looks away from the bright lights of the party and sees the darkness on the other side of the river, he comes to a decision. Apparently deciding that his place is on the other side of the river with the outcasts, Guevara begins to take off his clothes. Alberto and the head physician appeal to him, worried both over his asthma and the swift current of the river, but the gasping swimmer keeps on. By now the lepers have heard the shouting, and though they can scarcely see in the darkness, they cheer their friend on. It is one of the most thrilling and satisfying moments to be experienced in any film this year. I felt a feeling of melancholy while watching the film, knowing of the eventual fate of Guevara—of his turning to the way of violence and of his execution by a firing squad in Bolivia in the late 1960s. I could not help but wonder what might have happened had he met an Oscar Romero or a Martin Luther King, Jr. during that fateful journey in 1952—but of course, those apostles of non-violence were yet to emerge.

For Reflection/Discussion

1) How are Guevara and Alberto typical of young adults at the beginning of their journey?

2) How does the journey become an inward one for Guevara? How is it important to slow down at times so we can really see things and people? (Remember Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” with its refrain, “Slow down, you’re going too fast/You’ve got to make the morning last…”?) Have you at times driven off an Interstate to take a back road? What did you gain from this that you would not have had you stayed on the faster road?

3) How did you feel as you saw and heard the stories of the mestizos? Are their similar groups in our country, even in your area? What are you or your church doing to alleviate their suffering?

4) What do you think of the image of the church at the leper colony? Note that this was in the early 1950’s, and by and large the face that the church offered throughout South America? Was it much better in the cities and the South of the US back then? Now?

5) Despite of what he became, how is Guevara’s breaking of the Mother Superior’s rules similar to what Christ did? How do you think the church is sometimes its own worst enemy? Had Guevara known better the Scriptures or experienced a more compassionate church, might his destiny have been different? How is violence and revolution sometimes the last resort of those who care deeply about the oppressed?

6. On which side of the river do you think Christ would most often be found? On that where the staff lived and the church celebrated mass, or over with the outcast lepers? Do you think that Guevara’s decision to share his birthday with the lepers was an unconscious decision for Christ, one which the Master might have approved?

7) What moments of grace do you recall from the film?