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The Motorcycle Diaries

March 30, 2007

To many of us in India , Latin America is something of a black box. Either we know them because of soccer ( Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) or due to the glam babes ( Venezuela). The only other image we have is that of revolutions, drug smuggling ( Colombia) or lovely beaches ( Rio) . And Hollywood has not made matters any better, by usually portraying Latinos as bumbling idiots, gangsters, bandits or hot headed guys. Most of the Hollywood movies portray Latin America as a drug smuggler’s haven ( Clear and Present Danger), or populated with kidnappers ( Man on Fire) or as an exotic backdrop for sleaze dramas ( Wild Orchid). But there have been performers like Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez who have become part of mainstream Hollywood with their performances and appeal. At the same time directors from the region like Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu( Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), Fernando Meirelles( City of God, The Constant Gardner), Robert Rodriguez( Desperado, Sin City) and Guillermo del Toro( Pan’s Labyrinth), have made a major impact on Hollywood, with their quirky, inventive way of story telling.
Like how Sergio Leone , bought the European technique into Hollywood , with his spaghetti Westerns, these people have injected a much needed dose of Latino flavor into the industry. My exposure to Latin America was initially through a travelogue of S. America, and I was stuck by the similarities between their societies and ours. And then when I started to read the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez , I was hooked on to the place. And of course one more reason, were two fascinating persons, Fidel Castro and Che Guevera .
Now while I am not a communist, I had been fascinated by how these two people managed to defy the US in a region, where Uncle Sam , was known to bring down regimes opposed to it’s policies through coups and revolts. And of course none more iconic than Che Guevera , a poster boy for the revolution and one of the most iconic figures of all times. And one of the best movies to portray the evolution of Guevera from a medical student to a revolutionary is the 2004 movie, The Motorcycle Diaries by Brazilian director Walter Salles .
The movie starts off with Che , as a medical student, Ernesto Fuser Guevera( Gael Garcia Bernal), in Buenos Aires, deciding to go on a road trip with his friend Alberto Granado( Rodrigo de La Serna). The year is 1952 , and they travel on Alberto’s old Norton 500 bike, christened as La Poderosa( The Mighty One). They take a long winded route along the Andes , through the Chilean coast, across the Atacama desert , to the Peruvian Amazon and then reach Venezuela . It is this trip, which proves to be a life defining moment for Guevera, as he encounters the extremes of poverty and wealth. A couple whose land has been forcibly taken away from them, workers exploited in a mine, and most importantly his experiences with a colony of lepers in Peru .
The movie per se is not about Che Guevera’s politics, it only shows the circumstances which shaped his ideology. Now why did communism prove to be so popular, especially in Latin America , many of us hooked onto capitalism might wonder? The fault was not with capitalism per se, but with the way it was implemented. There were many ways in which it could be done. One is the US way, which gives complete rights to the individual, and does not interfere in his business. Though it does not have a social welfare system, the legal system is strong enough, to prevent any abuses or monopolies.
Another is the European way, where along with incentive for growth, the Governments provided a strong welfare system, which took care of the citizens. Now if one takes a look at the nations where capitalism succeeded, certain common features are there- good educational system, rule of law with a robust legal framework, basic amenities taken care of by the government. But the capitalism promoted in Latin America , was more of a crony capitalism , not a real genuine one. It was a system where a small minority of land owners, rich businessmen, government officials enjoyed the benefits, while the vast majority of the people, were left outside. Far from being true to the capitalist spirit of free trade, what we had was a monopoly of vested interests, which cornered all the benefits to themselves. There was no rule of law, no educational system and corruption flourished. You only had two classes the rich and the poor, there was no middle class. Your business did well on the basis of your connections and manipulation, not on your performance or efficiency. This was what provided a fertile ground for communism.
And this is what the movie portrays. There are some excellent scenes like the duo’s encounters with a couple forcibly removed from their land, or their meeting with exploited mine workers. But the best scene is the climax, where Guevera swims across the river separating the leper’s colony from the doctors quarters, symbolizing his rejection of his privileged background. The movie works at both levels as a road movie, as well as an individual’s journey from his privileged upbringing to a revolutionary.
One may not agree with his ideology, but the reality shown cannot be wished away. Capitalism works, only when there is an equitable distribution of resources, coupled with a rule of the law. Capitalism is successful, only when one has a good educational system with a strong legal system. Or else as Russia, Latin America have shown, it would end up in shambles.
Also the movie has some excellent camera work capturing the wonderful locales of S.America. We see the towering Andes mountains, the harsh beauty of the Atacama desert and the lush Peruvian jungle. Mexican actor Gael Bernal who appeared in Amores Perros , plays the lead role of Che Guevera , and he does an excellent job. He has that sort of intelligent look and his expressions are superb. Rodrigo De La Serna is also equally good as his friend Alberto Granado . The movie is in Spanish and partly in Quechua , so if you are watching on DVD, please check, whether it has subtitles. Whether you agree with Guevera’s ideology or not, this is a movie highly recommended. It shows what happens a tiny minority of people, exclude the vast majority from the fruits of progress.
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