Set in Spanish, but
conceived by a Brazilian, Motorcycle Diaries
is a Southern Latin American film. There may be no more perfect
a figure from the region to carry the theme of a Latin American
continental cinema than the Argentine-born, Cuban and Latin
American revolutionary, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a.k.a. Ché.
By awarding Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d’Or, the 2004
Cannes Film Festival Jury, presided by Quentin Tarantino, only did what was
natural at this moment in time for art.
It used the film to denounce
Bush and the neo-con’s tyranny as having intensified the violence and terror
in the world they claim to have been eradicating, and that they have done
so primarily to seize central Asian natural resources for personal and family
gain. France happened to be the ideal place to declare such a message for
more reasons than one.
Apart from the country’s
opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the festival was also set
against the social strife affecting the country’s arts industry workersthe
"intermittents du spectacle".
In the summer of 2003,
they had managed to bring the Avignon Theatre festival to a halt in protest
over the Chirac government’s attempt to rid their status of job security and
In the end, neither the
intermittents nor the American occupation of Iraq made the Cannes dream-machine
flicker into a fade out. Nor was there much discussion about the stance that
art ought to take on the world’s current flow.1
Instead the American culture
system proved able to deploy irony in the face of opposition and protest.
Back in 1968 the Cannes film festival was no less insurgent against the American
invasion of South Vietnam and authoritarianism of the French political system.
Yet its protests struck out on an international tone in a bid to broaden people’s
power of decision-making in Western democracies.
What has changed thirty-six
years later is that the USA manages to monopolize the stages of protest as
well as those of aggression. Meanwhile, under the cool shade of the Mediterranean
palms, the rest of the world was blazing new, separate trails.
Movies and Politics
Less ironically, only
in the US can the question still be raised seriously as to whether cinema
has a political potential. The seventh art has nonetheless shifted its stride.
With Sergei Eisenstein in the USSR and D.W. Griffith in the US, cinema provided
these countries with modern-day epics by which nations recognize their historical
Decades later out came
a line from World War II with Italian neo-realism, in the work of Roberto
Rossellini, and the French New Wave, of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker.3
These movements brought documentary techniques to project the real-time struggle
against what the world marshaled by those nations had become. Image strategies
were reorganized to expand public imagination as reality was identified with
Nowadays, with a documentary
holding the Palme d’Or for the first time in 48 years, it seems that cinema
has been compelled to take up the failure of journalism, at least as it is
manufactured by the corporate-owned and run mass media.
But journalism and news
documentary are not germane to art. It’s even questionable whether journalism
manages to come close to telling audiences the truths whose expression distinctly
occurs within art’s domain.
Cinema has always offered
a glimpse into the imaginary, even in its most escapist form. As worthy as
Michael Moore’s struggles might be, the 2004 Cannes film festival only reiterated
the Establishment’s shrunken mind.
Political cinema can be
criticism, but insofar as it becomes a variation on journalism it ends up
evaporating its dream component. Were this disappearance to encapsulate the
idea of cinematic art itself and the criterion by which the Palme is awarded,
Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’ Diários de Motocicleta would
have been its victor.
Set in Spanish, but conceived
by a Brazilian, Motorcycle Diaries is a Southern Latin American film.
Foreign audiences may not grasp the sense and importance of that implication.
General ignorance of South America is draped by a skewed geography. Too many
keep forgetting that Spanish is not the language spoken in Brazil, the continent’s
As one of the great veterans
of the 1960s Cinema Novo movement, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, recently
said, "The political divisions invented for Latin America are completely
artificial. Our peoples are so close, so similar. Walter Salles’ film shows
this dimension." 4
Yet there is difference
within the similarities. Not only are its cultural and political traditions
Portuguese and Italian, but Brazilian culture is steeped in an African and
Indian admixture untypical even for the American continent.
So while South America
sports a common market zone, the Mercosul (in Portuguese) or Mercosur
(in Spanish), it’s difficult to speak of the area as sharing a historically
linear plight of common struggle.
Ambition and Hope
For a Brazilian to prime
his film as Latin American is also a gesture of ambition, hope. It’s precisely
the stuff cinema is made of. In that regard, there may be no more perfect
a figure from the continent to carry a screenplay on the theme than the Argentine-born,
Cuban and Latin American revolutionary, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a.k.a.
is Ché’s Bildungsroman, his coming-of-age tale. As a precursor
of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), though not translated into English
until 1995, Guevara’s memoirs are much closer to an egalitarian version of
Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
There’s no Dean Moriarty,
or Sancho Panza in Ernesto’s partner, Alberto Granadowhose own memoirs,
With Ché Through Latin America, stand as the complementary basis
for José Rivera’s screenplay. Equality betweens these two blood-brothers
sets the basis from which their political egalitarianism will arise.
Don Quixote de la Mancha
recapitulated the entire tradition of knighthood adventures, turning the sum
into a massive delirium in recursivity. As a road novelist, Ernesto was breaking
new ground by making healing his primary purpose.
Gifted with as much culture
as any of North America’s "Beat Generation", social change for him
was not merely cultural euphoria, experimenting with drugs and lifestyle challenges.
His art was not the Book, but the journey itself.
The film is a venture
back to a time prior to the Cuban revolution, peasant and popular uprisings
and wars of decolonization in which Ché fulfilled a hero’s purpose.
This road included his role as Cuba’s Minister of Industry from 1961 to 1965.
For decades since, the
nation that bankrolled his killers, the US itself, has tried various ways
to demonize him. It seems to have best succeeded simply by flattening him
into banality: a freeze-framed image on a T-shirt iron-on or poster.
North American suburban
middle-class kids can titillate their clued-out parents by wearing his icon
while his gaze drifts eternally through pop culture trends, as inane as anything
produced by the US popits gift to the world.
For anyone who has witnessed
the pictures of Ché after his assassination by a CIA goon squad in
the Bolivian jungle in 1967, another image wrenches us out of oblivion. Behind
the death mask is a physically vulnerable, saintly figure.
Devotion to the
An asthmatic from his
earliest days, Ernesto was a trained physician, specializing in leprology.
Motorcycle Diaries recounts his apprenticeship. In his art’s emergence,
Ernesto’s devotion to the disenfranchised would soon become the guiding light
to his political radicalism.
At 23 and still in med
school, Ernesto (played by Gale Garcia Bernal) heads off with his best friend,
Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) on the back of a ’39 Norton 500 for
a continent-long adventure. It is 1952.
The friends leave from
the urban upper-middle- to rural upper class comforts in Argentina to encounter
nature’s gigantic splendors on the world’s most spectacular continent. From
the Argentine pampas to the stark Andean isolation of the country’s border
with Chile, the pair encounters a land almost barren of humans.
When their Norton lives
out its last cusp of combustion in the Atacama Desert, the road begins to
unfold into a land. Hand in hand, the film’s temporal setting evaporates into
The eternity of post-Andean
Inca subsistence and struggle turns the film’s tables into world historical
fate. Alberto and Ernesto ascend the heights of Machu Picchu as if Moses,
here joined by Aaron, receiving the Ten Commandments.
Later, as they wander
through the streets of the Inca capital of Cuzco, change has primed them to
reawaken the ancestral split history of South America. One line stretches
from the descendants of the pure or mixed-blood native Indians, enslaved in
one form or another for centuries.
Another one condenses
the European heritage of those whose barbarity exceeded all obstacles to make
them the continent’s rulers. A young Inca boy is one of a slew of non-professional
actors caught throughout the journey for the camera’s pleasure, and a match
for its free-style hand-held movement.
Pointing to ancient masonry,
incredible even by our modern standards, the boy utters: "This wall was
built by Incas; that one there was built by the useless Spanish."5
The contrast is a recap of South America’s history as its twists between two
strides and two memories.
The film then turns into
Ché’s diaries themselves. Eric Gautier’s striking chiaroscuro tones
set against the exploding greenery of the film’s first part morphs into a
semblance of El Greco’s grayish hues. From its fissures, black-and-white stills
tear away from the film’s narrative surface, left for the memory of viewers
In a decisive moment in
any Bildungsroman, the young protagonist faces an existential moment
over which he has no control but to choose: either he accepts his mentor or
slides into quixotic wandering. For `Fuster’, as he is nicknamed by Alberto,
this mentor is one of their own: a physician, Dr. Bresciani.
Science and Art
At this point, the choice
is between science and art. From within the guild, the first stone to Ché’s
mission is set. The mentor-physician is a struggling author, whose other task
is to give Fuster and Alberto his manuscript to comment. In an untypical act
of humility, the master seeks judgment from the student.
While Granado shies from
the responsibility of appraising the work, Ernesto leaps at it as if to underscore
that the gift his mentor legged was the wisdom of a destination: to care for
patients in a leper colony on the Amazon. Ernesto and Granado spend the film’s
most stable moments there, perfecting their arts and their sciences.
is also, and foremost, a Brazilian film. Its release comes on the heels
of a series of outstanding works that have renewed the activity of Latin America’s
former great film producing country. What was the cause of its interruption?
Singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso unequivocally charged the dictatorial period
of 1964-1988 with having destroyed the bossa nova, Tropicalismo
and Mineira art movements.6
After 1968, and Institutional
Act 5 (AI-5), civil liberties were suspended, and parliament forced into permanent
recess. As successor to President General Arthur da Costa e Silva, President
General Emílio Garrastazu Médici would soon implement an anti-communist
national security terror state in Brazil. For ten years, expression became
a life-threatening contest.
Scores of artists, intellectuals
and political organizers were forced into exilewhen they were famous.
Those not as lucky were imprisoned, often tortured and sometimes killed. Lyndon
Johnson supported the 1964 coup, offering American military assistance were
anything to have gone wrong in the meantime. Throughout Latin America’s darkest
period, the US helped organize intelligence networks, such as the Plano Condor
(a.k.a. Operation Condor), to annihilate popular uprisings.
Though hardly comparable
in scale to Joseph Stalin’s rule in the USSR, the effects on culture wrought
by Brazil’s military dictatorship were similar: the creative edge of the nation’s
arts drifted into hibernation. That the dictatorship is long gone and Brazil
now stands as the continent’s most stable democracy can be read in the range
of topics into which the national cinema has delved lately.
Written for classical
guitar, Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack for Motorcycle Diaries evokes
the struggles of the continent. It reminds viewers that South America, and
Brazil in particular, is the preeminent space for guitar composition and virtuosity
Inspiring the soundtrack
is composer and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, Egberto Gismonti’s ambitious
project. His work on native Amazonian song and rhythm, as well as the cover
photo of Zig Zag depicting the majestic Falls of Iguaçuthat
straddle the border between three nations of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguayis
an ode to the transnational continuity of the land.7
Some critics have pleaded
for viewing the film in suspension from Ché’s later life, perhaps through
ambivalence or embarrassment over the Cuban revolution. Others have denigrated
it for not linking the two sufficiently.
As much as we might rationally
succeed in rejecting historical determinism as the drive through which to
consider history, i.e. as inevitable if not pre-written in some form, our
imagination ends up interfering. Imagination compels us to use historical
inevitability as only one among other possibilities that twist various lines
together to form our conception of history.
How else can we be thrilled
by moments of suspense in historical dramas whose outcome is well known beforehand?
As Ché decides to overcome his frail health and the dangers of tropical
waters by swimming across the Amazon at night to share his birthday party
with the leper colony he has helped care for, we are gripped and yearn for
The Cuban revolution to
which Ché did so much to lend its festive features has lasted against
sizeable odds. We share the view of Frei Betto, the liberation theologian
and current special adviser to President Lula da Silva, who hopes "the
panel at Jose Marti airport in Havana welcoming visitors to the country will
remain long into the future. [It declares:] `Tonight, millions of children
will sleep in the streets of the world. None of them is Cuban.’"8
Yet Cuba’s successes,
as extraordinary as they are when considering the American colossus against
which it rose up and has had to defend itself, were drawn toward the bottom
from the outset. As a result, political egalitarianism has been identified
If American conservatives
and Cuban émigrés living in Florida lament that Cuba is not
a beach and casino resort arrayed with the finest mulatas of the Caribbean
subjected to prostitution for the rich, progressives cannot be easily satisfied
either with the impoverished state of the project.
ends with words to remind us of Cuba, where Alberto Granado and Ché’s
family still reside. But through its images, the film captures something equally
difficult to understand: how some persons become world historical figures.
Figures, like Ché,
Franz Fanon or Gamal Abdel-Nasser, concentrated the courage of people living
under colonial subjection and worked to bring them toward self-determination
and betterment. Courage is the color of this type of cinema.
As anyone can testify
while watching Walter Salles’ film, Ché was someone whom most of us
would have adored having as a best friend. Even with its violence, his revolution
was based on love. It’s what made him all the more dangerous to the imperial
masters and their CIA and mafia henchmen.
In an emotional portrayal
so typical to Latin America, Salles has confronted viewers with the task of
feeling in deep emotional hues while they think through rationalized anger.
As an American, Michael
Moore can make viewers rage, or laugh. The Brazilian Salles has taught us
to cry through hope and wisdom while ditching the woes and despondency. In
the same stroke, Salles reminds us what a film of hope otherwise means.
is guidance for today’s youth worldwide. Ideas emerge from venturing,
journeying. Pick up your bags, learn another language and explore other cultures.
Learn about yourself is this film’s message.
For the tensions that have arisen within the intermittents between
arts and entertainment industry workers, see Guy Scarpetta, "Le Grand
retour des intermittents du spectacle: Marché, culture et création",
Le Monde diplomatique, Mai 2004, pp. 4-5.
directed October (1927) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), while
Griffith is best known for Birth of a Nation (1915).
directed Rome Open City (1945)and Germany Year Zero (1947).
Godard’s first film was Breathless (1959), though his work
went on to develop non-narrative aspects in the wake of the May-June 1968
events. Marker’s work, La Jetée (1962), integrated non-fiction
documentary photo techniques even as it struck a more narrative tone than
his later productions would.
4 Sergio Dávila,
"5 Vezes Cinema" (an interview with five Brazilian filmmakers from
three different generations), in Folha de São Paulo, May 30,
2004, E1, p. 1.
Rebelde", by Nayse López in an interview with Walter Salles Jr.
for the Brazilian monthly, Trip, no. 122, May 2004.
do Brasil, April 3, 2004, "Caderno B", p. 1.
7 Egberto Gismonti,
Zig Zag, ECM Records, 1995. The Motorcycle Diary soundtrack
is available on
8 Frei Betto,
"Cuba resiste, solidariamente", Folha de São Paulo, Op-ed
page, January 4, 2004.
Norman Madarasz is
a Canadian philosopher residing in Rio de Janeiro, and a regular contributor
to Brazzil. He has written extensively on international political
economy, philosophy and the arts, and welcomes comments at email@example.com.