Do legends die a second death once Madonna has played dress-up with their image? Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara may want to know. Both did some of their best work in stills, and the comandante in particular has become a silk-screen semiotic puzzle, the iconic Albert Korda photograph—now a logo advocating “freedom” or “revolution” or “the people” or something—endlessly multiplied into a worldwide army of cotton-blend Ches. A premature and violent demise ensured that Che’s star remained forever suspended, though his valiant trailblazing, first as the freedom fighter of the Cuban Communist upheaval, took less illustrious detours in his later career: desultory toil in ministerial posts under Castro, then unsuccessful revolutionary missions in Africa and finally Bolivia, where the CIA had a decisive hand in his murder. The man’s totalitarian leanings have been politely overlooked: By personal accounts, Guevara was loyal, ascetic, impassioned, and tireless; by popular assent, he gave good face.
All of those qualities come to the fore in Walter Salles’s earnest The Motorcycle Diaries, which presents an accessible, asthmatic Ernesto Guevara (played by Gael García Bernal), before he rechristened himself as Che: a 23-year-old Argentine medical student who, in 1952, journeyed across South America with his slightly older friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). The guys banter and bicker, cruise girls, scam meals, wangle barns and toolsheds to sleep in, and make an entertaining nuisance of themselves wherever they go, their voyage suffused with a thrilling restlessness by Eric Gautier’s searching, pensive camera. But what begins as a bummy tourist lark, chronicled in Guevara’s journal-memoir hybrid The Motorcycle Diaries and Granado’s With Che Through Latin America, gradually downshifts into a found education in the ravages of rapacious capitalism on the landscape and indigenous peoples of the continent.
Diaries soon loses its Motorcycle. Sweet, droll Ernesto and energetic bullshitter Alberto elbow their way out of Buenos Aires on a bike they name La Poderosa: a shambling, flatulent hobo of a vehicle, stooped with kit and pissing oil, that tosses its passengers to the ground at will. “The Mighty One” carries them to the pastoral chalet in Miramar where Ernesto’s wealthy girlfriend (Mía Maestro) resides (“Where the fuck are we, Switzerland?” Alberto demands) but breaks down irretrievably in Chile; and when the bike dies, the movie deteriorates too. Travel by foot and hitchhiking increases the young men’s encounters with conscience-pricking, generically noble locals: subsistence farmers left homeless on their own land, an impoverished dissident couple (“Their faces were tragic and haunting,” Ernesto murmurs in voice-over), and plucky lepers. Salles occasionally assembles the unfortunates to face the camera in a still life of heroic, art-directed suffering, though the prostitute Alberto purchases on a boat is not deemed worthy of such beatification.
The Motorcycle Diaries is lovely to look at but insipid, a lavishly illustrated Rough Guide to white liberal self-affirmation. When Ernesto, weakened by frequent, harrowing asthma attacks, struggles to swim across the Amazon to spend his 24th birthday with patients at the San Pablo leper colony, the act crystallizes Salles’s film: a well-meaning but ostentatious display of solidarity with a vaguely defined ideal, not entirely unlike making the scene in your Che Guevara tank top.