There are few more iconic figures than Che Guevara – a man famed for his revolutionary heroism. But as this film is at pains to point out: "This isn’t a tale of heroic feats, just the story of two lives running in parallel with one another." The two lives are those of Che or, to give his real name, Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his older friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). This film, based on their respective diaries, charts their backpacking journey through Latin America but is more than just a physical journey; it charts the development of their humanitarian and political consciousness too.
These two young middle class Argentinean men set off from Buenos Aires on a clapped-out Norton 500 motorbike, jokingly called La Poderosa (The Mighty One) and much of the initial film is taken up by the various scrapes that this motorbike gets them into. We see the marked contrast between them. Granado is a fully qualified biochemist, vivacious and humorous, a good dancer, loudly proclaiming that he wants "to get laid in every town in South America." Guevara is a more serious medical student, a hopeless dancer, in love with a beautiful and rich young Argentinean woman in Miramar (Mía Maestro) whom he can never quite get to make love to. He smuggles a puppy under his coat to take to her on the first leg of their journey but Granado teases him that he will never get to have sex with her.
Their journey continues on the motorbike, until it breaks down completely, and then by hitchhiking. They travel through Chile, up into the Peruvian Inca city of Cuzco, to Machu Picchu and the modern capital of Lima. The further they travel the more they experience the cornucopia of South American life. Interestingly, director Salles shot the film in chronological order, virtually unheard of these days. It creates a useful dynamic for the film with the production paralleling the journey, and the actors themselves discover new people and places in the same way as their characters. Salles uses local actors for each location and also gets his main actors to improvise scenes with some of the people they meet in the various locations where filming took place. It’s a wonderful way of blurring the line between character and actor, and between the film and the viewer. You feel more and more that you are part of this journey of discovery. It also emphasises that nothing much has changed for the people of South America.
The two men eventually travel to a leper colony, deep in the Peruvian Amazon jungle, where they find work as volunteer medical assistants. Guevara’s growing emotional solidarity with the patients he treats, as well as all the oppressed people he has already met on the journey, seems to be the key to his political development. As they celebrate his birthday at the colony he gives a speech extolling the unity of all South American peoples. It’s one of the few clues to his later life, alongside his heavily ironic comment: "A revolution without guns? That would never work."
They finally end up in Venezuela where Granado has been offered a good job. Guevara leaves by plane for Argentina and we are told that they do not see each other again for 8 years, by which time Guevara has led the Cuban revolution to victory with Fidel Castro. The film closes on the face of the real life 82 year old Granado, looking out onto the same airfield where he bid goodbye to his friend Ernesto in 1952.
In an age of intense political cynicism, it is refreshing to rediscover the genuine ideology of a seminal figure such as Guevara. But this is by no means a political film – rather a complex and fully-rounded biopic exploring how an empassioned, idealistic young man developed into one of the great figures of the 20th century. The film suggests several factors: Guevara’s rejection by his aristocratic girlfriend, his exposure to political writings during his journey, but above all his close encounters with the myriad peoples of South America and his experience of their oppression and poverty. What makes this film so effective is that it encourages us to think about what we might choose to do faced with similar experiences.
The acting is universally excellent. Bernal has the soulful eyes and brooding intensity to make us believe in Guevara’s evident charisma but the young actor is also convincing in his portrayal of Guevara’s physical frailty and social awkwardness. If anything de la Serna, making his big movie debut, is even better as the engaging Granado, a man who went on to achieve great things in the medical field. His performance drives the movie along and his portrait of Granado’s humanity serves as a counterpoint to the more austere Guevara.
This may be a historical film but it feels surprisingly contemporary; a warm, funny and emotionally engaging story, simply told and impeccably directed by Walter Salles (who also wrote / directed Central Station and produced City of God). If nothing else, his shots of the South American landscape will make you want to go there. And though you might not decide to become a revolutionary, it will undoubtedly make you stop and reconsider what you want to acheive with your own life, faced with the inequalities and injustices of the world.