Top Ten World Cinema #8: The Motorcycle Diaries

The Motorcycle Diaries

My love affair with world cinema began nearly a decade ago when I watched French hit, Amelie (2001). Previously I had been reluctant to watch any film with subtitles, worried that it would hinder my enjoyment of the film. How wrong was I to be so naive? Since Amelie I have spent more time in the world cinema section at HMV than any other part of the shop and enjoyed a range of films from South America, Africa, Europe and East Asia. Discussing all my favourites would take many blogs but over the next ten days I will share what are currently, for me, the Top Ten World Cinema films. The standard of world cinema is very high with such gems as Ikiru (1952) and Let The Right One In (2008) missing out on the Top Ten. For those of you that haven’t tried world cinema I hope some of these films will be of interest. Those of you that are veterans in this field, I’m sure you won’t agree with all of my choices but I’ve no doubt you’ll appreciate a celebration of what is often an overlooked section in DVD shops.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

The Motorcycle DiariesThose who haven’t heard of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara will undoubtedly have seen the iconic image of him, donning a beret while his eyes are looking directly ahead and focussed. Since his death in 1967 Che has become a legend, symbolic of the spirit of revolution and was once described by Jean Paul Sartre as “the most complete human being” he had ever met. In recent years there have been three films about Che’s life. Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Parts One & Two (2008) depict the two key moments in Guevara’s life. Part One covers Che’s involvement in the Cuban Revolution (1956-9), which led to Fidel Castro taking charge of the country while Che was one of his key commanders and an important figure in the government. Part Two focuses on Che’s campaign in Bolivia (1966-7) where he looked to ignite the same revolution as he had helped to in Cuba but was eventually defeated, captured and later executed. As good as Soderbergh’s films are they don’t match up to Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), which depicts Che in his days before he took up arms as a revolutionary.

The Motorcycle Diaries is set in 1952 and begins with a young Ernesto Guevara beginning a journey on a motorcycle named “The Mighty One” with his best friend, Alberto Granado. Leaving their home in Argentina, Ernesto and Alberto head north, travelling through the Andes, Chile, Peru and onto Venezuela. Their journey is beset by problems, not least the unreliable motorcycle they have put their faith in but also Ernesto’s bouts of asthma that hindered him throughout his life particularly in his campaigns as a revolutionary. At the start of his journey, Ernesto had one semester to complete before gaining a medical degree. By the end of his time on the road with Alberto he is changed beyond recognition by the many things he has seen and the slumbering revolutionary deep inside his heart has awoken. When Ernesto and Alberto part at the end of the film they don’t see each other for many years. Eventually reunited, Alberto is stunned to find Ernesto is a commander in Fidel Castro’s army and has played a pivotal role in the Cuban Revolution.

There is nothing of Ernesto taking up arms for the first time in this film. This is purely about one journey and along the way we are treated to some breathtaking scenery as the two friends negotiate dirt roads, narrow mountain paths, snow, deserts, the Inca ruins at Macchu Picchu and finally the end of their journey, a remote leper colony where they spend a few weeks caring for the sick. Ernesto and Alberto intended their journey to be filled with fun but encounters with the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Latin America affects both men deeply, particularly Ernesto who is abhorrent to the injustice visible all around him. Ernesto’s visit to Macchu Picchu is something of a turning point and along the road he is clearly shaken by the events he has witnessed while Alberto tries to remain upbeat.

The film concludes with the time Ernesto and Alberto spent working on the San Pablo leper colony in Peru. The colony is situated on a small island with a group of nuns taking a boat across the river each day to tend to the sick. Ernesto immediately wins the disapproval of the nuns by breaking social convention and shaking hands with the lepers. Ernesto and Alberto’s presence enhances a strong community spirit among the sick as they engage in football and offer continual help and advice to these unfortunate people. The most enduring moment comes when Ernesto is celebrating his birthday across the river from the colony before deciding he wants to share the occasion with the lepers. With no boat to cross the river, Ernesto defies the threat of his asthma by swimming to the neighbouring colony. Alberto and the nuns are frantic, shouting for him to return, but when the lepers hear the nearby commotion they shout encouragement to Ernesto to keep going. An exhausted Ernesto reaches the shallows on the other side and is helped ashore, his wish to share his birthday celebrations with the colony is fulfilled. For those who wish to learn about Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara then The Motorcycle Diaries is the perfect place to start before moving onto Steven Soderbergh’s two films. Seeing the poverty and injustice that Ernesto did, it’s understandable why he chose a different path in life. Though some of his methods as a revolutionary may have been questionable, his ideals were always for equality and justice for all, something we sadly don’t see very often today.

Top Ten so far:-

8) The Motorcycle Diaries

9) Oldboy

10) City of God

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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