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The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles traces an 8000-mile journey of two close friends, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who would become the iconic Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado. As they travel from Argentina to Peru by motorcycle, truck, raft and foot looking for adventure, they gain a new perspective of the world that they never expected to garner.
As Ernesto and Alberto cross of thousands of miles across Latin America, from one country to another, the borders between each country vanish and the continent itself surfaces as a whole, one entity united. Ernesto, toward the end of the movie, poignantly makes his birthday speech before a toast, “This journey has only confirmed this belief, that the division of America into unstable and illusory nations is a complete fiction. We are one single mestizo race from Mexico to the Magellan Straits.”
The extensive landscape scenes show an immense geographical diversity, from dense forests to snowy mountains to arid deserts to thick jungle, from the wild to the rural to the urban. Yet in each place, the two Argentinians feel connected to the people, to the land, and its history. On the journey, Che and Granado see poverty and oppression constantly haunting all across Latin America and lend a helping hand to the oppressed. They realise that the injustices and suffering of poor and powerless Latin Americans are not confined by frontiers but that they almost characterise the continent as a whole.
The young men who were initially looking forward to a trip full of adventure and romance find lines of indigenous people on the mountain roads, homeless in their own land. They meet a peasant couple who has been forced onto the road and lost many friends because of their communist beliefs. Che enrages at a copper mining company’s maltreatment of the workers who must beg for work in the brutal mines. During their visit to the ruins of the once splendid Inca city of Machu Picchu, the two comrades dolefully compare it to the vast slums of Lima in Peru established by the conquerors. While Granado dreams of a peaceful return to the glories of the past, Che muses on the power of guns and on how a civilisation of such magnificence and beauty could have been destroyed by the creators of such a polluted, decayed city of Lima and blurts out, “A revolution without guns? It will never work.”
As the journey continues, Ernesto’s connection to people in need grows more and more tangible throughout the film. In Peru where Che and Granado volunteer for three weeks at the San Pablo leper colony, refuses to wear rubber gloves during his visit choosing instead to shake bare hands with startled leper inmates. There, Guevara sees both physically and metaphorically the division of society – the staff live on the north side of a river, separated from the lepers living on the south. At the end of the journey and after his stay at the leper colony, Che’s egalitarian, anti-authority beliefs grow in him and, at his birthday toast, puts much emphasis on a united Latin American identity that transcends the narrow-minded provincialism and the limited boundaries of nation and race. That night, Che makes his symbolic final journey when despite his asthma, he swims across the river that splits the two societies of the leper colony, spends the night in a leper shack, instead of in the cabins of the doctors. It symbolises his adamant and fierce desire to bring justice and equality to the oppressed, to the society and to Latin America.
These encounters with social injustice transform the way Guevara sees the world and allegedly motivates his later political activities as a revolutionary. And there is an urgent question posing itself before Che: on which side of the river is he going to spend all his life? Which side of the tracks? Che is challenged by all that he has seen. By the end of the journey, Che has undergone a conversion. “I think of things in different ways, something has changed in me.” The testimonies of the many downtrodden South Americans that he has encountered have inspired Che to begin his search for this solution.
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