Ché Is Brazilian Now

     Ché Is Brazilian Now

    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: Norman

    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 workers—the
    "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
    unemployment benefits.

    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
    largest country.

    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.

    Motorcycle Diaries
    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 Granado—whose 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 pop—its 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
    to inscribe.

    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.

    Motorcycle diaries
    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 exile—when 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 Iguaçu—that
    straddle the border between three nations of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay—is
    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
    his success.

    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
    with poverty.

    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.

    Motorcycle Diaries
    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.

    Motorcycle Diaries
    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.

    2 Eisenstein
    directed October (1927) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), while
    Griffith is best known for Birth of a Nation (1915).

    3 Rossellini
    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.

    5 "Príncipe
    Rebelde", by Nayse López in an interview with Walter Salles Jr.
    for the Brazilian monthly, Trip, no. 122, May 2004.

    6 Jornal
    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

    • Show Comments (0)

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    comment *

    • name *

    • email *

    • website *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


    You May Also Like


    Brazil/US Study Uses Stem Cells to Help Diabetics Do Without Insulin

    An international team of researchers has used the stem cells taken from the blood ...

    São Paulo, Brazil

    Sí£o Paulo, Brazil, Never Saw So Many Tourists: 11 Million

    São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and the main economic hub in the country, received ...

    After Another Production Record Brazil May Become Self Sufficient in Oil in 2005

    Petrobras reached in May an average monthly production of 1 million 729 thousand barrels ...

    Passion in the Backlands

    Advertised as the largest open-air theater in the world, Nova Jerusalém attracts, during the ...

    Itaipu hydroelectric

    All It’s Missing Is Congress Approval for Paraguay to Get Brazil’s Money

    By an ample majority, the Paraguayan Senate approved an agreement with Brazil which will ...

    Brazil ballot box with question about sales of guns

    Brazil’s First Referendum Ever Is Blow to Oligarchy

    The holding of the first referendum in the country’s history, on the sale of ...


    British Petroleum Finally Gets a Piece of Brazil Buying US Devon

    The company British Petroleum has agreed to buy Brazilian, Azeri and Gulf of Mexico ...

    Rabbi Henry Sobel's Florida police mug

    Brazil’s Top Jewish Leader Goes to Jail in Florida for Shoplifting

    New York raised Rabbi Henry Sobel, 63, one of Brazil's most respected religious leaders ...

    Lax Control Opens Brazil to Transgenic Contamination

    With the appearance of genetically modified organisms in the last decade (which are also ...