The ploys put in place by the CIA, the KGB, and various covert factions of the Bolivian and Cuban militaries were playing out. That much he knew. Betrayal hung in the air. And he was a very sick man. He certainly couldn’t deny that any longer. The journey of Che Guevara, it would seem, would come to an end in the Ñancahuazú Valley of south-central Bolivia in early October, 1967.
Had he the inclination to look back on his quite-eventful life as it wound to a close, his now-mythical days with Fidel in the Sierra Maestra during the Cuban Revolution might not have been the first thoughts to enter his mind.
Rather, as darkness loomed, it might well have been another adventure entirely: an 8,000-mile vision quest, as it were, undertaken with a fellow pre-med student some fifteen years earlier.
The 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara, not yet the iconic "Che" of legend, and his gregarious buddy Alberto Granado would hop atop a dilapidated and sputtering 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle in Buenos Aires and begin an eight-month odyssey into the heart of South America and, before they, figuratively, ran out of gas, into the depths of their own souls.
Guevara’s journal of their trip would later be published under the title "Diarios de Motocicleta " (The Motorcycle Diaries) and acquire a cult readership throughout Latin America. Later, following translation, it would become available to the English-speaking world. Then, of course, as it usually does in the proper order of things, would come the movie.
It would be during mid-January of 2004, amid the attendant hoopla of yet another Sundance Film Festival, that Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles would take the stage of Park City’s Egyptian Theatre to premiere his cinematic take on their now historic journey. With Robert Redford playing a large mentoring role with the film’s production, Sundance seemed the obvious choice.
In the beginning, the film had an almost Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady "On the Road" feel to it. At least that was my initial reaction. That it failed to hold, of course, didn’t surprise.
These guys weren’t "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time" that populated Kerouac’s "bop prosody." To be sure, Ernesto and Alberto were out for pure and transformative experience, but they were not Ginsberg’s "angel-headed hipsters" by any stretch.
But now, if you wish, you will be able to judge such competing mindsets for yourself. "Motorcycle Diaries" is returning to Park City for another big-screen showing, and this time it’s at the Jim Santy Auditorium, Wednesday evening, December 10, as part of the "Reel Classics Free Screenings" from the Park City Film Series.
As in most "road buddy" movies, hormones are taken along on the journey as a matter of course. The two "twenty-somethings" realize that time is running out on what, hopefully, will be looked back upon as their misspent youth and they don’t cotton to burning much daylight before their lives turn serious.
For both, the changes wrought by their expedition are incremental, one small epiphany following another, until, in their own ways, they are different at the end of their adventure than they were before.
That is how it should be and most often is when individuals are removed from their element, their comfort zone, especially in those potential-filled years between adolescence and adulthood.
And such is obviously the case with Guevara as he documents in his "diaries." Although it would be Ernesto’s confrontations with the social realities of the day that would help mold the man the world would come to know as Che, Salles’ film treats the transformations lyrically and poetically rather than ideologically.
But it is Alberto Granado and his effusive and wildly humorous takes on the younger Guevara and their quixotic romp across the continent that most warms the heart of this film. Not that we are in the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, per se, but there is a bit of tilting at windmills, and their motorized conveyance does flaunt a few of the broken-down characteristics of Rocinante, the good Don’s trusty steed.
There are hints, of course, of the future revolutionary icon just below the surface, but that is not what concerns Salles and his team as they paint their cinematic tapestry with reverential brushstrokes.
They never lose sight of the fact that they are following "two lives running parallel for a while," as they say in the film. Some of the scenes, such as Ernesto swimming across the Amazon on his birthday, a metaphorical Rubicon if there ever was one, will never leave you.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" chooses not to pander to either the worshipers or detractors of the man who would become Che. Rather, it goes out of its way to show how we are shaped by perception and family. The blood of the Irish Rebels, Spanish conquistadors, and Argentinean patriots that flowed in Guevara’s veins wouldn’t assert itself until later. But that’s another, quite different, story for another time.
If you thought "The World’s Fastest Indian" tugged at your pleasure zones, you ought to check out "the world’s slowest Norton."
"The Motorcycle Diaries" plays at the Santy Auditorium, next Wednesday, December 10, at 7 p.m. You might want to bring a wrench.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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