The Motorcycle Diaries

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, October 25, 2004

 

The Cotton-Polyester Christ

According to Che Guevara's father, "In my son's veins flowed the blood of the Irish rebels. Che inherited some of the features of our restless ancestors … which drew him to distant wandering, dangerous adventures, and new ideas."

A roving spirit led the messianic Argentine revolutionary to Guatemala when the CIA overthrew the leftist government in 1954, to the Congo in a disastrous military foray in 1965, and to Bolivia, betrayal, and martyrdom in 1967. Ironically, Guevara's one concrete accomplishment was, as Fidel Castro's chief executioner, to help found a regime in Cuba that enforced the diktat that those who leave may never return.

With the Bush Administration appearing intent on granting Guevara's famous wish for "two, three, many Vietnams," Che is back. Brazilian director Walter Salles' "The Motorcycle Diaries" is an engaging picaresque recounting Guevara's 1952 journey through Argentina, Chile, and Peru, a pre-Communist Prince Hal with a Falstaffian best friend.

Not surprisingly, the plot is, as Homer Simpson would say, just a bunch of stuff that happens. Taking time off from medical school, the introverted, idealistic 23-year old Guevara and his boisterous, profane pal cross the Andes, fall off their broken-down motorbike a lot, make passes at local girls, exaggerate their medical expertise to bum meals off impressionable yokels, lend a hand at a leper colony, and eventually have their consciousnesses raised about the oppression of the Andean Indians.

From Hope and Crosby through the Farrelly Brothers, Hollywood has generally played this buddy-road movie genre for laughs, so a film that, while consistently amusing, underscores the freedom and romance of the open road is refreshing. Further, South America has receded over the last generation so far from North American consciousness that Machu Picchu and the rest of the continent's immense, if slightly gloomy, landscapes seem like a revelation once more.

Young Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, a conventionally pretty Latin loverboy (with an unfortunate resemblance to "Saturday Night Live's" Chris Kattan), sensitively suffers from both the plight of the exploited workers and his terrible asthma. (Guevara was literally an adrenaline junkie: danger released the hormone that allowed him to breathe freely.) Bernal's beautiful Guevara looks like he'll mature nicely into Che's famous T-shirt image as the cotton-polyester Christ of Marxism-Leninism.

Still, Bernal lacks the Irish charm that made the adult Che resemble a hirsute leprechaun in fatigues. Oddly, Bernal's boyhood best friend, the puckish Diego Luna, his costar in "Y Tu Mamá También" (they're the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon of Mexico), is much closer to Guevara in appearance.

The subtitled "Motorcycle Diaries" goes easy on the politics (and ignores Che's obsessive anti-Americanism), barely hinting at why Dr. Guevara would soon abandon healing for killing.

At the end, Che proclaims, "We are a single mestizo race, from Mexico to the Magellan Straits." The Guevaras, however, weren't mestizo at all. They were a family of decayed aristocrats with leftist pretensions and bohemian manners.

In practice, this mestizo myth paradoxically serves to maintain the white ascendancy. In Mexico, the corrupt ruling party with the contradictory name, Institutional Revolutionary Party, preached that all Mexicans belong to "La Raza," the "cosmic race" perfectly blending white and Indian. This allowed the PRI, which became more and more dominated by whites as decades passed, to distract attention away from the huge gaps in wealth between whites, mestizos, and Indians. (Mexico's myth of universal mestizaje was prudent: in neighboring Guatemala, in contrast, race war flared throughout the 1980s.)

Similarly, the myth allowed white revolutionaries like Guevara and Abimael Guzman, founder of Peru's Shining Path guerillas, to justify their leadership of movements built on the brown masses' resentment of the privileges of the Conquistadors' heirs. Worse, while straightforward populism would have satisfied the oppressed, the disastrous prestige of Marxism provided white radical intellectuals with an abstruse body of theory with which to intimidate the uneducated into being their followers.

Unfortunately, it's an iron law of history that the countries that most need a revolution are the least likely to profit from one. The Cuban revolution inspired Marxist upsurges in other Latin countries, which led to military crackdowns. When the armies went back to the barracks, free market democrats took over, but, outside of Chile, largely appear to have failed. This decade's trend is toward anti-white leftist populism, like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

But, at least, white Communists like Guevara are mostly gone. By Latin American standards, that's progress.

Rated R for language.

 

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