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The cruise of the mambo tango
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna


Ernesto is not a good dancer. He confuses the Mambo with the Tango and after that social faux pas, he gets a raft named after his incompetence – THE MAMBO TANGO. It's a sublime gesture. It's a sublime movie.

Forgive me if I amble down a well-trodden adolescent lane. There are certain works that earmark and ineffably define generations. Rebellion in my teens was surfed on the giant and angry wave of punk, espousing self consciously crude lyrics that managed to get the 'c' word on the radio simply because it was a syllable of 'vacant' (don't believe me, listen to Johnny's almost spat out delivery). I was a Wall child strangely in awe and in fear of Rotten, Vicious et al. I preferred the cosy Pink Floyd concept album that I was able to perform in front of a mirror without really being a pain in the ass to anyone except possibly my dad (throbbing bass from a ceiling sat uncomfortably with the tinny speakered TV throwing up A Question of Sport downstairs). My Dad has since forgiven me. Viva la rebellion.

Then in higher education there are the benchmark icons, the material possessions you own (can you do anything other than own material possessions?) that announce that "the world doesn't understand me but that's OK, because I am unique" – and curiously all these totems turn out to be the cookie-cutter same things (unique, schmunique) – Klimt prints (something a lower grade Buffy villain once remarked upon so it can't be just me), one or two posters of the four seminal BLUEs (The Big Blue, The Blues Brothers, Betty Blue and Blue Velvet) and conceivably a ciggie roll up machine made of red plastic and a flimsy metal frame. Smoking was somehow synonymous with sophistication, French intellectualism and dying a grisly death but at eighteen dying a grisly death wasn't on any of our agendas.

There was a man who probably died a grisly death (well, he was executed when I was six by the then CIA funded Bolivian army, way to go, CIA). He also attained poster status beyond the dreams of a bare-assed tennis player or even Farrah Fawcett in her seventies' hair hey day. This guy became a real-life icon. Here was a man who turned a beret into a political statement and his extraordinarily beautiful face was stencilled on every communist-in-training's T-shirt, a face stuck on the walls of students everywhere who had an inkling that something else existed beyond the world of money, commerce and injustice. That's what you think when you're young enough to believe that a difference may still be something that can be made.

NOTE TO SELF: it still can. Don't let the bastards grind you down...

Homer Simpson used to believe in things when he was young. He told his daughter so. The inference here (throughout most mass media) is that hope is something on which we've given up all hope. Raising the sociological bar to the ubiquitous "RUTHLESS MONEY MAKING BASTARDS, ALL" makes the mean – well named average – height of the indifference bar very high. So high in fact that a great percentage of people do not even vote anymore. Unlike Australia (where it is illegal NOT to vote) this country of ours has an antipathy close to narcolepsy. Who can blame us? Look who we have to vote for. A blood sucking vampiric old school right winger or a war mongering right winger who happens to have stolen the right's agenda and called it 'new left'. Oh god. Where is the left? Left out?

So what's left... hope for? What is out there tapping into the nugget of the human condition screaming in its own way "Get off your asses, DO SOMETHING!" Very little, it seems. Movies don't tend to change the world (unless Kerry gets in and Michael Moore really was proven to have had something to do with it). What about examining those who did move the world, who did make a difference because their commitment was more important than their own lives? We've done Gandhi. Attenborough was suitably lauded but non-violence is very much out of vogue at present. Extreme brutality seems to have come to the fore and apparently (according to those who practice it) it's God's will. Cheers, God... Nice one. Christ. On a bike.

What about a look at what made a man the man he became, the man who affected many generations, a man who said (in essence) 'this is unfair' and spent the last third of his life trying to make things NOT unfair. It earned him a bullet and martyrdom beyond the dreams of bin Laden, but he did make a mark on history and just how he came to make those choices that defined his extraordinary life are examined in The Motorcycle Diaries. Every great man or woman was a boy or girl. Greatness may have been thrust upon him but essentially the real person started off as a real person. It was time, myth and historical manufacturing that created the icon. Che Guevara is still a powerful icon but once upon a time he was a young man (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna), idealistic and confused and empowered by terrible injustice.

Like actors Charlie Boorman and Ewan MacGregor (whose recent over-media'ed jaunt has captured the public imagination), (C)he and his best friend Alberto wanted to travel on a motorcycle and explore the huge beyond – the South American land mass they called home. They had one motorcycle (the Mighty One), a Norton well past its and a lot of others' primes but it got them some thousand miles into their quest. In fact they had many accidents along the way, crashes in the film that are merely documented not made significant by some paradigm of the Hollywood screenwriting gurus. Ernest and Alberto fell off and out but the journey continued and what a terrific movie resulted.

The movie (based on the book co-authored by the two travellers) presents the pair as (1) Alberto; out to screw whomever's around by any means possible and (2) Ernesto; not above the allure of the flesh but also caring and brutally honest. Could Che's parents have named their ground-breaking offspring any name other than Ernest? If this had been an American film (oh my Lord, thank fuck it ain't), the pair would have had their character arcs and would have performed according to them like seasoned puppies begging on cue. And it would have had a happy ending. Ay Car-fucking-Rumba.

But this is a real film, a real film that in twenty years will be seen as a true rite of passage movie. This is essentially a film about what it takes to be a good person in such a bad world. And oh, do we need that. In spades. In twenty years the carefree-life poster that is The Motorcycle Diaries may be up there with Betty, Belushi and Jean-Marc Barr. But in this instance it may mean more than the sum of its parts. The Motorcycle Diaries is the birth canal of revolution, giving shape and form to the events that fostered a man who denied the material and embraced what might be. Here really was a man who put his life second, his ideals first. He lived a life of selfless sacrifice and died courtesy of the American oil-dollar machine that saw communism (the fifties and sixties' Al Qaeda) as a direct threat. Since when has the idea of being fair and selfless been such a threat? Isn't that Americanism writ large?

The Motorcycle Diaries (without the cumbersome weight of Che Guevara's heavily romanticised character) is a film about two guys, one a doctor-to-be, the other a chemist with delusions of sexual potency based on his mostly invented exploits, travelling the north-south of their immense continent. They come to the conclusion that all south Americans are the same (for that read all of us en masse) and that we all deserve the fairness that human consciousness has bestowed upon us.

Ernest comes from a loving family. Well into his trek, he admits to missing his siblings most of all. He is a gifted medical student whose honesty diagnoses a man's life threatening tumour as exactly that rather than a benign lump, the latter diagnosis almost guaranteed to give the travellers a comfy bed to sleep on. Ernest is brutally honest about the literary merits of a book written by one of his own medical heroes. Rather than anger and despair, the writer of the ‘lame' book celebrates Ernest's honesty shaming his friend's sugar coated review by the sheer force of his will.

The pair eventually make it to their goal, a leper colony in northern Chile. There is no Rob Bottin make-up on show here (unless Rob has honed his talent to a level of realism that I find impossible to fault). These are real lepers (as far as I could tell) and they are to a man and woman, consummately REAL actors. It lends the film an air of documentary-like realism that's hard to refute. In their three weeks, the two idealists attach themselves to the colony as cotton wool attaches on a wound. They refuse to wear gloves in dealing with the afflicted (leprosy is not a communicable disease) and in so doing earn the respect and over time, the love of those who have lost arms and legs to the horrific disease. Their sheer, bald humanity pierces prejudice and even the sexually starved Alberto comes to realise that his closest friend has experienced an epiphany, one that will mark him for the rest of his life.

In an ending that may be interpreted as a Hollywood stunt, Ernest swims a quarter mile to the leper colony at night on the eve of their going away party. It's Ernest's birthday and he wants to celebrate it with those whose lives he has shaped. He is asthmatic but he makes it (of course he makes it, he's Che Guevara and will live to swim – and be shot – another day). It's a climax to a film that really didn't need a climax. The fabric of the film creates its own climax. It doesn't need a rousing finale. It's like being drunk and some idiot insisting that you have to be REALLY drunk to fall asleep... The Motorcycle Diaries has its own trump card – photos, real photos, of the events dramatised in the film – as an end. You're suddenly brought up short. This is real. This happened. And then you feel grateful that it did happen.

Very grateful.

Viva la revolution...

The Motorcycle Diaries
Diarios de motocicleta

Germany 2004
128 mins
Walter Salles
Michael Nozik
Edgard Tenenbaum
Karen Tenkhoff
Jose Rivera
from the books by
Ernesto Guevara
Alberto Granado

Alberto Granado

Daniel Rezende
Daniel Rezende
production design
Carlos Conti
Gael García Bernal
Rodrigo De la Serna
Mía Maestro
Mercedes Morán
Jean Pierre Noher
11 October 2004