My reading schedule has been sporadic lately, and the bulk of my upcoming reviews will be taking shape in the next two weeks or so. Therefore, I'm continuing with my Chicago Flame archival process. Back in 2004, I had the great fortune to interview Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who was promoting the 'Che' Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. Not only did I love Walter Salles' film, I had counted Gael Garcia Bernal among my favorite actors for a few years before the interview, and continuing until today. I admired his acting and willingness to take on daunting, exposed roles, as well as his intellect and mastery of languages. Upon meeting him for the interview, I was taken aback by his genuine courtesy, making sure that a handful of college journalists had the time to ask questions, and personally offering to get us something to drink. This article was written when I was twenty-one, and while it's not my best sample (I dubbed him the world's greatest actor; little sentences like these make me cringe years later), the memories of the interview were far greater. This is my third archival piece reprinted on this blog: the first one was my interview with Chuck Palahniuk, and the second one was my interview with Robert Duvall.
Portraying the Enigma That is 'Che'(originally published in The Chicago Flame, September 14, 2004)
Ernesto "Che" Guevara is among the most famous yet little understood political figures to have ever lived. Stroll downtown and you'll almost definitely see his image printed on a T-shirt or a backpack. His life story is very unbalanced, a struggle between the images of being a leader of the people and a crazed radical. Opinions vary to this day.
"He's well known but he's not," says Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who portrays him in The Motorcycle Diaries. "He's an icon that people recognize, but people don't know [about him]. We [Latinos] relate strongly to him. He's still so alive."
Going about portraying a famous figure in a movie is a challenge to any actor. Bernal is no exception.
"It was heavy and overwhelming. We prepared exhaustingly for six months, and then I still didn't feel ready. I wanted to do it well. It's who I am." Bernal adds: "He [Guevara] needed our experiences to be alive [on the screen]."
The new film by Walter Salles is astonishing. It tells Guevara's story from the beginning, based on his memoirs. We don't necessarily see a revolutionary in the making, but a young man being exposed to the world's harsh inequalities. Guevara was a medical student from Argentina when he and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) embarked on a motorcycle trip across South America.
The two men have a couple of strikes against them. Granado's motorcycle is in anything but good condition, and Guevara suffers from a severe case of asthma, which plagued him throughout his life.
"He was weak," says Bernal. "He was quiet and observant."
But, in the tradition of any "road movie," the two men won't let anything stop or postpone the journey.
The first leg of their trip is to visit Celia, Ernesto's love interest. The two are definitely made for each other, but are plagued by sexual frustration and the looming continuation of his trip. She gives him fifteen American dollars to buy her a bikini, should he reach the United States.
The interactions between Guevara and Granado (both before and after the first detour) are very important in setting up the mood for the rest of the film. Their dialogue is playful, humorous, and juvenile.
"I could use my voice," comments Bernal, "and not be so heroic and dramatic."
We know that the film will detail Guevara's ideological changes, but the script and the acting are very natural. Neither man gets weighed down in tiresome, scripted dialogue. It's very likely that they engaged in banter like that. The film doesn't rush the central message.
As their travels continue, they get into some hilarious misadventures. While in Chile, in order to get their motorcycle fixed for free, they interact with the locals, getting on their good side while over-hyping their medical skills. Why would they do that? Well, it's enough to land them in the local newspaper, which is good to flash at the town mechanic when they're low on cash.
Once they enter Venezuela and Peru, Guevara gets a hard look at the downtrodden citizens. They meet an elderly mining couple, desperate for work and persecuted for their communist beliefs. Their work at a Peruvian leper colony further shows Guevara the separation between rich and poor.
His journal entry at an ancient Incan city sums up the discrepancies: "The Incas had astronomy, knew brain surgery, and mathematics. The Spanish [who destroyed the Incan civilization] had gunpowder."
To properly analyze this film, one must begin with the acting, led by Gael Garcia Bernal. He is arguably the greatest actor in world cinema. His past films (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien and The Crime of Padre Amaro) quickly showed American audiences how talented he is, in addition to drawing a lot of controversy for their subject matters. Bernal has no problem with controversy over his or anyone else's films.
"Controversy is when a personal point of view is exposed," he explains. "It's healthy."
Rodrigo de la Serna provides a wonderful parallel as Granado, being both the main comic relief and a touching mode of understanding for the youthful Guevara.
Like any political leader, "Che" Guevara was by no means perfect. He was a leader of the people, and his opposition to U.S. intervention in Latin America led to his assassination in 1967.
"Democracy is very fishy," says Bernal. "There's no real representation or way of governing. The U.S. is not a great nation, it's a great people."
"That's what cost him [Guevara] his life."
Most importantly, Guevara was human. The Motorcycle Diaries shows the compassion and determination of a young man during a crucial stage in his life. All politics aside, the film is a moving, beautiful tribute to the desire for equality.
The film will surely add to Bernal's growing reputation as the world's greatest actor.
"[I'll only do a movie] if there's something meaningful," he says. "I feel shitty not doing something comfortable. It's not for the money...if it was, I'd be living in LA and trying to be a star."
Most importantly, Bernal is optimistic that The Motorcycle Diaries will be an inspiration to people everywhere.
"It re-affirmed my priorities and challenged me. It's an approach, a pathway to knowledge. You can understand the human condition and work to change it."