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Walter Salles’ film about the motorbike journey that changed Ernesto Guevara from a medical student to Che the revolutionary fighting for the rights of the poor and oppressed in Latin America, is taken to task by author Paul Berman. The cult of Che doesn’t match the real Che, whose legacy is the very opposite of what the legend tells us. Andrew L. Urban covers the distance between biopics and reality.

Paul Berman, writing in slant.com, wastes no time on niceties; he begins as he intends to finish: “The cult of Ernesto Che Guevara is an episode in the moral callousness of our time. Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favoured a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's ‘labor camp’ system - the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims.”

The film that has triggered Berman’s ire is Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (Australian release December 16, 2004), a story of adventure: in January 1952, the almost 30 year old biochemist Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and his younger friend, the 23 year old student close to finishing his medical degree, Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), set off from Buenos Aires on an old but treasured Norton 500 for an adventure through Latin America. The first part of their journey is more or less as they expected, although the arduous trip takes it toll on La Poderosa, The Mighty One as they nicknamed the motorbike, and it gives up the ghost in Chile, after a nasty encounter with a herd of cows. By the time they get to Machu Pichu, the middle class young men have begun to see Latin America through eyes that have been opened to poverty and oppression, high-handed big business and the sheer hardship of daily life. They find themselves at a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon, and Guevara, whose speciality is leprology, realises that something fundamental deep inside his being has changed.

"promoted the cult"

London journalist Gwynne Dyer says of Guevara; “He used to prostrate himself before portraits of Stalin and he advocated ‘relentless hatred of the enemy … [transforms] us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines.’” Guevara’s original motivation is not in question, says Dyer, his dedication to the poor and oppressed is genuine. 

In his Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles has not glorified Che: he’s glorified Ernesto. But he’s promoted the cult, which is the main point of objection by Berman: “The present-day cult of Che - the T-shirts, the bars, the posters - has succeeded in obscuring this dreadful reality. And Walter Salles' movie … will now take its place at the heart of this cult. It has already received a standing ovation at Robert Redford's Sundance film festival (Redford is the executive producer of The Motorcycle Diaries) and glowing admiration in the press. Che was an enemy of freedom, and yet he has been erected into a symbol of freedom. He helped establish an unjust social system in Cuba and has been erected into a symbol of social justice. He stood for the ancient rigidities of Latin-American thought, in a Marxist-Leninist version, and he has been celebrated as a free-thinker and a rebel. And thus it is in Salles' Motorcycle Diaries.”

Berman continues in this vein, and fires a painful rhetorical question: “I wonder if people who stand up to cheer a hagiography of Che Guevara, as the Sundance audience did, will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cuba - will ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents.”

Indeed; but perception is more important and more powerful than fact. That’s why biopics are such insidious weapons of propaganda – taking that word in its broadest context. Biopics can’t be taken at face value, they can’t be believed. Not at the level of personality. At best, they can summarise a few of the things their subject has done, but even in this simple task lie problems of omission and commission. Making a film of a man’s life and character, his personality and the sum of his humanity is like taking a bit of boiled beef and expecting it to explain all food.

"to reveal some aspect"

The subjects of biopics range from artists of various kinds, Cole Porter (De-Lovely), Basquiat, Pollock, Peter Sellers, Mozart (Amadeus) - to leaders, John F. Kennedy (JFK), Richard Nixon (Nixon), Eva Peron (Evita), Adolf Hitler (The Downfall is the latest and most controversial), to criminals – Mark Read (Chopper), Al Capone (various), Eileen Wouros (Monster) and of course royalty (Elizabeth, and more). What is evident in all of these films is that the more they seem to reveal some aspect of their subject, the more we realise how little that is. Truth is not served by a repetition of the facts: truth, elusive and slippery as it is, cannot be captured so easily as to be contained in a two hour film, when it comes to an individual. This despite the fact that film is perhaps the best able to capture the nuances of personality and character.

It could be argued that Walter Salles (a filmmaker, incidentally, whose work I like and admire) has in fact done the worst possible service to truth, worked the worst kind of spin, simply by framing Guevara in the pre-political part of his life; this enables him to glorify the young man, to make a hero out of him. It turns the film into partial truth. And partial truth is a lie, isn’t it. (“I didn’t inhale…”) 

Like it or not, biopics are liars. Just as the framing of an image separates it from its context and its reality, so a film picks out a few dots of a giant dot painting which makes up a human being. Keep a pinch of salt handy.

Published December 16, 2004

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