Motorcycle Diaries begins with Ernesto Guevara setting out on an adventure with his friend Alberto Granado. The 23-year-old Guevara is just 2 years away from graduating from medical school but has decided to take some time off to go on a 5000-mile journey to see the continent on La Pedrosa (Alberto’s motorcycle). The upper-middle-class boy, Ernesto, who sets out with his friend on this adventure with his best friend seems to be a little naive.
The first leg of their journey is filled with mishaps and light humour. However, the mood of the film changes as they move further away from Buenos Aires. By the time they reach Chile, they are broke and their bike breaks down. They start backpacking. This is when they start seeing the misery and injustice around them; they get off the symbolic high horse that was La Pedrosa.
They meet a homeless couple who have been persecuted for their Communist ideals and are seeking for a job at the Anaconda Mining Company. Ernesto is angered by the plight of tenants who have been kicked off their farms by wealthy landlords and indigenous people who have been forced into menial labour in the name of development. Their hopelessness is conveyed in the scene where they are hitchhiking on a truck and the young man replies “So? All it will see is shit.” to Ernesto’s “that cow is going blind.”
Exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, against the backdrop of the comparatively scanty Lima, Ernesto starts questioning the system. The consciousness of the young man is changing. His path to social enlightenment reaches its climax in the Peruvian leprosy colony. Ernesto is taken aback by the rules are regulations enforced by the nuns who run the colony; they force everyone to wear gloves around the lepers and provide lunch to only people who attend mass. Ernesto rebels and go against these rules, slowly winning everyone’s hearts.
He celebrates his 24th birthday in the colony and gives an inspiring speech about how his travels have reaffirmed his belief that the whole of South America should be one country without the borders dictated by imperialism. Che then rushes into the river and swims across the channel separating the sick from the healthy. He is cheered on and greeted by the masses on the other side.
The film is filled with symbolic imagery; the glory of the past against the slums of the present, the river that divides the sick from the healthy, the rules in the colony, and so on. You can see these contrasts in the world around us – like the slums right next to the domestic airport in Santa Cruz, Mumbai. India is both home to the richest people in the world and the poorest yet the vast majority of the country chooses to ignore it and go about trying to move ahead in the economic ladder. The film urges us to look for this social awakening; to look for injustice around us and try to change things.
The charm of the film lies in the fact that the protagonist is presented as a character that the audience can relate to. We are not presented with Che. We are shown Ernesto; an asthmatic, compassionate, sincere young man. The film pushes us to question what you are doing to combat injustice and social inequalities. You ask yourself if Ernesto was right in thinking that he could change the status quo. If he was right in taking up arms to combat this injustice. The Government thought it was wrong, and Che paid for his actions with his life. But he knew he had made a dent for his last words were, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man!”
Che believed that only armed revolution would bring about the necessary change but I believe that an armed revolution will always lead to bloodshed. One should, instead, resort to mass social awakening; something along on the lines that the film tries to do. I believe that the way to changing the world is not to use physical force, but the force of marketing that corporations enforce on the world. Corporations have been able to drive our attention to their products and services that are of no real value and make billions out of them. One should adopt the same strategies and techniques in one’s fight to bring about social justice. We have seen NGOs adopting this route through awareness campaigns and getting ambassadors to champion their cause. I believe the key to changing the world is to change the mindset of one person at a time; 21st-century marketing lets you do this en masse.