Medics in the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

Posted on December 4, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In a word: Wow

Up next in my cinematic journey through the world of medicine is Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, yet another movie that has been sitting on my “to-watch” list for years.  This one is definitely one not to miss.

The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Che Guevara before he was “Che.”  Back then, he was simply Ernesto, a young medical student embarking on an epic journey across South America with his friend Alberto.  On their travels, the pair encounter the terrible hardship of some of the poorer communities, as well as spending time working at a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon.  Through his interactions with the people and patients he meets, we see how Ernesto goes on to become the iconic political figure Che.

I know less than nothing about South American history or Che Guevara, but I found this film fascinating.  Rather than shoving his political ideals down our throats Salles takes the audience on the same journey as Ernesto, so we naturally form the same conclusions.  There is some clever use of black and white, showing the people who have most affected Ernesto, which are then repeated at the end in juxtaposition with photos of the real Ernesto and Alberto.  The shots are still, but not stills, appearing as memories for Ernesto as a kind of living photograph, made more poignant by the fact they are all looking directly to camera, as if looking to him for help.

The cinematography in this film is magical.  There are some beautiful sweeping landscape shots which emphasise how small Ernesto and Alberto are and how difficult the early part of their journey is.  It reminded me a lot of Brokeback Mountain, even more so thanks to composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who worked on both, using a very traditional and simple score to punctuate key moments.  Showing the tiny bike picking across arid landscapes gives a wonderful sense of scale to the movie, really emphasising the grandeur of their journey across the continent as well as how insignificant they are in terms of the their problems compared to the communities they meet.

The relationship between Ernesto and Alberto is very well played, with the older and more experienced Alberto taking a less serious view of life and providing some nice comedy, while  Ernesto’s diary voiceover gives us an insight into how he is changing as a person.  Although only Ernesto is a medical student, there are moments when Alberto has to take charge, highlighting how Ernesto has not yet qualified and still has a lot to learn, both about medicine and life.

There is a wonderful moment in the film, as the pair meet a couple looking for work in the Atacama Desert, where we switch from focussing on the troubles of our two travellers, to realising that there are a lot of people far worse off in the country.  It is subtly played, but marks the beginning of Ernesto’s desire to do something about the inequalities he is discovering.  There are many clever moments like this, for which credit must be given both to Salles and editor Daniel Rezende.  The ending is particularly effective, book-ending nicely with the opening of the film, and bringing the audience back up to date with an account of what happened to the real Che.  The use of original photos and the final shot (which I wont spoil) is a particularly nice touch.

Seeing the photos at the end of the real Alberto and Ernesto highlighted just how well this film is cast.  Not only do both protagonists give impeccable performances, but they both look remarkably similar to their real life counterparts.  Gael Garcia Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo De La Serna (Alberto) have a great chemistry on screen, making their close friendship entirely believable.

What I haven’t mentioned, of course, is that this is a foreign language film-Spanish with subtitles.  As an ex-Spanish speaker (I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew) I was able to pick up the odd phrase without looking at the titles, but in no way was reading the dialogue distracting.  In fact, if this movie ever was made in English I think it would have lost a lot of its power, as the whole point is the discovery of a country and the uniting of it’s cultures.

Again, I’m looking at this film through the eyes of a medical student, so I could find a lot to relate to in Ernesto.  It’s not unusual for medical students to go off on epic journeys of discovery before they settle down and commit to their careers, and Ernesto clearly would have made a great doctor.  Although at first he is somewhat brash and unsympathetic with a patient, he becomes a very caring doctor, taking a personal interest with his patients and mixing with them as equals.  Unlike A Matter of Life and Death which portrays the traditional God-like infallible Doctor, here we have a far more modern view.  Although in the most part honest and loyal, Ernesto has his faults and is shown to be a very human character.  He is more what we would expect from our doctors today, professional when it counts, but also an accessible human being who is not automatically put on a pedestal.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I instantly wanted to turn over and start again, but I had that feeling with Motorcycle Diaries.  Seeing as it’s a pretty long film, that’s saying something.  It’s both an engaging and intense story, elegantly shot, which (excuse the cheesiness) really does take you on a journey with the characters, to help you understand how a young medical student went on to become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries.

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