Prentiss Riddle: Movies

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Diarios de motocicleta y el verdadero Che

Although I'm freshly returned from Brazil, my mind is also on Cuba. In Rio I got to see Walter Salles' new film, The Motorcycle Diaries, set to open in the US some time this fall. As I mentioned previously the movie is about the trip young Ernesto Guevara took along the length of South America before he became the revolutionary Che. I had high hopes for the movie but I'm afraid it left me with mixed feelings: as a road movie it's gorgeous but as a biopic it seems simplistic.

It's not that I don't believe in the story -- an idealistic but naive young med student becomes radicalized by a trip through the realities of Latin America. That's an archetype as old as Buddha and an experience that I and the hispanophile liberals of my generation so longed for that it spawned a kind of political tourist industry in Nicaragua and elsewhere. And it's not that I don't believe in Gael García Bernal's once again outstanding performance. The problem is that Salles paints his subject with such an untarnished halo. I know that we're seeing young Che before he had any blood on his hands, but wouldn't a nuanced portrayal of his conversion include at least a hint of the moral ambiguities to come? And the symbolism used to show him crossing the line, even if it's biographically accurate (did he really swim that river?), is so heavy-handed that it threatens to swamp the whole project. Not even Salles' moving use of non-actors as the peasants, Indians, miners and lepers Che meets along the way (something he brilliantly underscores in a Richard-Avedon-like gallery during the credits) creates enough sense of reality to overcome the suspicion that we're watching hagiography instead of biography.

So when I got home the first book to jump off the shelf into my hand was Andrei Codrescu's Ay, Cuba! I've just started it but Codrescu's ironic form of anarcho-liberal anti-communism seems to be just the tonic I need after that movie. Codrescu cites Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che to show that by the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Che was an "insane ideological maniac" who was furious at Kruschev for not proceeding with WWIII, certainly destroying Cuba if not the planet in the process. Where is the tender-hearted med student in that murderous death wish? Maybe I'll read Anderson's book next to find out.

Motorcycle Diaries Ay, Cuba! Che: A Revolutionary Life

Meanwhile Codrescu's book has stirred up my longstanding wish to see Cuba once before Fidel dies and the gusanos carve up the place. And the Steven Soderburgh-Benicio del Toro project Che is scheduled to start shooting in August, 2005. Let us hope that Soderburgh learns a lesson from Salles' mistakes and drops the halo.

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