In 1999, when Time magazine named the 100 Most Important People of the Century, Ernesto "Che" Guevara made the cut, but it's important to note that the Cuban revolutionary didn't fall into the category of "Leaders & Revolutionaries," which included the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Adolf Hitler, and Winston Churchill. Instead he landed a spot on the list of "Heroes & Icons" alongside Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and Marilyn Monroe. With this subversive distinction, Time was making a political statement about the ties between popular art and idol worship. "Che has become ubiquitous: his figure stares out at us from coffee mugs and posters, jingles at the end of key rings and jewelry, pops up in rock songs and operas and art shows. This apotheosis of his image has been accompanied by a parallel disappearance of the real man, swallowed by the myth," wrote Ariel Dorfman.
One of the most famous images of all time, Alberto Korda's emblematic photograph of Che—taken on March 5, 1960 during a memorial service in Havana—evoked a lasting portrait of a revolution. Sartre referred to the man as "the most complete human being of our age," but today it's his face that remains. Not unlike Andy Warhol's famous silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe, Korda's photograph no longer enhances our memory of Che—instead, it suspends and obscures it. Indeed, it's telling that today most people don't even remember Korda's actual photograph as much as they do the more popular black-and-white degradation, melted onto T-shirts and hung on the walls of dorm rooms by hipsters oblivious to the fact that their fascination with Che's face points less to their would-be revolutionary spirit than their historical disconnect.
In his Time article, Dorfman posits that the erasure of complexity is the normal fate of any icon. "Most of those who idolize the incendiary guerrilla with the star on his beret were born long after his demise and have only the sketchiest knowledge of his goals or his life," he says. One such person is Margaret Cho, a very funny comedian who recently evoked Che in the poster art for her film Revolution. Cho fights the good fight on her blog everyday, and she uses her struggles with her race and weight, and her friendship with countless queens to illuminate the problems people have with fat people, Asians, and gays. But there's something insulting about privileged Americans conflating the you-go-girl politics of Los Angeles to a Latin American Che's controversial socialist politicking.
Hipsters respond not to Che's social upheavals but to the "cool" picture some guy took of him a long time ago in a place unknown to them. Che vaguely represents "revolution" to them, but how many of these faux activists would continue to wear Che t-shirts if they knew of the totalitarian turn the man took in his later years? Walter Salles's disingenuous, highly-anticipated The Motorcycle Diaries is an insincere form of cultural flattening, existing only to coddle namby pamby bleeding hearts who only know Che as, well, "that guy on the t-shirt." This complacent portrait of an idealist Che's early years is adapted from the man's important travel diary, Mi Primer Gran Viaje, and his friend Alberto Granado's Traveling with Che Guevara, but is presented as a glossy fashion magazine spread for the poseurs who see foreign films because the actors are hot.
In much the same way that ignorant audiences heralded the birth of Latin American cinema with the release of Amores Perros (as if the films of Luis Buñuel, Arturo Ripstein, Hector Babenco, and others, had never existed), Motorcycle Diaries flatters gullible white liberals with its Cliffs Notes evocation of social problems abroad. People who go to see Motorcycle Diaries can reward themselves afterwards for going to a film that concerns the politics of South America, except most people's interest in this prestigious indie is Gael García Bernal, the Latin "hottie" fashion magazines love to exoticize, and whose gorgeous eyes and the emotions they summon throughout the film are much deeper than the film's cultural spectrum.
The Motorcycle Diaries isn't bad, just insipid. Bernal stars as Che and Rodrigo de la Serna stars as Granado, two young men making their way through South America aboard a motorcycle referred to as "the mighty one." They're young doctors, but they may as well be Abercombie & Fitch models on summer vacation. For one monotonous hour, the film serves as a National Geographic tour of South America's more gorgeous locales. Pretty to look at, Salles's lulling images mean nothing. Yes, it makes sense that Che and Granado's road trip is self-centered (most journeys of this kind usually are), but you'd never know from watching the film that this is the story of Che Guevara. Completely anonymous, Motorcycle Diaries could just as easily have been called Celebrity, because this is a film that doesn't treat Che as an emancipator or a complicated revolutionary figure, but as a pretty boy all the girls (and gay boys) want to fuck.
A sincere if not entirely simple-minded act of hero worship, Motorcycle Diaries further flattens Che's image, portraying him as a fragile asthmatic who can do no wrong: he saves a hurt puppy from the side of the road after Granado's bike crashes; he tells a benefactor that his novel is less than stellar; and though it may cost him a place to sleep for an evening, he nonetheless diagnoses a man's neck tumor. Though Salles understands that Che comes from a position of privilege (it's all over the early scenes in mansions and dining halls), he scarcely allows the character to ruminate on the things he had in Argentina that no one else in South America seems to have. When Che sees how the starving class suffers, he naturally weeps for them. That's sweet, but this is not someone you want to lead you into battle—instead, you want to pinch his cheeks, cop a feel, and send him to bed after putting an inhaler in his mouth.
Those afraid that Che and Granado's scenic tour of South America will run the entire course of the film's 126 minutes should note that a radical cut between a shot of the Machu Picchu ruins and a shot of modern Lima signals an entirely new film. "Viajamos por viagar," says a culturally and politically disconnected Che at one point. "We travel to travel." The audience realizes that these are two clueless kids looking to experience the beauty of the world, but not necessarily its horrors. When Che and Granado go to work at a leper colony where a narrow stretch of the Amazon separates the doctors from the sick Indian natives, Che experiences an enlightenment of sorts and Salles plants the seeds of experience that would go on to inform the Che that sailed into Cuba on the Granma in 1956 and started wars all over the world, from Africa to South America.
It's during these emotional scenes at the colony that Motorcycle Diaries—a film of many causes but very few effects—briefly comes alive. Since the film chronicles the life of a revolutionary before he was a revolutionary, it's only natural that the film has a nostalgic, embryonic tonality. Via Che's encounters with a nun who refuses to serve him lunch because he didn't attend mass, Salles hints at the man's anti-Catholic resentment. And then Che takes to the Amazon, negotiating the rift between the poor and the rich by swimming across a stretch of river. It's a powerful sequence: Che was a dreamer, and Salles's images frequently evoke haze-soaked ideas. But the man was also a revolutionary, and as such where's the challenge in a portrait of a great but flawed man that's this vague? Motorcycle Diaries is a film without a face, a story for those who'd rather idealize their revolutionary figures than truly know them.