Film: Ernesto Goes to the Movies

He was, per Jean-Paul Sartre, “the most complete human being of our age.” Not to be outdone, Susan Sontag eulogized him as “the clearest, most unequivocal image of the humanity of the world-wide revolutionary struggle unfolding today.” He, of course, is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, although the key word in Sontag's formulation is neither “humanity” nor “revolutionary” but “image.”

You could find that image at the heart of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's recent show Global Village: The 1960s, on the wall of a room provocatively called “Disorder.” The image graced the posters used to advertise the show, and it was reproduced ad infinitum in the museum gift shop, amply (and ironically?) stocked with all manner of Che Guevara tchotchkes. Is it Che who gives the lost world and failed aspirations of the 1960s a human face?

Che Guevara's posthumous role as an icon and fashion statement has now lasted twice as long as his political career. Born to a left-wing, upper-middle-class family in Rosario, Argentina, in 1928 (the same year as international icon Mickey Mouse and ultimate iconographer Andy Warhol), he was an international political celebrity before he turned 32, slyly smiling on the cover of Time magazine in August 1960, flanked by subsidiary images of powerhouses Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung. That same summer, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda snapped a more flattering portrait of El Che, long hair topped by a perfectly placed black beret and flowing in the winds of change, gaze resolutely focused on anti-imperialist struggle.

Officially known as Heroic Guerrilla, Korda's picture might be the most famous and most appropriated photographic portrait ever (the inevitable late Warhol multiple was utterly redundant). It's also an image no mere mortal could live up to. Indeed, Che the revolutionary martyr was born October 7, 1967, when another photograph, this one amazingly Christ-like, flashed out of a Bolivian pueblo and around the world -- “the corpse of the last armed prophet laid out on a sink in a shed, displayed by flashlight,” wrote Robert Lowell.

Armed prophet of Third World upheaval, unlikely combination of Tom Joad and Mick Jagger, El Che imbued the revolution with a sense of archaic chivalry. It was while touring Europe in the aftermath of Che's death that movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck became aware of the dead guerrilla's “tremendous appeal” for young people and instructed his son Richard to quickly develop a Guevara biopic with Omar Sharif in the title role. Released in 1969, the film was a cautiously pandering bore, anathema to both radical New Leftists and right-wing Cubans.

Che Guevara was not only a dorm-room pin-up to rival Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison but the poster boy for repressive tolerance and co-optive commodification. Hans Magnus Enzensberger's 1970 essay “Constituents for a Theory of the Media” cites the Olivetti Corporation's appropriation of Che's image for an ad celebrating its creative sales force: “We would have hired him” was the boldly tautological assertion. Before the '70s ended, Che was relegated to the attic of cultural memory -- at least outside of Cuba. But with the end of the Cold War, the closest thing to a superstar that international communism ever produced re-emerged as a capitalist tool, emblazoned on a top-selling Swatch watch and otherwise used to sell shoes, beer, cigars, and skis. In a totally unexpected way, Che became the embodiment of free-market globalism.

In Cuba, where the day of his death is a national holiday, Che remains a revolutionary trademark and constant presence -- the New Socialist Man, model for several generations of schoolchildren. But his cult of personality has long since ceased to be a function of state power. The old Che may linger still in Vietnam and Mozambique, among the Senderos and the Zapatistas; but in the Bolivian village where he was shot, he is Santo Che de La Huigera -- believed to work miracles, his portrait juxtaposed with that of Christ in the local mercado. In Buenos Aires, Che enjoys a more secular beatification; his image signifies pure celebrity, appearing on souvenir stands in concert with those of two other hometown heroes, tango singer Carlos Gardel and Eva Peron. (And Evita herself -- which is to say Madonna -- dressed as Che for the cover of her American Life CD.)

Barack Obama has been called a political “rock star,” but El Che is a dead political rock star -- consigned forever to the hell (or purgatory) of images, his corpse to be endlessly consumed in the bistro that The Simpsons once termed “Chez Guevara” (or the London bar Che, or the Cairo theme boîte Che Guevara, where the waiters dress in uniformed black berets and the menus are for sale). Mike Tyson tattooed Che's image on his chest, former Senator Gary Hart published a pseudonymous novel titled I, Che Guevara; a Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not Virginia) children's boutique hawks baby-sized Che T-shirts. A “third way” fascist microparty has Che on its Web site. The guerrilla's trademark beret has been placed atop Taco Bell's talking Chihuahua. A Russian poster artist morphed Heroic Guerrilla into a character from Planet of the Apes, and the National Review used the same image to smear a doleful-looking John Kerry. Serious Che art -- Jay Cantor's historical novel The Death of Che Guevara, Richard Dindo's documentary Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diaries (and its avant-garde appropriation, James Benning's Utopia), Leonardo Katz's experimental film El Día Que Me Quieras -- has tended to concern Che's martyrdom.

But that was before The Motorcycle Diaries. Withheld from publication until 1995 (and still omitted from Cuba's “authorized” Guevara canon), Che's rewritten journal of a youthful road trip taken in the company of fellow medical student Alberto Granado sold a fast 30,000 copies in a Verso paperback blurbed as “Das Kapital meets Easy Rider.” A new generation of devotees was thrilled to discover the young Che as a romantic, poetry-reading hipster who, in the course of his bildungsroman across Argentina, over the Andes, and up Chile into Peru, discovers his Latin American identity.

The Motorcycle Diaries movie, which premiered at Sundance, competed in Cannes, and opens in the United States this month, was masterminded by its executive producer, Robert Redford, who recruited Brazilian director (and Sundance Institute alum) Walter Salles to make the film in Spanish, with a Latin American cast. Che, or “Fuser” as his comrade calls him, is played by Gael García Bernal, the star of Mexican cinema's greatest export, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and its biggest domestic hit, The Crime of Father Amaro. (Bernal, now 25, had already played Che in the 2002 Showtime miniseries Fidel.)

If not precisely a pussycat, Salles' Che is certainly a sweetheart. He's young and hot (although not as gorgeous as the beardless real Che on the cover of the movie's paperback tie-in). He's shyly avid and a little horny (although not as horny as his buddy Granado, played by Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna). James Dean without self-pity, Jack Kerouac sans narcissism, young Che Guevara is a bit of a daredevil, yet he's sensitive enough to have his heart broken; if not yet a communist, he's sufficiently empathetic to give the last of his asthma medicine to a poor, dying old woman.

The movie was shot in sequence and, drawing as much on Granado's Traveling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary (published in Cuba 17 years before The Motorcycle Diaries) as on Che's account, shows its heroes taking their spills and losing their tent, their adventures in Chile's tough towns punctuated by Che's asthma attacks and the motorcycle's many breakdowns. Ultimately the guys junk the bike and continue hitchhiking across the desert -- where, in the first of several political epiphanies, they meet a proletarian couple out of The Grapes of Wrath. Climbing Machu Picchu inspires a vision of Latin American unity, while Che's climactic stay in a Peruvian leper colony enables him to bond with the wretched of the earth.

The Motorcycle Diaries is an often glorious travelogue to which the filmmakers add a few romantic and picaresque touches -- and one political one. As Guevara and Granado refuse to attend Mass, the nuns attempt to deny them food, sparking a demonstration of patient solidarity with the young medics. Dropped, however, is the book's closing evocation of Che's willingness to become “a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.”

Reviewing the book several years back, Christopher Hitchens drolly declared Che Guevara to be a pioneer exponent of magic realism: “The boy ‘Che' drunkenly spouting pan-Americanism to an audience of isolated lepers in a remote jungle [is] a scene that Werner Herzog might hesitate to script, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez to devise.” The movie, in which even the nuns are won over to Che's vision, is more an example of soft socialist realism. Che cannot tell a lie -- he's honest to a fault. Glib but effective, Salles' Diaries grows increasingly heroic in tone, culminating in a scene where the asthmatic hero swims across a river and back to total Rocky-like acclaim. It's a tasteful hagiography designed to underscore Che's most celebrated one-liner (at least in the States) that “the true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love.”

Although The Motorcycle Diaries doesn't make much of it, Guevara was still a disciple of Gandhi in 1952. Perhaps a subsequent movie -- one is in production, starring Benicio Del Toro, and still another is rumored, with Antonio Banderas, who played Che in Evita -- will detail the year El Che spent in Guatemala, where, thanks to his ringside seat for the 1954 CIA coup that ousted elected President Jacobo Arbenz, he underwent his revolutionary conversion (which included a lifelong anti-Americanism).

After all, the religion of Che is still relatively recent -- it's been only 37 years since the prophet was martyred.

J. Hoberman is The Village Voice's film critic.