The year is 1952, and Ernesto “Fuser” Guevara is a 4th year medical student in Buenos Aires, his friend Alberto Granado a biochemist. They embark on an epic journey on an aging Norton 500 motorcycle (called The Mighty One) – their goal to traverse the continent of South America and end up in Peru working at a leper colony. They are affluent, indulged, and fun seeking. Their journey takes them across the Andes, Chilean coast, the Atacama desert, across the Amazon into Venezuela. The Mighty One barely holds up, and the men’s attempt to pick up women lead them into one scrape after another, until in one hasty attempt to flee the motorcycle is turned into a tangled mess. Thereafter the journey is by carts, lorries, and even boats. And along the way they meet more people of the Americas, appreciate that all are one people, come to see the plight of the indigenous people, forced to flee their homes and work at hard labor in mines. Finally they arrive in Lima and then go to the San Pablo leper colony. There the patients live on one side of the Amazon, and the attendants, doctors and nurses on the other. This great divide parallels the divide between the haves and the have-nots and changes Guevara forever. On his final night he embarks on a symbolic swim across the swollen and dangerous river, giving us a foretaste of what is to become of him as he will embark on a dangerous journey to try and better the lives of the underprivileged across the continent.
The film is dreamily shot and the travelogue part could well belong in a National Geographic video. The steppes, the snow covered Andes, the ruins of Machu Pichchu, the Amazon, the bleak mines all come vividly into life. Based on the book by Che Guevara (of the same name) and supplemented by information from Back on the Road: A Journey Through Latin America by Alberto Granado, the story is a simple one, that of a journey of self discovery. And for the most part it is a humorous and fun filled tale of young men on the road. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays Guevara, and the Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna plays Granado (he is supposedly a second cousin to Che Guevara). Bernal and Serna are both magical. Bernal plays the youthful Fuser with an innocence and naivete that is a prefect foil to the older, more “knowing” and jaded rendition of Granado by Serna.
The films ends with some footage of the now old Granado and tells us of how he joined his friend Che in his mission. Che was later executed in the Bolivian jungle in 1967 in a CIA-assisted operation. Directed by Walter Salles, this beautiful film is about much more than the birth of an communist leader and thinker, and is a must watch.