I’ll approach this film from an apolitical stand-point and any criticisms I make are purely of the character depiction in the film and story.
The film is set in 1951-2, following Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado as they travel over 8,000 miles across Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Florida, USA. Guevara’s background is of a middle class, large family from Argentina with a Spanish heritage, he is far through his medical degree and puts on hold his studies to travel. Guevara is 22-23 and Granado is a full-time chemist at 29-30 years old at the time of the trip. After an initial adrenaline rush when taking off on their trip, Granado continues to be very interested in the local women whereas Guevara cannot turn his attentions away from the living conditions of the indigenous peoples they meet.
This unveiling of behind the curtain is impactful on Guevara who has experienced a privileged and sheltered upbringing. On their travels, they meet an impoverished Communist couple of which Guevara attributes their situation to Yankee Capitalism which solely benefits the Americans. Slowly, Granado begins to understand how the wider population live but for Guevara a stubbornness in his character does not allow him to accept the circumstances and a strong indignation is born.
These new political beliefs of universal equality are well highlighted in Guevara’s time volunteering at a Peruvian leper colony. As he doesn’t use the same practices the other medical professionals undertake such as refusing to wear gloves because it is a sign of detachment and hierarchical. At one point, he even swims across the lake to the lepers in order to stay with the lepers in the segregated colony.
The film is very enjoyable and surprisingly not very political. It is much more an adventurous travel film, “road movie” if you must, before a “coming of age tale”, well before a Marxist propaganda piece. Bernal is impressive as always, and there is a zeal for capturing life which comes across in the film and is weirdly motivating.
As an aside, ironically, the film is directed by Walter Salles – one of the richest people in South America, and son of a banker/politician.