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Leaving Home in Three Films by Walter Salles

When Walter Salles began making feature films in the early 1990s, Brazilian cinema was at one of its lowest ebbs, occupying at one point less than 1% of the domestic marketplace.1 Struggling in the 1980s, the industry was completely derailed by newly-elected President Fernando Collor de Mello's 1990 austerity program, which included a freeze on all personal savings accounts and the closure of Embrafilme, the government agency that had supported filmmaking since 1969. Any Brazilian filmmaker in this period would have needed to go outside the country for work, or at least for international financing. As a result, for his feature debut in 1991, Salles directed an English-language co-production titled Exposure, a thriller based on A Grande Arte (1983) (High Art, 1987) by popular Brazilian novelist Rubem Fonseca. The film stars Peter Coyote as Peter Mandrake, an American photographer-turned-detective living in Rio de Janeiro, who learns the art of knife-fighting to avenge his near-death at the hands of knife-wielding assailants. Set in Brazil and Bolivia, the movie anticipates the borderless character of Salles' later films, in particular Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) (1995), Central do Brasil (Central Station) (1998), and Los Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries) (2004), whose success both locally and abroad has made him one of Brazil's best-known directors today.

Salles is not the only Brazilian director to make films under co-production arrangements or outside the country. What is unusual, and one might even say unique, is the broad geographic scope of his productions and their emphasis on characters who move into or across new environments. Foreign Land takes place in São Paulo, Lisbon and the [End Page 125] borderland between Portugal and Spain; Central Station begins in Rio de Janeiro and ends in the hinterland of Northeastern Brazil; and The Motorcycle Diaries starts in Buenos Aires and winds through most of Spanish-speaking South America. In many ways quite different from one another, these films are alike in their focus on travel and their striking or unusual topographies. For the most part, they treat cities as dystopian (locus terribilis) and rural landscapes as a mixture of the pastoral (locus amoenus) and the mythic. In the passage from the first of these films to the third, the narratives gradually become more utopian, creating bonds between people who are normally separated by real or economic borders.

Perhaps because he lived outside Brazil for much of his early life, Salles seems especially drawn to the theme of dépaysement, a term that denotes "leaving the homeland" and that connotes cognitive estrangement. Estrangement is in fact a central theme in Foreign Land, Central Station, and The Motorcycle Diaries. Whether forced or voluntarily, the city-dwelling protagonists of these films leave home for distant, unknown lands, in search of something that may or may not exist.2 They are often on the road and at times on the run, traversing large stretches of land and sea and traveling by various means. They have unusual, sometimes dangerous encounters as well as lighter, humorous moments. Although not all of them arrive at their destinations, they all follow the trajectory of classic realist narratives, shaking off conventional assumptions and making social or political discoveries through their encounter with new worlds. Key to those discoveries is the journey itself, which often takes them into dramatic natural vistas that evoke the romantic sublime.

In this essay, I want to treat Foreign Land, Central Station, and The Motorcycle Diaries as travel narratives that deal with the sociopolitical implications of dépaysement. In discussing these films, I am taking a position different from Brazilian critic José Carlos Avellar, who is critical of Brazilian films that "leave home" (i.e., films made outside Brazil and/or films that appropriate popular cinematic genres associated with Hollywood). According to Avellar, such films constitute a "foreign cinema" that is anathema to Brazilian identity and to a socially responsible national cinema. My position is more aligned with that of Randal Johnson, who writes: [End Page 126]

There may be some truth to Avellar's argument, particularly dealing with films shot entirely in English, such as [Salles'] Exposure and [Walter Lima, Jr.'s] The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, but one does not need to engage in some sort of psychological analysis to understand the emergence of the films in question. It is clear that the films' production strategies are geared toward the globalization of cultural production and the internationalization of the film industry.

Johnson adds, "Brazilians obviously have the right to make films about whatever they choose . . . . It is not necessarily un-Brazilian to engage in a cinematic dialogue with American cinema. Given the realities of international film exchange, it is perhaps unrealistic to do otherwise."

Leaving aside the question of responsibility, it is certainly true as Johnson suggests that the films of a director like Salles are determined in the last analysis by the economic situation in Brazil and by the global marketplace. At this level, Salles' work is symptomatic of the international art cinema in general, which increasingly relies on international co-production—an arrangement that tends to produce stories about more than one cultural region, that uses workers from more than one nation, and that favors generic or stylistic features widely known to international audiences. In Salles' case, his major films not only involve journeys but also borrow from a variety of well-known US or European narrative conventions, including the American film noir (Foreign Land), Italian neo-realism (Central Station), and both the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman and the road movie (The Motorcycle Diaries). This is not, however, a disabling condition. As I intend to show, the consistent theme of dépaysement in Salles' films turns necessity into a virtue, providing us with intriguing ways of seeing the nation-state and the world. Far from being rejected or ignored, as Avellar despairs, the local serves as catalyst or springboard for a broader conception of a people who speak the same language, or who share needs in common, and yet have been separated from one another by regional, national, and geographic divides. This different way of seeing is directly linked to the movement of people and capital; as such, it offers a commentary on national and identity politics as they are affected by globalization and border crossings.

Co-produced with Portugal, Foreign Land dramatizes the idea of saudade (homesickness) and deals with the encounter between Latin America, Europe, and Lusophone Africa. A black and white noir, it features gangsters, a young man down on his luck and on the lam, a femme fatale, and a hidden cache of diamonds. These familiar ingredients, however, are a pretext for the depiction of a sometimes bewildering space in which Portuguese speakers from different countries [End Page 127] are thrown together, and in which old assumptions about the new world and the old world are ironically reversed or revised.

The protagonist of the film is Paco (Fernando Alves Pinto), a lackluster student and aspiring actor who lives with his seamstress-mother in a drab São Paulo apartment facing the dystopian inner-city throughway called the Minhocão (the big earthworm). Paco's mother dreams of returning to her native homeland and the Basque town of San Sebastián, where she lived prior to immigrating to Brazil. Paco is insensitive to this life-long wish, for which his mother has scrupulously saved, until he discovers her in front of the television set, dead from a heart attack after learning that Collor has frozen all savings accounts. (The reference to Collor's handling of the economy functions at least indirectly as a self-reflexive comment on the circumstances under which Salles' feature film career began.) Going though her belongings, he comes across cherished picture postcards and photographs of her native land and decides, out of guilt and sorrow, to make the journey she had planned. To pay for the trip, he agrees to carry a package containing an old violin to Lisbon for a shady character called Igor, an antiques dealer-diamond smuggler. In a storeroom piled with run-of-the-mill antiques and what he calls "relics of [Portuguese] colonization," Igor waxes enthusiastic about Brazil's rich colonial heritage and laments the decline of a national memory. The country has become an "empire of mediocrity" obsessed with Americanized shopping malls and filled with "Sydney Sheldon readers." Turning to Paco, he declares: "It's the end of the world." He nevertheless wants to move illegal goods across borders, in imitation of global trade.

A parallel storyline about dépaysement involves a young, middle-class Brazilian woman named Alex (Fernanda Torres) who has left the country because of its declining economy and the promise of a better life in the European Union. Settling in Lisbon, she shares an apartment with her Brazilian boyfriend, Miguel, and waitresses in a modest restaurant under the watchful eye of a brutish Portuguese boss. Alex feels alienated in Lisbon, declaring at one point: "The more time passes, the more I feel like a foreigner." Her equally alienated boyfriend, a drug addict and frustrated musician, is employed by Igor to pick up packages smuggled from Brazil. He occasionally plays trumpet in a bar, although his improvisations go unappreciated by the young black and white clientele, who become enthusiastic only when he takes his break and piped-in African music begins. Miguel derides the bar where Brazilians, Angolans, and Guineans congregate as a "colonial cabaret" and snidely comments on their tastes: "Next time I'll mix bossa nova with rap."

During the opening of the film, Salles cuts back and forth between São Paulo and Lisbon in order to create parallels between Paco and Alex, who will become a romantic couple. Paco applies for a passport while [End Page 128] on the other side of the Atlantic, Alex sells her passport to raise funds. This part of the film once again serves as a self-reflexive commentary on the economic conditions of Brazilian cinema and the need for foreign exchange. Alex is shocked when her Spanish-speaking buyer remarks, "Brazilian passports aren't worth anything" and offers three hundred dollars instead of the three thousand she expected. When she argues that the passport has been recently renewed, the Spaniard shrugs and counters: "It's Brazilian."

The film's parallel narratives merge once Paco arrives at the Hotel dos Viajantes (Travelers' Hotel) in Lisbon and, after waiting days to hand over the package containing the violin, leaves in search of his contact, Miguel. In the meantime, Miguel boosts a cache of Igor's diamonds and is killed by Igor's henchmen before he can escape. While searching for Miguel, Paco meets Loli, a black Angolan who lives at the Travelers' Hotel with other Angolans, and their awkward encounter on a side street is an ironic reminder that race relations are not easy in the more diverse Lusophone society. When Paco nervously steps back from Loli despite the fact that he is smiling, Loli registers surprise: "What, you're afraid of me? Hey, this isn't São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro."

Ultimately, Paco finds a grieving and distrusting Alex, who dispatches Miguel's friend Pedro to the Travelers' Hotel to pick up the smuggled package. In the meantime, she misleads and distracts Paco by offering to take him to a place outside Lisbon where he can meet Miguel's contacts. Their trip to the solitary, windswept Cape Espichel, which turns into an overnight tryst, contains some of the most powerful imagery in the movie. The wide camera angles show the smallness of Paco and Alex against the sprawling coastline, plunging cliffs, and churning sea. Seated near the promontory's edge, Alex ironically echoes a line we've heard the gangster Igor speak earlier: she tells Paco that they're "at the end of the world," which was in fact what the Portuguese once believed about their own country. She praises the ancient mariners who dreamed of a paradise across the ocean and went in search of it, but she adds with a scoff: "Poor Portuguese . . . they ended up discovering Brazil."

After a night of lovemaking on the cape, Alex is cool to Paco. When he returns to his hotel, he discovers the violin is gone and finds a note telling him to deliver it to a Mr. Kraft. Hearing music from Loli's room above his own, he looks to the Angolan for consolation. He and Loli step out onto a balcony, where Paco complains that Alex "me comeu" (ate me). Unfamiliar with the Brazilian slang for sex, Loli asks: "How did she eat you?" to which Paco simply replies, "She ate me." Loli laughs: "Oh, I get it . . . Leave it to you Brazilians. Hah! And yet we're supposed to be the cannibals . . . ." When Paco says that the strangest things have happened to him since he arrived in Lisbon, Loli asks, "But what were [End Page 129] you expecting in Lisbon, Brazilian?" Paco replies, "I don't know . . . at the very least to discover something. Wasn't it from here that they discovered the whole world?" Laughing and pointing at the bridge that spans the Tagus River, Loli remarks, "Portugal? They take three hours to get across the fucking bridge. You're kidding!"

Much of the Lisbon action takes place in and around the Alfama, the oldest part of the city that borders the Tagus. The film takes full advantage of the district's noir atmosphere, showing Paco running through its maze of dark, narrow alleyways, pursued by the French-speaking Kraft, his Portuguese henchman Carlos (who earlier murdered Miguel), and Igor, who has suddenly arrived from Brazil to make the final deal for the diamonds that have been hidden in the violin case. When Paco rediscovers Alex, she tells him that she has given the violin away. Pedro, who is in love with Alex, lends the couple his car and advises them to head for the Spanish border; and when Alex blurts out that she has sold her passport, Pedro suggests they go through Boa Vista, where the border is less heavily guarded. On the run and driving back roads at night, Alex and Paco turn to small talk that gradually becomes intimate. When they stop for a rest, they make love in the car and fall asleep. The next morning, Alex finds Paco standing nearby on a deserted beach at the foot of the ocean, where an old freighter rests, stranded on its side like an enormous beached whale. Inspired by her newfound love and the magnificence of the maritime sculpture, Alex turns to Paco and says, "Let's head for San Sebastián."

Somewhat like the Portuguese mariners of old, Alex and Paco envision a paradise beyond the edge of Portugal, but they travel in an easterly direction. Arriving in Boa Vista, they decide to stop at a roadside restaurant until nightfall, when the nearby border is left unguarded. After torturing Pedro for the information, Carlos and Igor catch up to the couple. Paco manages to kill Carlos, but Carlos shoots Paco in the stomach. Dragging Paco's bleeding body into the car, Alex cradles his head in her lap, takes off for the border, and tries to comfort him with the tearful refrain: "I'm taking you home, I'm taking you home . . . ." As the car demolishes the flimsy wooden barrier that marks the divide between nations, the film suddenly provides its one and only aerial shot (an echo of Nicholas Ray's Hollywood noir, They Live by Night [1949]), revealing the indistinguishable terrain on either side of the border and the car speeding north towards a "home" somewhere beyond the wilderness.

We never know if Paco survives his wound, and most viewers probably infer that, like the typical couples in "love on the run" noirs, both Paco and Alex are ultimately doomed. The shot of the car crossing the border, however, has a somewhat liberating effect, as if the film were gesturing toward a utopian freedom that can't be imagined except in an [End Page 130] image of natural landscape. Salles then cuts from their car racing beyond the border to a bustling underground station in Lisbon, where an old blind man plays the smuggled violin and passing commuters occasionally toss him coins. When the violin case is accidentally upended, Igor's hidden cache of black market diamonds spills onto the ground—an echo of the ironic conclusions of such US films as John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). The valuable and coveted merchandise that crossed an ocean and precipitated chaos and death goes unnoticed by the passersby, whose feet scatter the gems. City dwellers in transit, their attention is on getting back home.

Supported by Brazil's Audiovisual Law adopted in 1993 to support the industry, Central Station received the prize for best screenplay at Sundance and was co-produced by veteran Swiss producer Arthur Cohn.3 A surprise box-office hit in Brazil, the film helped to usher in the retomada or revival of Brazilian cinema that includes Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's international blockbuster Cidade de Deus (City of God) (2001), about gangs and violence in a Rio favela (slum); José Padilha's self-reflexive documentary, Ônibus 174 (Bus 174) (2002), about a real-life bus hijacking and murder that was televised throughout Brazil; and the bio-pic/musical, Os Dois Filhos de Francisco (The Two Sons of Francisco) (2005), about two young country singers, which became the highest grossing film ever made in Brazil. Unlike these pictures, however, Central Station is the story of a journey toward unfamiliar surroundings that results in a kind of growth—not a journey beyond the national borders, but into the vast, relatively undeveloped interior of Brazil, where people live in newly-developed towns or enclaves at the extreme margins of industrial society.

Anyone familiar with Brazilian cinema will recognize in Central Station's opening shots of poor Northeasterner migrants an indirect homage to Cinema Novo filmmakers such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, whose classic Vidas Secas (Barren Lives) (1963) follows a Northeastern peasant family's migration toward the city. Cinema Novo came to define Brazilian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and was especially important for its radical critique of social injustice. Salles doesn't ignore the social issues, but his tone is more nostalgic and sentimental. Whereas Barren Lives and other Cinema Novo films focused on peasants fleeing the drought-stricken Northeast for an uncertain or empty future, Central [End Page 131] Station centers on an impoverished middle-class character who journeys to the remote Northeast and undergoes a life change that has powerful and positive effects. Cinema Novo, which carried a revolutionary message and focused on starving peasants, had limited success in Brazil and was much more popular at international festivals and in art cinemas. By contrast, Central Station was widely popular, perhaps because its treatment of poverty is relatively generalized and not strongly connected to issues of social class; here hunger and poverty function as catalysts for existential encounters on the road. The film's success within and outside Brazil probably also owes a good deal to Salles' travelogue approach, which depicts even the farthest corners of the arid Northeast with wide-screen, full-color panoramas.

A few critics have noted the similarities between Central Station and Vittorio da Sica's quintessential neo-realist film, The Bicycle Thief (1948), in part because both pictures involve an adult and a child who are engaged in an elemental search, and in part because both make use of non-professional actors. But Salles' film is much more colorful and expensive looking, and it tends to marginalize working-class characters, putting more stress on the somewhat melodramatic relationship between Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a former schoolteacher who, despite her modest economic circumstances, has access to the written word, and Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira), a migrant child who has come to Rio with his mother.4 Initially, there is little to distinguish Dora, who never posts the letters paid for by the illiterate migrants, from the feudal-style landowner in Barren Lives, who swindles uneducated cowhands. A security guard in the Rio train station at the beginning of the film is even more ruthless than the equivalent cruel soldier in Barren Lives; after chasing down an older boy who has robbed a station vendor, the guard pulls his gun and executes the boy on the spot and in plain sight. No one objects or complains, despite the boy's desperate attempt to return the trinket he has stolen and save his life. Class conflict becomes more apparent when Dora and the guard conspire to capitalize on Josué's situation after his mother is struck and killed by a bus. Tempted by the guard's reference to an underground child adoption service that pays well, Dora befriends Josué and then delivers him to an "orphanage" where she receives money that she uses to buy a new TV set. But when she realizes that she has sold Josué onto the black market that deals in harvesting and selling abandoned children's organs, she returns and rescues him. On the run from the child traffickers, the two make a journey that has been made for decades by millions of poor Northeasterners, but in reverse. They flee the violence of Rio for the [End Page 132] backlands of the Northeast, where they hope to locate Josué's father, whom he has never seen, and who is his best chance for survival.

Like a good many buddy films and road movies, the second part of Central Station follows the mismatched Dora and Josué, showing how their acrimonious relationship in the city (Josué confronts Dora with her postal scheme and feels betrayed when she abandons him at the so-called orphanage) blossoms into companionship in the close quarters of a bus journey. Excited by the trip and the view from his window seat, Josué remains skeptical of Dora, who rarely looks out the window and finally drinks herself into a stupor as she bitterly reminisces about her own absent father. Their journey nearly ends when they reach a rest stop the following morning. Alarmed by the responsibility she has assumed, Dora decides to leave Josué asleep on the bus and asks the driver to watch over him. Tucking most of her remaining ill-gotten gains in his knapsack, she purchases a one-way ticket back to Rio and waits in a lunch counter for the next south-bound bus. When she walks into the dining area next to the lunch counter, however, she finds a sullen Josué seated at a table, waiting for her.

The weary, hungry travelers are eventually rescued by César (Othon Bastos), a Good Samaritan truck driver and itinerant evangelist, who informs them that his home is the road. He buys them food and offers a lift in his truck, which is decorated with a hand-painted sign ("Strength is in everything, but only God is power") on the back bumper and a printed sign ("With God I follow my destiny") on the front. Here and elsewhere, the film hints at religious allegory, although it does so in a relatively light fashion. When the little group stops at a roadside store, Josué and Dora, who are ironically paralleled with the image of a Madonna and Child hanging on the back wall, proceed to shoplift food and then play dumb when accused of theft. Once back in the truck, César gradually joins in their celebration of the stolen foods, accepting forbidden fruit in the form of a cream cracker from Dora's outstretched hand. An exchange of conversation and food creates camaraderie among the three, not unlike the bonding of different character types in conventional road movies, and they begin to look more and more like a family on an outing. Like a doting father, César places Josué on his lap and lets him steer, and an overnight stop in the out-of-doors brings Dora and César closer together over a camp fire. The "family's" next stop is a colorful roadside restaurant, its brightly painted orange and blue-green walls decorated with homey murals of rustic landscapes that contrast sharply with the brown, arid landscape outside. The men's pristine white bathroom is adored with a multi-colored sunburst design whose bold red lettering shouts: "Urinate here." Dora tempts the teetotaler César with a small glass of beer, which he eagerly drinks. Then, she extends her hand to him, but this time the gesture is emotional, intimate. [End Page 133] In the bathroom marked "Women's" in bright red capital letters, she fluffs out her hair before a mirror and applies a borrowed red lipstick that matches the handwritten signage on the walls. As she pulls back to consider the results, the beginning letters of the word "Woman" comes into focus behind her. But when she returns to the restaurant, her tentative smile dissolves into a red wound; frightened by Dora's feelings for him, César has fled in his truck, and Dora and Josué are once again stranded on the highway.

Like early Cinema Novo films, Central Station brings to the screen a remote area of the Brazil that remains foreign, virtually another country, even to many Brazilians, although the film's depiction of that area is far less barren and dangerous-looking than the brutal landscape that filmmaker-theorist Glauber Rocha regarded as integral to Cinema Novo's "Aesthetic of Hunger." In contrast to Rocha's Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) (1964) and Antônio das Mortes (1969), it gives us a relatively tranquil, sometimes sublimely vast and picturesque Northeast, and its treatment of popular religious beliefs is free of class struggle and violence. One of the most colorful scenes in the film takes place in little town of Bom Jesus do Norte, where Dora and Josué arrive as a religious pilgrimage to celebrate the Virgin Mary is underway. In the "House of Miracles," hundreds of candles illuminate photographs and woodcarvings offered by sick people who believe in the healing powers of faith. Faint from hunger, Dora momentarily loses sight of Josué and collapses in the labyrinthine structure, but Josué miraculously reappears by her side. The next shot shows an exhausted Dora being cradled and comforted by Josué in the pose of an inverted Pietà.

The warm hues of the religious festival are complemented by the vibrantly colored outfits of two gypsy women who later approach Dora for money in exchange for telling her future. (The sight of gypsies in the Northeast seems odd, although in his commentary to the DVD edition of the film, Salles says they are played by actual gypsies and not actors.) At this point, little distinguishes Dora and Josué from the gypsies, who are also homeless and nomadic, living hand-to-mouth in foreign lands. In fact, the bartering of the gypsies inspires Josué, who becomes a sort of entrepreneur and sets Dora to work writing letters for the itinerant pilgrims. She and Josué have arrived at what one resident of the town calls "the end of the world," and their roles have become partly reversed: while Dora transcribes personal messages, Josué drums up business and handles money like a manager-banker. The close-ups of Northeasterners mirror the ones that open the movie, except that now the messages are aimed at loved ones who have migrated to the city.

Here "the end of the world" referred to in Foreign Land becomes something of a promise land. Josué discovers two half-brothers who are artisan wood carpenters; his father is never found, but Dora reads to all [End Page 134] three a letter the father sent to his two sons some time earlier, at a time when he was trying to locate Josué's mother, whose picture hangs alongside his own on the small living room wall. Dora slightly embellishes the letter by adding a reference to Josué, who beams with pride when he hears his name. Shortly before dawn, Dora takes her leave while the three brothers sleep. Prior to her departure, she places the mother's letter on a bureau alongside the father's, creating a familial closeness and symmetry with the tiny portraits that hang above on the wall.

Just as Foreign Land involves a desire for a return to a home beyond the national borders and the dangers of the city, Central Station contrasts the anonymity of Rio's bustling crowds with the personal encounters and family ties in a remote part of Brazil. Especially in the second part, the film treats Dora's handwriting as an artisan craft, linking her with Josué's family and harking back to a time when correspondence meant something special, time-consuming and personal. The emphasis on longhand appears at various junctures in the film: in the close-up shot of the religious message painted across the back bumper of César's truck; in the shots of the roadside café, where hand-painted words are spread over bathroom doors; and in Bom Jesus do Norte, where, unlike in the city, Dora writes and actually posts letters. Through travel, handwriting gradually enables the characters to achieve communication and community. The final shot shows Dora smiling as she pens a letter to Josué and rides a bus back to Rio. No longer a menial task or simply a means to earn money, the writing is pleasurable, giving her a way to keep close to the boy she loves.

The theme of dépaysement is evoked at the very beginning of The Motorcycle Diaries, when an exuberant Ernesto Guevara, a young medical student, bids farewell to family members in Buenos Aires and starts a transcontinental trek on motorcycle with his friend Alberto Granado. The making of this Spanish-language movie, which was adapted from Guevara's journals, was a departure as well for Salles, who left Brazil to retrace the 1952 trip that transformed Ernesto into the Marxist revolutionary known worldwide as "Che." Like the journey itself, which cuts across most of Latin America, the financing of the film was an international affair, involving co-producers from Argentina, Chile, Peru, the United Kingdom, and the US. The crew came from different parts of Latin America, and the leading roles were played by stars from two [End Page 135] different countries: the popular Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Ernesto) and the charismatic Argentine Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto).5

As in Central Station, dépaysement involves a road trip that takes the protagonists away from civilization and closer to the land. In this case, the journey makes a nice contrast with the one taken by a pair of doped-out bikers in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), a Hollywood film about romantic adventure that turns into a study of disillusionment and death. Traveling across Argentina and Chile on a rattle-trap motorcycle nicknamed "La Poderosa" (The Mighty One), Ernesto and Alberto make important discoveries, witnessing up close the poverty, hunger, and disease suffered by rural peoples of indigenous ancestry. Ernesto in particular seems chastened by the experience, and his emerging political awareness reaches a climax with the assertion that "we [Spanish Americans] constitute a single mestizo race"—an idea that links him with Simón Bolívar and functions as a sort of preamble to his subsequent struggle, as Che Guevara, toward hemispheric solidarity and revolution.

Salles' adaptation of Guevara's best-selling diary relies to a certain degree on formulas of the road movie and the buddy film, showing how the rather shy and romantically naïve Ernesto bonds with the raucous skirt-chaser Alberto over thousands of miles of mostly bad roads, much of them astride a temperamental, smoke-belching machine. The themes of struggle and liberation are everywhere present, but at first, the film seems more concerned with the frustrations and inconveniences caused by "The Mighty One's" continuous breakdowns, which are counter-pointed with a cheerful sense of uninhibited freedom that comes from living for months on the road. Ernesto and Alberto's occasional poverty and hunger are not the products of social injustice; rather, they provide a motive for cross-country adventures and comical ruses to finagle food, money, and lodging from locals. What gives The Motorcycle Diaries its more important emotional power are the topographical and other wonders that the two men encounter as they push their way over vast plateaus and snow-capped mountains toward the dizzying heights of Machu Picchu.

One of the most bizarre settings in the largely untamed wilderness traveled by the film is Miramar, Argentina, where Ernesto's girlfriend lives. After riding over back roads lined by fields empty except for an occasional cowhand or cattle, they arrive at her house; the camera pulls back from the approaching travelers for a panoramic shot of a massive, Tudor-style mansion, replete with turret, stretched out on a manicured, golf course-size lawn. The size and ostentatious character of the house and environs are in contrast with the clunky motorcycle's small form crossing into the frame. Alberto registers surprise at what he sees, [End Page 136] shouting to Ernesto over the engine's roar: "Where the fuck are we, in Switzerland?" The monied Argentine family with its ties to Europe and to a lesser degree to the US6 is an estranging anomaly alongside the near-indigent populations we see later on the road, whose ties are local and indigenous, as symbolized by the magnificent Machu Picchu.

One of the film's most poignant sequences involves an encounter between the two adventurers and a Chilean peasant couple who are on the run for being communists. Homeless, this couple looks for work, and over a campfire at night, they ask Ernesto and Alberto if they are not doing the same. When the young men reply in the negative, the couple asks, "Why do you travel?" The men's reply, "We travel to travel," emphasizes the disparity between the middle/upper classes, for whom travel is a leisure pastime or an existential choice, and the peasantry, for whom travel connotes exile and a fight for survival. Ernesto and Alberto cross paths again with the Chilean couple at a bleak site along the road where an Anaconda foreman handpicks day laborers to work in copper mines now controlled by the US. The husband is selected along with others, and, like an animal, is hastily packed into a truck with other workers and sent off without protective gear or experience to toil in a dark underworld.

The two young men struggle on foot and up steep mountainsides into the ancient Peruvian capital of Cuzco—the "Heart of America," as Ernesto excitedly proclaims. But the first view of the place is far from glorious: in a narrow, liminal space between two massive stone walls, a peasant woman washes clothes in a stream. The barrier walls, relics of an ancient Incan civilization and the Spanish enemy that vanquished it, appear to face one another as a descendant of the two antagonistic races labors on her knees between them. When informed of the history of the two walls, Ernesto and Alberto are unable to distinguish one from the other, which suggests that the two cultures are now indistinct. Their young Indian guide readily repeats a local joke that pokes fun at the incompetency of the Spanish builders; Ernesto and Alberto laugh, but their amusement is cut short when the boy recounts how the Spaniards destroyed the city and relocated the national capital to Lima.

Next Ernesto and Alberto travel down the Amazon by boat to spend time learning about leprosy in an international colony of patients from all over South America. The leper colony is far removed from the homes of the doctors and nursing staff of nuns and others, who live on the other side of the river and travel back and forth by ferry. Alberto works mostly in the medical laboratory, but Ernesto has direct contact with the patients, and his journey across the river to be with them has special significance in his larger trajectory. On his first visit, he immediately breaks a cardinal rule and offers a bare handshake to two older lepers. [End Page 137] When he and Alberto fail to attend the Sunday mass required by all, they are punished by the nun in charge, who refuses to give them food. Class consciousness forms as Ernesto spends more time away from his temporary lodgings and among the lepers, who include him in their work and play. On his birthday, he decides to leave the festivities organized by the doctors and staff and spend the occasion with his friends on the other side of the river. There is no ferry at this time of night, so he decides to swim across the river, a feat never before tried, which tests greatly his physical endurance. (All the more so because Ernesto suffers from asthma and is sometimes shown coughing as much as the old motorcycle.) People on both sides of the river react in horror at his decision, which the film treats symbolically, as an unprecedented movement across a border to unite with those marginalized by society and a prefiguration of Guevara's later physical struggles against oppression. Ultimately, the crowds formed on both banks shout to encourage him, rejoicing as he nears his destination. The lepers reach out and grasp his hands in theirs in solidarity and friendship.

Like Foreign Land and Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries ends with at least one of the protagonists still in transit. Although we do not see their journey through Colombia, the two men arrive in Venezuela, where Alberto has accepted a job. After embracing his friend, Ernesto boards a plane and travels back to Argentina; but his return home is only temporary, for, as we know, his journey as a revolutionary is only beginning. Several years later, from Havana, he writes to Alberto and urges him to leave Venezuela for the new revolutionary society (which is in fact what Alberto did). A shot of the real-life Alberto, now an octogenarian, in a reenactment of their parting in Venezuela, gives poignancy and a special historical and political importance to a moment some fifty years ago when two middle-class youths decided it was time to leave home.

Significantly, Salles' adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries omits the book's last chapter, in which Ernesto has a mysterious, visionary encounter with an old man who tells him that "revolution is impersonal" and who converts him to using "gunpowder and blood" to achieve "his enemy's death." For this reason and others, the film has been criticized in some quarters for being romantic and liberal rather than a revolutionary work in the true spirit of Che Guevara and of the old Cinema Novo. Salles does in fact appear to be a left-liberal. He breaks no rules of classical film style, and, as I've indicated, his pictures are calculated to play off of familiar genres, speaking to a relatively broad commercial audience in terms they recognize. He might even be regarded in some sense as a regressive filmmaker, in that he often expresses a nostalgia for natural landscapes. I would argue, however, that the films I've been discussing are fairly straightforward and consistent in their [End Page 138] critical treatment of global capitalism. Equally important, these films envision the possibility of new communities and relationships that break down conventional boundaries and assumptions—a world in which humans and not simply money and commodities cross borders and make discoveries. For the most part, Salles remains Brazilian in outlook, but at the same time, he is a filmmaker on the road, forming imaginary alliances with neighboring or related cultures, repeatedly emphasizing the need to leave home in order to fully understand the places where we usually live.

Darlene J. Sadlier
Indiana University-Bloomington
Darlene J. Sadlier

Darlene J. Sadlier is Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Adjunct Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. Among her many books published is Nelson Pereira dos Santos (2003), a study of Brazil's most distinguished director.


1. According to Antônio Leão da Silva Neto, only thirty-eight films were made in 1991, fifteen in 1992, and nine in 1993 (937). In 1993, the Audio-Visual Law was enacted to reinvigorate national filmmaking. However, as Cacilda M. Rêgo notes, problematic distribution and exhibition practices and the hegemony of foreign films in Brazil were not resolved by that law (89).

2. Interestingly, this rule applies to some extent even in the case of Salles' recent Hollywood movie, Dark Water (2005), a remake of a Japanese horror film, in which the protagonist, a single mother, moves from her familiar world into a grey, anonymous apartment building in a dystopian urban locale.

3. See Johnson for information on the various international backers involved in the film's distribution.

4. Central Station is characterized by some of the same low-budget production techniques that Cinema Novo adopted from 1940s Italian neo-realism, including the use of non-professional actors, location shooting, and natural lighting.

5. Claire Williams calls attention to the film's international character in "Los Diarios de Motocicleta as Pan-American Travelogue."

6. Ernesto's girlfriend gives him fifteen dollars to buy a bikini made in the US.


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