Progressive Cinema by Bill Meyer Highlights from Toronto

Once again, the Toronto International Film Festival offered a vast array of stimulating and entertaining films. With its sheer size and massive organization, 328 films (over half of them premieres) from over 60 countries, Toronto is coming close to challenging Cannes as the world’s most prestigious feast for film lovers. Packed theaters, state-of-the-art digital projection, and great films followed by Q&A’s with some of the world’s greatest actors and filmmakers characterize this amazing festival.

Progressive viewers are never disappointed. This year Sean Penn was in town representing his new film, “Assassination of Richard Nixon.” Pete Seeger and the Weavers introduced “Isn’t This a Time” and thrilled the packed house to a concert after the screening. Spike Lee introduced his film “Sucker Free City” and John Sayles his “Silver City.” Ken Burns presented his epic documentary on legendary boxer, Jack Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness.”

Two new films about Latin American revolutionaries Che Guevara and Salvador Allende graced the screens. Important progressive and humanist directors premiered their latest works: Bille August (Denmark), Volker Schlondorff (Germany), Gianni Amelio (Italy), Wim Wenders (now living in the U.S.), Jean Luc Godard (France), Ousmane Sembene (Senegal), Agnes Varda (France) and many more.

In addition to the festival’s Planet Africa program, a special presentation “South Africa: Ten Years Later,” featured films focusing on the post-apartheid society, with several addressing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the next few columns we’ll be covering some of the highlights from this year’s festival. This week is “Motorcycle Diaries.”

“Motorcycle Diaries” (Brazil)

“Let the world change you… and you can change the world.”

In 1952, a young 23-year-old Argentinean medical student, Ernesto Guevara, began a journey that changed his life. Along with his friend Alberto Granada on a beat-up 1939 motorcycle, they began an eight-month, 8,000-mile expedition up the Chilean coast toward Central America. Ernesto, later to be known as “Che,” wrote a “diary” of the extended adventure, and Granada also later wrote a book about the experience that formed the basis for Brazilian director Walter Salles’ film.

“Motorcycle Diaries” takes its time establishing its characters and the unique friendship of Guevara and Granada, who meet one challenge after another on the rough roads of South America. Accidents with the dilapidated motorcycle on the unpredictable roads, Che’s serious asthma, and Granada’s love for women provide entertaining material for the viewer.

But the deeper they get into their journey, the more they discover themselves and their place in life, and the story reaches a higher plateau. They are deeply affected by the human condition represented by homeless migrant workers, riverboat prostitutes, lepers, and other people they meet along the way. It’s watching this profound effect on two young men and the choices they make, and knowing that it would eventually create in Che what French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre described as “the most complete human being of our age” that makes this story so vital.

The film was shot in most of the original locations, from the extreme heat of the Amazon to sub-zero temperatures in the Andes Mountains. Salles, as in his previous film “Central Station,” traveled throughout Latin America while researching locations, and discovered that the social and political conditions described in the diary are not much different today. The actual leper colony where Che and Alberto spent three weeks is still functioning in Peru.

The director employed non-professionals and local people in many of the roles, bringing an immediacy and honesty to the production. Never has Che been as human and loving. He’s played by the Latin American heartthrob, Gael Garcia Bernal, (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”) with charm and charisma that befits the image of the great humanist. “Motorcycle Diaries” is a poignant and loving ode to a revolutionary, which hasn’t been seen in films since “Il Postino,” an homage to Pablo Neruda.

“Motorcycle Diaries” leaves the viewer with a tremendous sense of hope and the power to change the world. The film describes the real life changes of two young men as they travel the length of South America. The film has the same potential to affect its viewers.

The author can be reached at pww.org.