Motorcycle Diaries, The (USA/UK/Argentina/Germany, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Before he became the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara was an introverted medical student living a sheltered life in Buenos Aires. His life changed in 1952, when, despite almost being done with his degree, he decided to take a break from his studies and join his friend, Alberto Granado, on a trip through South America. Their journey, begun on an old motorcycle and completed on foot, by hitchhiking, and on a raft, took more than seven months and covered 7500 miles. By the time it concluded in Caracas, Guevara was not the same man who started the odyssey. The Motorcycle Diaries, which is based on Guevara's journals and a book written by Granado, is the story of that trek.

Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station) avoids the easy path of politicizing Guevara's life and turning him into a symbol or an icon. As portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, he is an ordinary 23-year old whose exposure to the realities of poverty and disease causes a monumental spiritual upheaval. The transformation is presented slowly and subtly, and, although it is pretty much complete by the time the end credits roll, only those who are aware of Guevara's role in history will understand what comes next.

The movie's rhythms are interesting. It begins as a standard road movie, not all that different from Bernal's breakthrough feature, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Two friends are out on their own for the first time, and their goals go no further than seeing a little of the world, getting laid, and drinking. For a while, The Motorcycle Diaries embraces this hedonistic approach, giving us episodes in which Guevara dallies with a wealthy, high-class girlfriend and Granado wins enough money at cards so that an attractive call girl can entertain him for the night. Eventually, however, the brutality of South America's social structure intrudes. The pair meets a communist couple who are desperate for money. Later, they volunteer to work in a leper colony where the quarters of the workers are segregated from those of the patients by the Amazon River.

Throughout The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles uses the beauty of the countryside as a counterpoint to the ugliness of human conditions. In making the film, Salles took his cast and crew along the exact route described by Guevara and Granado in their accounts. In many ways, this is the ultimate in on-location filming, and it functions almost as effectively as a travelogue as a drama. Plus, to keep things from becoming too somber, Salles interjects occasional moments of humor, such as when Guevara fails to recognize mambo music and starts dancing the tango.

Aside from the location shooting, The Motorcycle Diaries' greatest assets are the actors. Both Bernal, who is quickly rising to the rank of international superstar, and Rodrigo De la Serna turn in natural, charismatic performances. Since the character of Guevara has the greatest arc, greater range is demanded from Bernal, and he is never found wanting. The actor is certainly more impressive here than in Pedro Almodovar's latest, Bad Education, in which he plays the homme fatale.

The way Salles has chosen to present the material establishes The Motorcycle Diaries as more of a character drama and an offbeat road adventure than a bio-pic. If you aren't aware that it's a true story, you probably won't make the connection. Most films of this sort like to trumpet their sometimes tenuous relationship with reality via captions (the dreaded "based on a true story" syndrome). By not doing this, Salles allows us to enjoy the story as is, without unreasonable expectations. In the end, The Motorcycle Diaries tells a very personal tale with a central theme we can all relate to: the loss of innocence. We may not all become revolutionaries like Guevara, but nearly everyone can recall that moment when he or she realizes that the world can be an unpleasant place. And therein lies the universality of Salles' film, and the reason why you don't have to share Guevara's politics to appreciate this telling of a key chapter from his life.

Motorcycle Diaries, The (USA/UK/Argentina/Germany, 2004)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English dubbed Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1