The Motorcycle Diaries

on September 24, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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In 1952, 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal) sets out with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) on what is to be a four-month, 8,000-mile tour of South America on the back of a 1939 Norton 500cc bike, ironically dubbed "The Mighty One." It's an adventure that ultimately lasts nine months and takes them more than 12,000 km from their departure point in Buenos Aires, Argentina, across the continent through Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela.

Along the way, they stop to visit Ernesto's privileged girlfriend, who gives him $15 in American money to buy her a swimsuit when he reaches the States. The sum becomes much contested between the at-times woefully underfunded travelers, especially when Ernesto receives a letter presumably indicating she will wait for him no longer. They meet communists, forced off their land by speculators, who are likewise on the move, only in their case it's in search of work. And they pause for three weeks in a leprosy colony on the Amazon where the river segregates the healthy from the ill.

It's a life-changing experience, one that shapes Ernesto into the man he will become: "Che." That "The Motorcycle Diaries" doesn't market itself as a Che Guevara biopic makes it all the more revelatory, especially to viewers who perhaps won't make the connection until the film ends and a few lines of text explain what happens next--that he leads the Cuban revolution and is executed in Bolivia allegedly under orders from the CIA. (Interestingly, Focus, which picked up "Diaries" for distribution at Sundance, has greenlighted Terrence Malick's "Che," which will star Benicia Del Toro in the title role and focus on events later in the revolutionary's life.)

One wonders if the film could have done without this coda, but, even with it, "Motorcycle Diaries," based on the journals of Guevara and Granado, is a simple road-trip movie that makes a powerful statement about the influence of broadening one's experiences on the development of a human being.

Beautiful Bernal ("Amores Perros," "Y tu mama tambien," "El Crimen del padre Amaro") has emerged as a compelling new talent from south of the border. Here he gives a fearless performance as the young Che, who suffered from asthma, giving himself over wholly to the affliction. In one particular scene, he's unable to locate his medication during an attack. The bout is scary and ugly and deeply moving. Bernal is not an actor whose vanity will stand in the way of his craft. He thereby puts a human face on a legendary figure.

Meanwhile, helmer Walter Salles has incorporated the intimacy of his previous work ("Central Station," "Behind the Sun") with the epic scale of Guevara's story. His camerawork is handheld and close-up in moments of extreme emotion--Ernesto's departure from his apprehensive middle-class family, amid the creaking leather of the backseat of a car when he says goodbye to his girlfriend--and comically jittery as Ernesto and Alberto bounce over the rough roads on The Mighty One. At the same time, Salles' camera soaks in the stunning South American landscapes--fields, desert, mountains--and, in the case of the Macchu Picchu ruins, lingers eloquently without comment. "Motorcycle Diaries" is an achievement that will define Salles' career.

Not to be missed are the end credits, which feature an interview with a now-aged Granado reminiscing about his storied cross-continental road trip with the young man who would become Che Guevara. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mia Maestro, Mercedes Moran, Jorge Chiarella and Gabriela Aguilera. Directed by Walter Salles. Written by Jose Rivera. Produced by Michael Nozik, Karen Tenkhoff and Edgard Tenembaum. A Focus release. Drama. Spanish-language; subtitled. Rated R for language. Running time: 128 min

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