The Motorcycle Diaries

October, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Walter Salles

Starring:Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna

Leftist political figures often get distorted by either inaccurate biographers or self-serving descriptions by the subjects themselves, so this filmed version of the journals of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Alberto Granado, his traveling companion during their student days together, offers an excellent opportunity to learn about the 20th century's most romantic revolutionary from his own words and those of a close friend. The result is a terrific "road" movie, ravishingly photographed across the length of South America and at the same time, a compelling look at the conditions which help forge Che's transformation from an asthmatically-constrained Argentine medical student into a supporter of violent regime change across the hemisphere, whatever the cost.

In 1952, the 23-year old Ernesto, (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his 29 year old pharmacist -in-training companion Alberto, (Rodrigo De La Serna) decide to put the latter's ancient motorcycle through an exhausting trip from their homes in Buenos Aries across the continent to Peru, financing their journey by taking odd-jobs along the way. The trip, (which would take almost a year to complete) brought these two middle-class youths into a new appreciation of the harsh conditions in which so many South Americans lived and the structural barriers restricting their opportunities to better themselves. Unabashedly sympathetic to his subjects, director Walter Salles, (Behind The Sun, Central Station) has fashioned an endearing portrait of sidekick Alberto while mounting a persuasive case that Che's experiences on their journey became the bedrock of his later political commitments.

But it didn't begin that way; Ernesto's first objective was a visit to his girl friend's home in northern Argentina. Since she came from a much wealthier and far more socially prominent family than he did, Ernesto and Alberto got the coldest of sholders from her parents and they left with the young woman’s caution to Ernesto that she wouldn't wait for him forever. Inexperience costs this wandering pair a good bit of their camping gear and the bike gives out relatively early in their adventures, so for the balance of the journey, the two become much like the companions with whom they're forced to travel…penniless and at the mercy of both the elements and the rigid indifference of the societies through with they wander. Armed with letters of introduction to a physician in Lima Peru, the pair observe first hand how the poor suffer special hardship when they’re in failing health and a subsequent stint as interns at a leper colony some distance from Lima finally convinces Che that his future doesn't lie in the profession for which he's been formally trained.

Salles manages to deliver this message through lively interchanges between the sweetly serious Ernesto and his more open, carefree chum Alberto. In the latter role, De La Serna is luminous, full of macho bravado and anxious to bed any available female. (The film may laud Che, but it's really Alberto's charm which makes it succeed.) The studious Che comes alive most frequently in his reactions to Alberto's exploits, and Bernal's Che suffers by comparison; he may be a more significant personage than his fun-loving buddy, but he's not nearly as appealing. But by balancing Che's growing sense of indignation at the suffering that engulfs them on every side with Alberto's passionate vitality, the film manages the feat of being immensely entertaining and seriously thought- provoking at the same time.

The film's closing sequence, which traces the events that took place in both these lives after the events it so movingly covers, provides a touching ending to one of the very best movies of the year.

   

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