In 1952, two young Argentinean students set off into the heart of South America, riding a motorcycle that’s like a temperamental horse bucking them at every turn. The journey as metaphor is a familiar one, charted in legends from the Odyssey to Easy Rider. As the distance grows between them and their cozy bourgeois families, so does their uncertainty and awareness that the world they thought they were living in is not the one they encounter.
One of the young men is Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Gael García Bernal), who would go on to fight for social equality under the auspices of the Cuban Revolution and then become the handsome, gun-toting revolutionary-of-choice for subsequent generations of status quo-defying kids.
Brazilian director Walter Salles has focused on a side of Che many young viewers can relate to—a 24-year-old dressed in leather helmet and goggles, yearning for adventure. Rather than the full-fledged radical, here Che is a thoughtful medical student whose life course is changed by travels from his home in Buenos Aires to Chile, Peru and Venezuela. The Dennis Hopper to Bernal’s Peter Fonda is Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), the film’s archetypal fun-lovin’ sidekick who provides a contrast to the sensitive, asthmatic, intense Che.
On their journey, Che and Alberto encounter a Peruvian couple driven from their land. On a boat from Lima, Che observes the brutal divisions of class, where the lowlier ranks are actually dragged in a separate dingy behind the boat.
Che’s philosophical growth over the course of those travels—recorded in letters to his mother and diary entries that are the basis of the film—culminates in a three-week stay at a Peruvian leper colony. It is there, where the lepers and their caregivers are divided by the Amazon River, that Che slowly recognizes the gulf that separates the exploiters and the exploited in South America.
The Motorcycle Diaries suffers from the difficulty of showing Che’s awakening consciousness. Much easier and more emotionally satisfying to convey is how Che puts that consciousness into action, which doesn’t occur until late in the film in the leper colony scenes. The Motorcycle Diaries is a sweet, subtle—too subtle, in fact—alternative to the Sturm und Drang of the usual Hollywood bio-picture. But there is, unfortunately, something watered-down and amorphous in Salles’ approach. It takes a long time to even realize The Motorcycle Diaries is not the typical freewheeling buddy picture. The film’s revolutionary sensibility is often less vital and intense than the meatier politics of another New Latino road movie, Y Tu Mamá Tambien.
If Che’s transformation into the poster child revolutionary is in part explained by his pistol toting and his handsomeness (as opposed to homelier revolutionaries like Marx and Rosa Luxemburg), then our sympathy for Che is intensified by the boyishly beautiful Bernal, who believably conveys the wounded transformation from innocence to knowledge. Bernal’s charismatic beauty is matched by the phenomenally lovely landscapes the two men encounter—landscapes that slowly become tainted by the ugliness of what they find there.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES ( * * * )
Directed by Walter Salles
Starring Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna
(Rated R, 140 mins.)