Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries

2004, US/Germany/GB/Argentina/Chile/Peru, directed by Walter Salles (original title: Diarios de motocicleta)

Avoiding the pitfalls of a full-blown biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries focuses more narrowly on Ernesto 'Che' Guevara''s youth, and his first trip outside Argentina, using his own diaries as the basis for the narrative. In 1952, Guevara (played by the fast-rising Gael García Bernal) and a friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), decide to take a trip on Alberto's elderly motorcycle, a journey that'll take them from one end of South America to the other. Guevara is a privileged fellow in Buenos Aires, without a whole lot of experience of the world - the fact that he's a rugby-playing medical student gives a rough idea of his social status in Argentina - and the journey functions as his political and social awakening. There's undoubtedly an element of (self-) mythologizing at work here, but the film is generally a highly convincing portrayal of the first stage of Guevara's political development, and his growing awareness of the breadth and depth of inequality and injustice on his continent. It's also a love story of sorts: Guevara becomes deeply, almost mystically attached to some of the places he visits; those feelings are summed up in a speech towards the end of the film, in which he sets forth his vision of a continent without borders, where common heritage and humanity are celebrated. Director Walter Salles doesn't allow things to become too ponderous, however: there are warm and amusing scenes that evoke the pair's less elevated adventures, with narrow escapes from drunken husbands. Bernal is excellent as the nascent Che, as charismatic here as he's ever been, and there's a large cast of wonderful character actors in support. The South American landscapes, gorgeously shot, have a key role, too, underlining the sense that travel is something that requires effort and endurance to yield its many secrets.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States