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South Fork Pictures, Tu Vas Voir Productions

Official Site

Director: Walter Salles

Producers: Michael Nozik, Edgard Tenenbaum, Karen Tenkhoff

Written by: Ché Guevara, Alberto Granado, Jose Rivera

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mía Maestro, Mercedes Morán


There is only one problem that I can see with this film: the viewer.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a film that is based on the experiences of two young men from Argentina in 1952, as they leave their comfortable existence as Buenos Aires professionals to explore the South American continent from the back of an old motorcycle. Though this may sound like a setup for yet another formulaic buddy picture, the actual trip began as the dream of one 29-year-old biochemist Alberto Granado, accompanied by a younger brother’s best friend, the 23-year-old medical student, Ernesto Guevara. The film is based on the memoirs of both men, and was made with the consultation of the surviving Granado, now some 81 years old. Ernesto Guevara went on to achieve mythic fame as the revolutionary, “Che” Guevara, and was killed in Bolivia in 1967. But that, as they say, is another story.

I wondered what to expect of this film, myself. I thought that I might get some insight into a fellow asthmatic who couldn’t dance, just a couple of little details about Guevara, the man. Of course, there is also this little issue of Guevara’s subsequent politics. I was curious how the film might play to American audiences. I still am. There is more than a bit of irony in the longevity of Guevara’s legend as he still arouses interest even in the nation whose C.I.A. had such a prominent hand in his defeat and death. Americans would be well-advised to remember that the rest of the world will view this film a bit differently.

So, what do you expect from a film about a young Che Guevara? You want answers? You want illumination of the “man behind the myth?” Perhaps, depending on your political leanings, you might anticipate some leftist propaganda shrouded in a thinly veiled and highly contrived narrative; or, you might look forward to an inspiring tale of the creation of a heroic figure of mythic proportions. Fortunately, The Motorcycle Diaries is not any of those films. As valuable and as entertaining as such a documentary might be, this resulting film is more subtle, unpretentiously more subjective, and even better.

It is, after all, a road movie, only to the San Pablo leper colony in the Amazon, where both men had volunteered to get direct experience with the disease they had studied in school. There are moments of drama, humor, even some romance. In the beginning, you get the predictable introductions, the jokes about “the mighty one” (the motorcycle), the dreams of romantic conquests, the watchful mother entrusting her son to the older Alberto’s promise to keep the younger Ernesto safe and return him to medical school. Then, on the road, the film slowly develops a genuine sense of adventure, of place, and of the people. It weaves a vision of these men in a fifties America (South, to us up north) that is both hypnotic and beautiful, with a logic that flows as effortlessly as in a dream, but with an immediacy as if we are watching home movies that were filmed by a master.

In a real sense, that is exactly what we are watching. For a film that was largely shot on super 16mm film, then blown up to 35mm, the film is gorgeous. Walter Salles says that he and cinematographer Eric Gautier “opted for a simple, direct cinematic grammar.” Those are easy words to say, but Salles puts in on the screen. It is almost as if reality itself is a bit more comfortable being filmed by the smaller, less obtrusive camera, and it repays the favor by showing us a more genuine and meaningful visual truth. Further, as the film incorporated indigenous people from the varied locations into the film, the actors seem completely integrated into the historic surroundings. Even the music seems completely authentic and appropriate, and yet delightfully familiar and enjoyable.

Rodrigo de la Serna does a remarkable job of acting in this film. He succeeds in keeping his Granado on significantly equal footing with his soon-to-become-mythic friend. Rather than letting his vibrant character’s romantic obsessions become excessively comedic or offensive, he imbues his lust with a romantic respect of a woman’s style that is oblivious of her social class, something that most of the women seem to thoroughly enjoy. This depth allows Granado to serve as such important counterpoint to his increasingly serious friend, and illuminate the social and political realities that are dawning on the young Guevara. In turn, this grants Gael García Bernal a free range of subtlety and intensity in his depiction of the conflicted young man. Together, coupled with outstandingly detailed (though necessarily brief) performances from the rest of the cast, they take this film beyond the mere explanation of the political motivations of a single man to the profound revelation of the human realities that motivate political passion itself.

This must be as much as screenwriter Jose Rivera dared hope to achieve. When the protagonists arrive at the San Pablo leper colony, events and images that might easily seem otherwise contrived and overly dramatized play with logical sincerity. We have indeed learned something about the man behind the myth, but each answer inspires countless more questions. This is a more fitting testament to the humanity of the man who became Che Guevara than his face on countless t-shirts. We can only hope that further filmic explorations of his life will live up to this standard. Now, I am curious about a great deal more than his asthma.

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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