The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) (in Spanish, subtitled) ***1/2
Directed by Walter Salles; written by José Rivera, based on "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Ernesto Che Guevara and "With Che Through Latin America" by Alberto Granado. Photography, Eric Gautier. Editing, Daniel Rezende. Production design, Carlos Conti. Music, Gustavo Santaolalla. Producers.Michael Nozik, Edgar Tenembaum, Karen Tenkhoff. With: Gael García Bernal (Ernesto Guevara), Rodrigo de la Serna (Alberto Granado) plus a large supporting cast. A Focus Features release. 126 minutes. Rated R.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (b. 1928 in Argentina) became Che Guevara --or simply the monosyllabic “Che” that beat in shortness of “Fidel” or “Raul”, the Castro brothers who, with Che, were the top leaders of the Cuban revolution. He became a legend during his lifespan and even more so after his violent death (an execution) in 1967 Bolivia.
Since my critic’s credo is not to give away plots and details I will limit my non-analysis to a few facts that will not spoil the viewer’s suspense and discoveries.
Ernesto belonged to the high, cultivated and moneyed bourgeoisie. At age 20 he began medical studies. With lightning speed he passed the examinations of the first three years within just one year. Yet he still found time to be a male nurse, and also travel (on a moped!) widely in Argentina plus other countries.
Shortly before his final University year Ernesto , 23, got easily talked by best friend, biochemist Alberto Granado –then 30- into joining forces in order to explore Argentina and other Latin American nations. Their trip started out on January 1, 1952 on an old, vintage 1939, capricious 500 cc Norton motorcycle named “La Poderosa,” (no, not Ponderosa!) the Powerful One. At some point, in Chile, the machine gave up the ghost and other, most un-luxurious ways of locomotion, including feet, had to be used. Tough going, yes, but the best way to see how others live, suffer, are put upon, yet manage to survive-- and often retain a sense of humor. Especially in the movie’s first half, there are many amusing, lighthearted scenes and situations
The trip covered a great deal of ground (and water), about 8,000 kilometers, and much discomfort –including Ernesto’s chronic asthma--in many locations and several countries.
The movie is very well directed by the cosmopolitan, multilingual Brazilian Walter Salles (b. 1956) whose best known film “Central Station” won top prizes in major festivals. Actor Gael Garcia Bernal (b.1978 in Mexico) has skyrocketed recently with “Amores Perros,” “Y tu Mama Tambien,” and in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education.” The latter premiered at the 2004 Cannes Festival –as did “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Since talented, handsome Mr. Bernal is by now a heartthrob, he is bound to reach superstar heights.
Ernesto’s companion, Mr. Granado, now 82, lives in Cuba where he’s had a first-rate medical and administrative career. Of course he collaborated with the filmmakers and, I am sure, helped them in not Hollywoodizing the story.
Interestingly, the picture has no hints about the famous, notorious and merciless years to come when Che preached and practiced Guerilla Warfare.
“Motorcycle Diaries” is handled with realism, sympathy, tact and objectivity. It is not a paean or celebration of Che, although undeniably the work goes beyond the simple road movie. In fact, most road movies have essentially a single main thread. Not this one.
The film’s crew, following the footsteps of the two companions, shot in about 24 different locations in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba, Venezuela and Columbia.
What is sad is that Latin America still has many of the problems depicted or touched upon by the picture. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Viewers in the subcontinent are aware of this, but only few in North America.
I wonder how the U.S. public will react to the film. Years ago, Che posters and T-shirts by the millions adorned the walls or chests of mostly university students. They beat the record of Andy Warhol’s painting of Marilyn Monroe. But nowadays, when people of all ages know who Marilyn was, except for older persons (and some groups still under Che’s spell), I suppose that below a certain age the question might be “Who he?”