Motorcycle Diaries (2004): Biopic of Che Guevara Starring Gael Garcia Bernal

It’s a tough challenge to convey in visual terms the creation of social awareness, the transformation of an upper middle-class man into an idealistic and committed revolutionary, like Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known as Che.

It’s also a challenge to demystify one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century, a figure that has become so iconic and so prevalent in pop culture that in the 1960s and 1970s his poster decorated student dormitories all over the world. Younger audiences may know Che mainly from the stage and film musical, Evita.

These were the two challenges faced by Walter Salles in his new movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, which world-premiered to standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and was one of the competition entries in Cannes. The gifted Brazilian director, who previously directed Central Station, a film that featured a stupendous performance from Fernanda Montenegro, has made an intelligent film that captures the essence of Che as a young man, but has a harder time dramatizing the turning points in his life.

Adapting from the journals of Ernesto (as he’s called in the film) and his companion Alberto Granado (The Motorcycle Diaries, and With Che through Latin America, respectively), Jose Rivera has written an episodic narrative that chronicles the travels of the two friends across Latin America over the course of eight months in 1952, covering some 8,000 miles. It’s an on-the-road venture of the beat generation, Jack Kerouac’s style.

In January 1952, when the story begins, Ernesto (Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal) is a 23 year-old medical student, specializing in leprology, and Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna) is a 29 year-old biochemist. They leave behind their rich families and friends. Rife with a romantic sense of adventure, they pile onto Alberto’s 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed La Poderosa (The Mighty One), which becomes a major character in the film, and take off. The buddies vow to experience all of South America before they reach the age of 30. Though they are not teenagers, the film unfolds effectively as a poignant coming-of-age story.

What begins as a lark becomes a profound journey not only of self-discovery, but also of social and political revelation. As they traverse the continent, they discover a land filled with problems, sorrows, but also hope. The Motorcycle Diaries is a road movie in the literal-physical and metaphoric ways, a journey during which two young men discover their affinity for humanity within themselves and forge a determination to change the world.

Motorycle Diaries adopts the conventions of the buddy movie, with the two friends getting as close to each other as brothers. Full of mishaps and misadventures, their travels take them down dusty, treacherous, and threatening roads, where hardships test their personal mettle. Gradually, the experiences and people they encounter, from prosperous gentry to homeless miners, from riverboat prostitutes to lepers living in a colony, begin to exert different impact on the men. In many ways, they become opposites: Ernesto gets more serious and idealistic, while Alberto remains pragmatic and playful almost to the end.

Having charted the territory himself not once but twice, Salles knows the terrain well. It’s a truly eye-opening experience for most American viewers to discover the richness and diversity of our neighbors to the South. Among other things, Motorcycle Diaries renders validity to Jean-Luc Godard’s polemic statement in his 2001 essay-film, In Praise of Love: Why do Americans call themselves American when their neighbors define themselves as Chileans, Mexicans, and Brazilians

The charm of this film lies in the fact that though it’s about political awareness, it’s nonpolitical in essence. Viewers need not be immersed in Latin American politics to comprehend the saga, which opts for a mode that could be described as realistic humanism.

The weakest element in Motorcycle Diaries is its dramatic climax, in which Ernseto leaves his birthday party and takes a night swim across the river to the other side, to his patients in the leper’s colony. It’s meant to illustrate visually Che’s dramatic transformation, his departure from the elite into which he was born to the working class with which he establishes new affinity. The scene may be necessary but it’s too literal and too explicit.

Also missing from the film are scenes (reportedly shot but excised) that illuminate Che’s sexual politics. Hence, on a boat, both Ernesto and Alberto sleep with the same prostitute, but the film shows only the latter, and a scene in which Ernesto beds one of his leper patients, was also filmed and deleted; the director claims in the service of running time.

Harsh critics may have problems with the film’s straightforward, chronological structure, with title cards indicating date, place, and even mileage. Yet for Salles the director, it’s a major achievement, and his best film. In his previous outings, Salles showed a penchant for stylization and visual flourishes (notice the lighting in Central Station and Behind the Sun). In this movie, however, mostly concerned with serving the story, he adopts an approach that’s deceptively simple yet more poignant and direct.

Though episodic and colorful, the film does not come across as National Geographic travelogue. As always, the distillation of look and rhythmic varieties by Eric Gautier are succinct and psychologically illuminating. The noted French cinematographer’s use of Super 16, hand-held camera, invigorates this trip, lending it immediacy and authenticity. Shot in over 30 locations, spanning Argentina, Chile, and Peru, Salles opts for the actual sites whenever possible, some of which have not been touched by time. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who formerly impressed with his work for director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perro’s and 21 Grams), has composed an eclectic yet indigenous score of diverse flavors and sounds.

End remark: I had the pleasure to meet the real-life Alberto Granado, now 82, at Cannes, in a party following the premiere. It was amazing to observe the physical resemblance of Argentinean actor Rodrigo de la Serna with the quiet, eloquent man, who appears briefly in the movie.