Sowing the seeds of a revolutionary

`Motorcycle Diaries' tells the story of Che Guevara

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

October 07, 2004|By Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

Published in 1993, a quarter-century after its author's death, Ernesto "Che" Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries achieved instant cult status with nascent revolutionaries thanks to its fervent call for a new Pan-Americanism. It also became required reading in many Latin American schools and quickly was optioned for screen treatment. And why not? The memoir reads like an exhilarating coming-of-age adventure and spiritual odyssey, not some dry political manifesto.

Eleven years later, The Motorcycle Diaries finally is reaching the screen as a $6 million road picture starring Mexico's Gael Garcia Bernal as the 23-year-old medical student Ernesto. Argentina's Rodrigo de la Serna plays his traveling companion, Alberto Granado, whose Traveling With Che Guevara also was a source for the screenplay.

In 1952, determined to explore what Guevara described as "a continent we had only known in books," the friends embarked on a four-month, 5,000-mile journey from Buenos Aires to Peru and then on to Venezuela. They saw poverty, illness and the cruel dispossession of indigenous Indians and were forever transformed -- Ernesto into the Marxist Che, who would fight alongside Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution until he was "murdered" (according to this film's postscript) by the CIA.

The companions' mode of transportation: a leaky, wired-together Norton motorcycle, built in 1939.

For Brazilian director Walter Salles and executive producer Robert Redford, The Motorcycle Diaries had to first be a picture about freedom, the exhilaration of heading out on the open road, and -- then, second -- about the making of a revolutionary. They definitely didn't want to preach or indoctrinate -- to deliver what Salles calls "history with a capital `H.'"

"Basically, it's the story of two youths who ride up the coast of South America on a lark," explains Redford. "It's during this journey that the seeds are slowly sown for the man who would eventually become Che."

"I was very taken by the book because for the first time the man behind the icon was revealed," recalls Salles. (An avid motorcyclist himself, he owns a Honda 650 and is restoring a vintage Norton 500.)

"When you're a kid in Mexico, you study the book -- it's part of the curriculum," adds Garcia Bernal, 25, who shot to fame with Amores perros and Y tu Mama Tambien. "You discover Ernesto at such a young age. You discover he has the same ideas as you, that he made you the person you are. So you hold the book close."

The film -- which was embraced in Cuba during a special gala screening for Che's family and the now-elderly Granado -- skillfully navigates a course between boyhood idealism and an emerging horror over social injustice. One flows from the other, but the human element is more important, stresses Salles, 48, best known for the Oscar-nominated Central Station and as co-producer of last year's City of God.

"For me, this was always a film about how, in that moment of your life when you're confronted by situations you don't expect, you can be profoundly changed," says the director. "It's about the formative years of these two young men."

There is, at least in the opening passages, much slapstick and ribald humor -- elements one usually associates with teen comedies, not political biopics.

"In later years, Che would be treated with unbearable gravitas," says Salles. "Here, you have something that is full of life and humanity. That's what really interested me -- to see the human side of the story."

Garcia Bernal agrees. He wanted to bring dimension to a man who, in death, has become a pop icon, right up there with Hendrix, Dean and Elvis.

"What we wanted to do is give back life and spirit to this person who indeed was very much alive," says the actor. "It was all about showing the awakening of a political conscience, showing the person that we, some of us, have come to know."

Politics should be embraced openly and unashamedly, he says. "It's something you spit, eat and swallow in the street. I think we've lost that concept of politics; we've made it something that doesn't have to do with people."

For film events, see Page 37.

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