The High Road

`Motorcycle' doesn't take the easy path by worshiping the man who would become revolutionary Che Guevara. The journey feels as natural as it was inevitable.


October 08, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Lovely, heartfelt and unforced, Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries is a portrait of a revolutionary as young man. The revolutionary is Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and Salles' film, based on journals kept by the young Ernesto during an 8,000-mile trek in the 1950s through South America, as well as an account written later by his traveling companion, doesn't lionize its subject. Instead, it explores what might turn a 23-year-old medical student into a man determined to overthrow what he viewed as repressive regimes everywhere.

In the process, we get neither a socialist polemic nor a study in hero worship. Instead, The Motorcycle Diaries reflects the beauty of its South American locales, the strength and tragic resilience of the continent's people and the difference one man can make, provided he's willing to take a stand.

We first encounter Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) as an earnest, lower-middle-class medical student, anxious to see the world. He and his friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna, Che's maternal second cousin in real life), decide to leave their native Argentina and go exploring. Their destination is a Venezuelan leper colony, where they will serve an apprenticeship. On the way, they plan to see as much of South America as their beat-up old motorcycle (nicknamed La Ponderosa, "The Mighty One") will allow.

Guevara and Granado make a wonderful pair. Each incessantly gets on the other's nerves, as they bicker and tussle and trade insults. But they never waver in their friendship or fail to support each other when it counts. Opposites in many ways - Granado's a vulgar, whining womanizer, while Guevara's more reflective and shy - they bring out the best and worst in each other.

Though each has an effect on the other, the truly influential force in The Motorcycle Diaries is South America, which through its landscape and people subtly and irresistibly works its magic on both men. After an initial visit with Guevara's girlfriend, Chichina (Mia Maestro, whose beauty makes Guevara's leaving an act of self-denial few men could match), the two buds encounter a series of hardships, both their own - when the Mighty One isn't breaking down, it's skidding off the road - and those of others.

South America in 1952 was a continent of nations that didn't trust one another, colonial outposts where the people's good was secondary to that of the countries and corporations exploiting them. Slowly, incrementally, the pair's eyes are opened, not only by the squalor they continually come across, but by the bravery of the people forced to endure it.

The film turns on two encounters. The first occurs when the pair find themselves in a village near a Chilean copper mine, in which locals work for pennies a day, under conditions that will kill most of them within a few years. A brief encounter with a mine supervisor is Guevara's first tentative act of defiance.

Later, when the pair finally reach the leper colony, they continue to rebel and side with society's underdogs - in this case, the lepers. Told they must wear rubber gloves when coming in contact with patients, even though leprosy is not contagious, they refuse. Told the nuns who run the hospital will not feed anyone who does not attend Mass, they refuse to be blackmailed into accepting the sacrament. It is a sin, they argue, to withhold food from the hungry, regardless of a person's spiritual inclination. Sensing these young visitors are both their friends and their champions, the patients sneak them food.

Bernal, who during the filming was the same age as Guevara when he undertook the trip, makes the would-be revolutionary as believable as he is appealing. This Guevara is no firebrand, but simply a man with a growing social conscience; if anything, the films asks how a young man with anything resembling morality could have acted any differently.

The Motorcycle Diaries has been criticized for showing only one side of Guevara, for ignoring the later excesses to which he may have resorted in striving for what he saw as justice. The film is guilty as charged, but those excesses were still years away. It's true that Guevara, once he teamed up with Fidel Castro, was a key player in substituting one repressive regime in Cuba for another, but that's fodder for another movie.

Motorcycle Diaries

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna

Directed by Walter Salles

Released by Focus Features (in Spanish with English subtitles)

Rated R (language)

Time 128 minutes

Sun Score ****

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