The Motorcycle Diaries

2004, Movie, R, 126 mins


Based in part on Ernesto "Che" Guevara's journal of his formative 1952 expedition through South America, and Traveling with Che Guevara, the memoirs of his cohort, Alberto Granado, this slightly fictionalized adventure dramatizes the journey that helped turn a restless young medical student into one of the 20th century's most romantic revolutionary figures. Buenos Aires, 1952: With only a year remaining before he gets his medical degree, 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend, 29-year-old biochemist-in-training Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), decide it's time to pack up Alberto's dilapidated 1939 Norton 500 motorbike — ironically nicknamed "La Poderosa," or "The Mighty One" — bid farewell to their families and hit the road. Like an Argentine Kerouac and Cassady, Ernesto and Alberto hope to discover the America that lies outside their comfortable lives, but what they experience — the majesty of the land and the extreme poverty of its indigenous peoples — will change their lives forever. The route: a four-month, 8000 km trek through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and, hopefully, Miami, where Ernesto has promised to buy his beautiful, aristocratic girlfriend (Mia Maestro) a bathing suit. That is if the unreliable and poorly balanced La Poderosa doesn't kill them first. The larger-than-life figure of Che looms tall over director Walter Salles' production. His adaptation is more serious and far less picaresque than Che's own account, and Salles often resorts to obvious juxtapositions and heavily metaphoric action to foreshadow the man Ernesto was fast becoming. The film works best when it doesn't try so hard, when Salles simply allows his excellent actors and his beautiful images to work their magic. Salles, who used the terrain of his native Brazil to such good effect in CENTRAL STATION and BEHIND THE SUN, and his brilliant cinematographer, Eric Gautier, capture the breathtaking variety of the Latin American landscape; the scene in which Ernesto silently ponders Machu Picchu, the Andean fortress in the clouds built by the long-vanquished Incas, says more about the tragedy of European colonization than the abrupt cut to polluted, overcrowded Lima that follows. Ernesto's ponderously symbolic swim across the Amazon River that separates the doctors of the San Pablo leper colony from their poor and abject patients is similarly unnecessary. Granado's beautifully subtle reactions to his friend's changing behavior are more than enough to chart the emergence of the strong, deeply compassionate hero from the shell of a frail, asthmatic youth. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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