Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” is about the eight adventurous months that Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his lifelong friend, Alberto Granado, spent traversing South America in 1952. Adapted by playwright José Rivera from both Guevara and Granado’s memoirs, the movie charts their journey and, as it does, tries to use its awe-inspiring physicality to mirror young Guevara’s inner political awakening. That the movie is about one of today’s most revered revolutionary icons proves to be both its saving grace as well as its unmanageable burden, owing to its script’s inherent weaknesses.
Salles starts his story off in Buenos Aires as Guevara (Gael García Bernal), a bright-eyed 23-year-old medical student, bids goodbye to his family and climbs onto a ramshackle motorbike with Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a 29-year-old biochemist. Both are giddy with wanderlust, hungry for experience. Being free-spirited idealists, the young doctors make for a leper colony in the Amazon where they wish to volunteer their services. Along the way, the horny Granado cavorts with local girls, Guevara nurses his aching love for the daughter of an aristocratic landowner, but, most of all, they observe, with horror, the social injustice and poverty that pervades their continent.
Sadly, “Diaries” does little to vindicate the legacy of Guevara, who, since his death, has largely become an abstraction, a pop commodity. As an examination of the forces that shape a man’s destiny, the movie is unconvincing. Rivera’s coming-of-age script takes on a by-the-numbers feel which Salles handles with gracelessly staccato-like pacing, if only to race over the movie’s insubstantial surfaces. As a result, we know too little about the sensitive young Guevara at the movie’s outset, apart from his privileged family life, to truly feel for what he becomes—and what he’s on his way to becoming—at the movie’s end. Remove the ennobling specter of Guevara from “Diaries,” and you can hear its script’s creaky legs giving way.
What does prop the movie up are its intimate moments, those in which Guevara converses with the poor with the urgency of a social worker. Here, Salles adopts a documentary-like virtuosity, a wonderfully employed device, especially as Salles contrasts it with the more epic grandeur of “Diaries’” open spaces. Indeed, as the adventurers wend their way through South America’s richly varied terrain, the movie becomes a soul-stirring paean to the continent’s beauty. Cinematographer Eric Gautier and Production Designer Carlos Conti masterfully evoke the textures and colors of early ’50s Latin American culture, creating images that move to the indigenous rhythms of Gustavo Santaolalla’s lively music. Garcia Bernal and de la Serna offer heartfelt, charismatic performances which, combined with Salles’s poetry of majestic landscapes and poverty-worn faces, give “Diaries” its simple, enduring appeal.
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro