Posted by Aaron West, 9/26/04
The Motorcycle Diaries
Directed by Walter Salles
Starring: Gaal Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna , Mía Maestro
Running Time: 128 minutes
I've never seen a film about a controversial political figure that didn't really touch on the politics or the controversy of the time. The closest I've seen was Max, starring John Cusack, which portrayed Adolf Hitler as a young, idealistic artist who was tempted by the politics of the time. Yet, even that movie eventually showed Hitler's "path to the dark side", his degradation, and it did condemn the ideology that he eventually followed. I'm not comparing Che Guevara to Hitler (although some with conservative leanings might think it a fair comparison), but they are both enigmatic figures who were tempted toward another profession during their youth. Unlike Max, The Motorcycle Diaries is not a political story, but instead it is a story of self-discovery; how someone's world-view and personality is shaped by his surroundings. It is a tale of how significantly a man's life can be changed just over the course of two seasons, and it is told remarkably well.
Taking a brief break from medical school, future revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his biochemist buddy Alberto Granada decide to tour the coast of Latin America. Their ultimate goal is to reach a leper colony in Peru, in order to undertake a medical residency. Along the way they hope to find fame and adventure, while also seeing the outside world for the first time. What they find changes them both drastically, yet also forges an unlikely bond between two men who are idealistically worlds apart. Guevara is more reserved, disciplined and honest, while Granada is care-free, manipulative, and has questionable ethics. Both men find themselves forever changed by the trip, which shapes the course of each of their lives.
The Motorcycle Diaries is extremely moving, not just because of the gorgeous Latin countryside (the cinematography is quite impressive), but also because of the tribulations the pair must undergo, and what they witness along the way. The trip is hardly eventless, and the pair have to fight many battles in order to survive, some against each other. At some point the movie switches gears and focuses more on what they see around them. The most telling sequence is at a mine, where poor locals travel in hope of work. The employer only chooses the most able, while the others are sent away. This seems like injustice to Guevara, who knows that those looking for work are suffering, and it motivates his rebellious spirit. Scenes such as this strengthen Guevara's resolve, but his full transformation isn't consummated during the film. The images show how attractive the idealogy of communism could be to someone living in that economic climate (not that it's much better now), plus they develop the character of Guevara, specifically his passion, as one who could become consumed by it. The film effectively develops him for what he would become. He was passionate and principled, no doubt, with a fiery temper. I have to admire Salles for not taking a stance on whether he was ultimately right; instead he just shows that Guevara felt he was right.
A project such as this is doomed without talented lead actors. First of all, Gael Garcia Bernal really comes into his own here. He has shown potential in Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amores Perros and The Crime of Padre Amaro, but has finally become realized as a true, deserving top international actor. His portrayal as Guevara is pitch-perfect, easily the best of his career. He captures the reserved, stoic demeanor of the young Guevara, while still showing the young temper and insecurity with himself. He is one of the finest actors today and I hope he continues to receive roles such as this. His partner, Rodrigo De la Serna, having only a television background before this film, does a good job at playing the boisterous sidekick, while bringing some light humor to the film. The chemistry between the two is phenomenal, throughout the highs and the lows. You can understand why they get so infuriated at each other, but also why there is such a connection. They make this a "buddy movie" like no other.
Many will criticize this film for romanticizing communism, and understandably so. Depending on who you ask today, Che Guevara was either an evil terrorist, a propaganda tool, a true revolutionary leader, or an influential fashion statement. Those who dislike his politics (most of America), may reject the social conditions as they are portrayed in the film as liberal propaganda. I, however, had a different take. The division between rich and poor in South America has always been present, and what Salles shows is not groundbreaking stuff. Guevara is portrayed here as a principled idiot, more or less, without much influence from liberal or conservative political philosophies. Yet, he is motivated by the social and economic conditions of the time and Salles shows us his perception, through his own eyes, which were documented in his own words. Again, let me reiterate, this is not a political movie, which makes it that much easier to admire.
© Aaron West, 26th September, 2004