U.S. Release Date: September 24, 2004
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal
Running Time: 2 hours and 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (language)

Road Trip Revelation
by C.A. Wolski

Starting out as a typical—almost American—buddy road picture, The Motorcycle Diaries is that rare movie that keeps getting better as it travels along, showing the evolution of its characters into fully realized human beings.

The movie, directed by Walter Salles (Central Station) and based on the travel diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara and Alberto Granado, details the eventful 1952 cross continental trip that Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) made through South America. The Argentinians—Guevara, a soon-to-be doctor specializing in leprosy, and Granado, a research biochemist—head out on a geriatric 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle they have nicknamed "La Poderosa" (The Mighty One). The goal is to travel 8,000 miles and make it to Venezuela in time for Granado's 30th birthday.

The trip is more or less improvised. The motorcycle—when it isn't crashing—breaks down frequently, the men have no provisions and no money, which leads to several humorous schemes to finagle money out of various yokels including posing as world-renowned leprosy experts. Like an American buddy picture, Guevara and Granado are most interested in drinking, pulling pranks and scoring with the local senoritas. And then the trip and the movie changes, turning into a travelogue not only of the country but of the two men's hearts and how, particularly the idealistic medical student Guevara, they abandon their idealism for a profound sense of humanism (which, we know will later lead Guevara to revolutionary politics and his role as "El Che").

There is a stark simplicity and eloquence in The Motorcycle Diaries. There are no long speeches by the future revolutionary or his friend about the horrible plight of the peasants and Indians, no moments of swelling music so we know this is the moment medical student Guevara has become "El Che." Instead Salles shows us what the two men observe as they interact with the people around them, as they make new friends, see the face of future enemies and discard their superficial idealism for a deep, honest humanism. What observations by Guevara we do get are from actual letters and diary entries—which are simple, filled with the kind of words a young man yearning for a larger role in the world would write.

The Motorcycle Diaries, of course, is a sympathetic portrait of a man who would become the Communist icon of the late 20th century, but Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera avoid any overt politics in the picture. Instead they do something altogether trickier: they present a human portrait of a man who has, since his death, become an abstraction, an image in a revolutionary beret. In doing this they have cast their thematic net wider showing the importance of not only having ideals but acting on them (how to act on them is the subject of another movie).

Che's later life is foreshadowed in a very short toast he gives late in the movie at a leper colony he and Granado are volunteering at. The crowd of doctors, nurses and staff applaud the kind words of the polite young man who they have grown to admire. Granado, in a credit to de la Serna's acting ability, quietly understands that his friend has not only grown up, but has grown out in his thinking. In Granado's face, we see a glimpse of Che's future.

The Motorcycle Diaries is not a political tract, but a beautiful story of friendship and human growth filled with humor and tragedy. It's a small gem that shouldn't be missed.

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