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September 2004

By Julian Roman

Motorcycle Diaries

Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Walter Salles
Screenwriter: Jose Rivera
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Jaime Azócar, Rodrigo De la Serna, Ulises Dumont, Facundo Espinosa, Susana Lanteri, Mía Maestro, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Gustavo Pastorini.




A road trip is a daring and romantic experience. It is a journey of chance encounters, where the people you meet and the places you see leave an indelible mark on your character. Sometimes the impressions are profound. In 1952, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was a quiet, unassuming student in his last year of medical school. He and his best friend, a chemist named Alberto Granado, decided to take a ten thousand mile motorcycle trip along the length of South America. They would start from their homes in Buenos Aires, Argentina and finish the voyage at a leper colony in Peru. Both men had volunteered there to help care for the sick. Ernesto Guevara recorded his thoughts and emotions in a daily journal. This journal was released as a book in the early nineties and is the source material for the film. It is the tale of how a young man seeking adventure became the most iconic revolutionary of the past hundred years. It is the story of Che Guevara's political awakening.

The Motorcycle Diaries is an incredible film. It is a personal metamorphosis set against the magnificent splendor of South America. Walter Salles, the acclaimed Brazilian director of Central Station, achieves greatness here. He tells a sublimely provocative story, but never forgets that his characters are on an epic journey. We follow Ernesto and Alberto every step, from the mountain lakes of Chile to the desert wasteland of Venezuela. The exterior shots in the film are absolutely stunning. You feel the wonderment and camaraderie as they experience new places for the first time. The film, despite its superb dramatic content, would have been an utter failure if the trip itself was not realized. Ten thousand miles is a serious trek. Salles literally goes the distance to accurately recreate the scope of their voyage. He does this without sacrificing the poignancy of the story. Ernesto and Alberto are complex individuals that react differently to the situations they find themselves in. They're forced to deal with each other in addition to everything else. Salles perfectly captures this interplay. He treats his characters with respect and gives them the opportunity to grow before our eyes. It is a masterful balancing act of historical content and dramatic storytelling. Salles could be holding the Oscar for Best Director next year. His work on this film is that good.

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays Ernesto Guevara and newcomer Rodrigo de la Serna plays Alberto Granado. These actors have phenomenal chemistry. Each role is directly responsible for the others success. They are interconnected on this faithful trip. Alberto is older and passionate in his zest for life. Ernesto, who is subdued and introverted, admires Alberto's lust for wine, women, and adventure. They are good friends, but vastly different. They're forced to deal with each other while facing the unknown of the road. Both actors deliver excellent performances. They embodied their characters in such a believable way. Acting is all about give and take. Bernal and La Serna hone their characters to perfection, then give each other the space to work. It's an unselfish style of acting and cements the core relationship that drives the movie.

It's important to look at The Motorcycle Diaries in the context of its time frame. The world was bitterly divided by ideology in the 1950's. South America especially was a battleground between Communism and Capitalism. Governments were being uprooted by constant social upheaval. The oppressed poor were embracing revolution as a means for justice and equality. Political doctrine was a life and death matter. Ernesto and Alberto were products of this generation. They were not morally disaffected youth. They just hadn't come to a conclusion about their beliefs. The road trip provided the much needed definition to their views. Compare The Motorcycle Diaries to Jack Kerouac's beat masterpiece, On the Road. Both trips took place at roughly the same time. Kerouac had a different experience, but the impetus for traveling was the same, young men searching for the answers in a chaotic world.

The Motorcycle Diaries sits atop my list of best films for 2004. It is such a solid movie, excellent in every way. It won't inspire you to become a revolutionary, but gives tremendous insight into the life of the greatest one in modern history. Che Guevara's message is unknown to many. His likeness is everywhere, exploited on t-shirts and used as a fashion statement more than anything else. These people need to find out who Che Guevara was and what he stood for. The Motorcycle Diaries is a peek into a pivotal moment of his life. It's a reminder that anyone can change and discover meaning in life. I would be remiss to mention that the film is in Spanish. It's subtitled, but don't let that be a deterrent. You'll be missing a great film if you do.