When many think of Che Guevara they picture the man in an iconic beret, with long black hair, El “Che.” In the “Motorcycle Diaries,” director Walter Salles does away with this image of Che Guevara.
Salles successfully does this with a talented, up and coming actor, Gael Garcia Bernal, whose performance is so well done, we never see the man, with a beret on the back of someone’s T-shirt. Instead we see an asthma plagued, rich kid who is about to graduate from medical school and knows little about the world around him. “TheMotorcycle Diaries,” based on Guevara’s memoirs and Alberto Granado’s book, “Traveling with Che Guevara,” is beautifully directed.
Salles wisely refrains from treating the film as a didactic for Guevara’s Marxist ideals, which could have easily happened with a less talented director instead, Salles went in a wise direction, choosing to film the movie as a travelogue.
In 1952, a 23 year old, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) embarked on a journey of self-discovery and adventure. Their plan was to travel from their homeland of Argentina to the tip of Venezuela, some 5,000 miles, on an antiquated 1939 Norton 500 motorbike, nicknamed La Poderosa [“The Mighty One”].
Ernesto, called “Fuser” by his best friend Alberto, begins the trek with the hope of discovering a continent little known to him, and the rest of the world. Alberto is in it for the adventure and the women.
Early on, their trip is plagued by the malfunctions of the ironically named La Poderosa. Writer Jose Rivera splits the movie in two. During the first half of the movie, the land and La Poderosa are as much considered protagonist as Ernesto and Alberto. The movie’s tone is light, and Guevara isn’t the main fixture as one might expect in a biopic. It isn’t until the second half, when Ernesto and Alberto reach the San Pablo leprosy colony, that the movie switches themes and tone.
“The Motorcycle Diaries” focuses more on Guevara as he begins to learn about the plight of mankind. We see subtle changes in his behavior: he finds it odd that the doctor’s colony is on the other side of the Amazon; and he refuses to wear gloves, despite the rules, among the ill. As the movie draws toward the end, we see a changed man in Ernesto. He didn’t know it yet, but the seed for “Che” had been planted. The young Guevara returned to Argentina and graduated from medical school.
The movie ends with a short scene showing the real Alberto Granado, now 82, gazing into the sky. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was murdered by the CIA in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967; and whatever view of him you have prior to viewing the movie will probably not change. But you’ll appreciate the honesty of a young, naive Guevara, who when asked by a well respected doctor what he thought of his book said, “To be honest, the book is full of cliches and quite frankly it’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read.”
“The Motorcycle Diaries” could be a contender for best foreign picture at next years Oscars, and don’t be surprised if Gael Garcia Bernal receives his first nomination for best actor.