“The Motorcycle Diaries” is a beautifully wrought account of the dawning of the social conscience of one of the 20th century’s most romanticized revolutionaries. Brazilian director Walter Salles’ best film to date reveals how an eight-month trip through South America in 1952 opened the eyes of 23-year-old upper-middle-class Argentinean med student Ernesto Guevara, who a few years later emerged as the charismatic Che. Based on the books of Guevara and traveling companion Alberto Granado, this intelligently made picture is artful but not arty, political without being didactic. Acquired for U.S. distribution by Focus Features immediately after its rapturously received world premiere at Sundance, this is a classy specialized release due for a very healthy commercial life worldwide.
Although episodic in nature –the film charts the two young men on their journey from Buenos Aires through Chile, Peru and finally to Venezuela — a smart script by playwright and TV writer Jose Rivera provides just enough slowly accumulating intellectual heft to ensure that the audience always has something to chew on, while indicating that greater gravitas surely lies ahead. And while never descending into travelogue or exotica, Salles takes great advantage of the fact that the tale unfolds against a constantly changing backdrop of extraordinary locations that will be bracingly unfamiliar to most viewers.
Politically, too, pic makes itself accessible even to nonpartisans of Che’s legacy by maintaining its intimate human focus and remaining resolutely faithful to the aim of representing the impact the trip had on these two young men, how it affected their views of the world and their decisions about what to do with the rest of their lives. Almost in the manner of dramatized snapshots, the film attempts to re-create what Guevara and Granado saw and experienced, and thereby to provide an honest account for how the journey expanded their minds and hearts.
In jaunty fashion, Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) bid farewell to relatively affluent Buenos Aires on Jan. 4, 1952, with the intention of reaching Venezuela in time for Alberto’s 30th birthday some months later. Riding off on Alberto’s rather suspect-looking 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed “La Poderosa” (The Mighty One), the guys have in mind a male adventure the likes of which you undertake at this age or not at all (although it’s a road trip very different from the kind Bernal took in “Y tu mama tambien”).
First, Ernesto, whom his buddy calls “Fuser,” needs to stop to see his girlfriend (Mia Maestro) at the exclusive resort area of Miramar. While the more hot-blooded Alberto makes time with a servant girl, Ernesto dallies with the upper-crust Chichina, who half-heartedly tries to get him to stay and doesn’t promise to wait “forever” for his return. These luxurious circumstances, then, rep the life that Ernesto is leaving behind, but with few misgivings; one semester short of earning his medical degree, he has specialized in leprosy and is anxious to reach Peru to spend time at a leper colony.
Belching fumes and dripping oil, the Mighty One zooms off across the huge open expanses of Argentina on rut-riven dirt roads, often turning over. The initial minor calamities are played for lightly comic effect, as the young men’s tent blows away and they learn to con their way into meals and places to spend the night. Alberto, who expresses admiration for the Russian revolution, is a gregarious and natural b.s. artist, while Ernesto, who evinces no particular political inclinations at this stage, is an inward-looking asthmatic who can’t prevent himself from uttering the truth, no matter how impolite or uncalled for in a given situation.
Things get tougher as they cross over into Chile and must contend with heavy snow in the Andes. In a small town, Ernesto’s flirtation with the wife of a mechanic who’s fixed their bike forces them to run for their lives, and it isn’t long before the Mighty One expires for good, forcing the travelers to hitchhike to Valparaiso and then proceed on foot across the forbidding Atacama Desert, where they have their first decisive encounter.
In an area full of itinerant workers and hungry vagabonds, they meet a destitute couple who claim they have been kicked off their land because they’re communists. Shortly thereafter, Ernesto commits his first act of protest, throwing a rock at an Anaconda Mining truck carrying day laborers.
By May, the fellows make it to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, where they find the descendants of the once-grand Inca civilization now living in poverty, and to Lima, where a leftist doctor and leprosy researcher arranges for them to continue on to the San Pablo leper colony in the Amazon. The five-day trip there makes time for a comic highlight in which the penniless but ultra-horny Alberto gambles like mad to earn enough to spend the night with a saucy shipboard prostitute.
San Pablo marks the turning point for Ernesto. Although the facility, South America’s largest, is run with great care by a sympathetic doctor (Jorge Chiarella) and efficient nuns and nurses, Ernesto takes exception to rules he considers pointless and to the symbolism inherent in the fact that the hospital and staff facilities are on one side of the river and the lepers are segregated on the other. He forms an immediate and intense bond with the patients, never for a moment displaying cautious reserve around them and, in fact, drawing them to his heart in a way that moves them deeply.
Dramatic climax, designed to demonstrate Ernesto’s going over from the elite to join the people, has him leaving a joint birthday/farewell party to precariously swim across the surging river at night to join the patients, breathing heavily in asthmatic pain all the while. Their missions fulfilled once they reach Venezuela, Ernesto and Alberto part, followed by a postscript informing the audience that Alberto was summoned to Cuba by his old friend in 1960 and has remained there ever since. Delightful end credits footage shows octogenarian Alberto reminiscing and cavorting in contempo Havana.
Salles tells the tale in a relatively straightforward, unadorned fashion, with none of the visual showing off that diminished his previous feature, “Behind the Sun.” Shooting mostly in Super 16, French lenser Eric Gautier uses a good deal of hand-held work that lends an immediacy to the action, and Gustavo Santaolalla, who broke through on “Amores perros” and “21 Grams,” has composed a vibrantly eclectic score full of diverse flavors. Period is unobtrusively and unerringly evoked through Carlos Conti’s production design and Beatriz Di Benedetto’s costumes. Sound work is exemplary.
Thesping is strong but unflashy, with Mexican thesp Garcia Bernal providing Ernesto with a pronounced introspective bearing that eventually blossoms into deeply felt societal concern. Argentinean actor de la Serna brings a full-bodied boisterousness to his portrayal of Alberto that squares with the genuine article when he’s finally shown.