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The Motorcycle Diaries

Released: Sept. 24 Distributor: Focus Features

Oscar alumnus: Exec producer Robert Redford (director, “Ordinary People”)

Before Ernesto “Che” Guevara became the smoldering poster boy for power to the people, he was an idealistic young med student. As played by Gael Garcia Bernal in Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries,” the pre-revolutionary Che yearns to experience the world beyond his bourgeois Buenos Aires upbringing, and it’s this thirst for knowledge and experience that is palpable in both the film and Bernal’s performance.

Adapted from the then-24-year-old Guevara’s memoirs as well as those of his traveling companion Alberto Granado, “Motorcycle Diaries” chronicles the duo’s 8,000-mile transcontinental adventure across South America in 1952 on a beat-up old Norton. The journey is both spiritual and picaresque, as Guevara and Granado mix their pre-occupation with girls and revelry with a growing awareness of the breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking poverty that surrounds them.

Some critics carped about the choice to look at Che at such a young stage in life, before his most famous exploits. Instead of a polemic on pre-Castro Marxism, what this film captures, in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott, “is the quickening of Ernesto’s youthful idealism, and the general turning of his passionate, literary nature toward an as yet unspecified form of radical commitment.”

Rising Mexican superstar Bernal plays Guevara with shy magnetism, and along with his more daring part in Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education,” Bernal could register on the Academy’s radar. But the showier role is Granado, the film’s Falstaff to Guevara’s Prince Hal, and newcomer Rodrigo de la Serna exhibits a lusty abandon that’s a scene stealer.

Brazilian helmer Walter Salles, who was nominated for the foreign lingo Oscar in 1999 for “Central Station,” seeks to attain a meditative mood, with revealing vignettes taking the place of linear storytelling. French cinematographer Eric Gautier reflects that lyrical approach, capturing the variable landscape in all of its mysterious beauty. The spare music for guitar and synthesizer is by Argentinian musician/composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who also scored “21 Grams” and “Amores perros.”

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