DIRECTED BY Walter Salles
STARRING Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Sema, Mia Maestro
Opens August 27, Cert 12A, 126 mins
In easy rider, peter fonda and Dennis Hopper "went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere". After seeing Walter Salles' cool, sub-equatorial odyssey The Motorcycle Diaries, you'll think they didn't look far enough.
It's 1952, and Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is a 23-year-old medical student embarking on a road trip up the very spine of South America, from Argentina through Chile, Peru and Venezuela. His bike: a 1939 Norton 500 christened La Poderosa II—"The Mighty One". Also aboard: his hale and hearty pal Alberto Granado. Together, they're all set for the journey of a lifetime... assuming they can get out of Buenos Aires in one piece.
The Motorcycle Diaries arrives courtesy of Robert Redford, whose company owned the rights to Guevara's memoir, and FilmFour, which financed it. And in director Salles and star Bernal we have two of the brightest talents to have emerged from the South American movie industry.
It was Salles who insisted that the movie be made in Spanish, saving us from the prospect of Josh Hartnett and Ashton Kutcher connecting with the compañeros. But his treatment is not unduly reverential. While the film charts the early stirrings of political consciousness as Ernesto and Alberto come face to face with real poverty for the first time, it also draws on Granado's contemporaneous diary, so there's much here about their mission to get laid in every country on the continent ("Every town!"), and ingenious ploys to survive on next to no money. It's not quite Y Tu Mamá También 2, but Salles gets plenty of comic mileage out of the broken, back-farting La Poderosa. They spend almost as much time pushing the bike as riding it.
Young enough to play idealism and integrity without being sanctimonious, Bernal makes virtue look sexy. He doesn't wear the famous beret, but you know he could get away with it if he had to. Ernesto's dogged refusal to brook any compromise comes with an embarrassed flush, and the absolute conviction he can and will make things right. In Bernal's hands, you tend to believe it. And then Rodrigo de la Serna's bluff, opportunistic Alberto makes for a spirited comic foil—all cavalier charm and naked self-interest.
Although Alberto isn't above playing up their credentials for a free meal, these are both men of medicine. That altruistic impulse assumes a social and political focus when they're forced to abandon La Poderosa and hitch-hike—it's the point, you could say, when they are transformed from tourists into travellers.
On foot, they encounter itinerant mineworkers, Quechua indians forced to work for a pittance in proto-capitalist Peru. And it's here that the film departs from the script to adopt a freer, more improvisational approach. This episode is the making of the movie, because we might as well be watching Bernal or Salles himself talking to these Quechua. It brings Guevara's concerns about economic injustice bang up to date.
Loosening up after the suffocating pictorialism of Behind The Sun, Salles uses a light Super-16 camera and a French cinematographer (Eric Gaultier) known for his handheld, vérité style. The Motorcycle Diaries doesn't lack stunning scenery, but it's always filtered through the sensibilities of its young adventurers. A pilgrimage to the ancient Inca city Machu Picchu, for example, has a blissed, trippy quality that speaks directly to Ernesto's burgeoning conception of a single united mestizo (mixed race) America.
Admittedly, in the last section, at the leper colony where the two young trainees volunteer, the film falls into a more heavy-handed rhetoric: Ernesto gives a big speech spelling out his new beliefs, then swims across the piranha-infested Amazon in a gesture of solidarity with the lepers. It's supposed to be an inspiring and decisive moment, but even though it comes from the diaries, it feels phoney and melodramatic—it smacks of Hollywood, in fact.
It's a rare aberration in a searching, intelligent and ultimately very moving film. With so much political baggage surrounding an unapologetic Marxist revolutionary like Che, there was always going to be a lot riding on it. By focusing on a journey of self-discovery, Salles finds the key to several doors. A buddy film, a road movie, a biopic, and a social-conscience drama, The Motorcycle Diaries is not—and never could be—the last word on Che Guevara, but it's a terrific place to start.
Rating: 4 / 10