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Motorcycle Diaries, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 24 September 2004
“The Motorcycle Diaries” is a surprisingly gentle period road movie, laced more with comedy than drama. It might, in fact, come off as another entry in the period memoir genre – albeit a very agreeable and well-done one – if the main character was not the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became one of architects of the violent Cuban Revolution.

“Motorcycle Diaries” is based on books by both Guevara (played here by Gael Garcia Bernal) and his traveling companion Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera adopt the two men’s viewpoints fairly faithfully and very respectfully. On the one hand, this gives “Motorcycle” an unexpected and beguiling warmth; on the other, we don’t get a whole lot of insight into how the adventures chronicled here made Guevara decide that he could best help the poor by setting aside his blossoming career in medicine and picking up a gun instead.

At the outset, we’re in 1952 Argentina. Ernesto is a 22-year-old from a well-to-do family who opts to take a year off from medical school to travel across the South American continent with his best friend, 29-year-old Alberto on a 1939 Norton motorcycle, possibly the most decrepit machine ever to hit the open road (Ernesto’s parents look worried as their son and his pal chug away around the corner and we don’t blame them). Alberto says he hopes to make love to a woman in every city of every country they visit (if he doesn’t entirely fulfill this ambition, he doesn’t completely fail either); Ernesto is seeking something, but he’s not entirely sure what. In their travels, the duo encounter kind people, angry people, helpful people, violent people and a lot of people living in severe poverty – not to mention a lot of mechanical difficulties with their bike, optimistically dubbed “the Mighty One.”

One of the main points of discovery for Ernesto is how economic situation and personality, rather than nationality, define the people he encounters. This aspect of “Motorcycle” probably plays differently than intended for North American audiences, who don’t know which cultural stereotypes are being destroyed for Ernesto – this reviewer wasn’t (and still isn’t) sure just what assumptions Chileans and Peruvians in 1952-53 made about Argentineans or vice-versa.

However, minus the far-flung historical perspective, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a charming coming-of-age tale. Garcia’s sweet, slightly innocent seriousness is given a delightful counterpoint by de la Serna’s mischievous exuberance – we enjoy them as traveling companions. There is a surprising amount of humor and suspense based around the functionality (or lack thereof) of the Mighty One, and some small details – a leper colony where the administrators withhold food from staff who disobey the rules – are telling without being overplayed. The score by Gustavo Santaoalla is lovely, with lots of acoustic guitar and gentle instrumental passages, spiked by some boisterous Latin party music that fits the period yet still works now.

“The Motorcycle Diaries” is, in some sense, the South American counterpart to “Easy Rider” – two friends on the road in search of America. It’s just that, in this case, the search occurred in real life.

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