The journeys—one a cross-continent road trip on a motorcycle, one an emotional exploration into the human condition—taken by a latent revolutionary leader and his friend form the plot of one of last year's best and most interesting films, Focus Features' "The Motorcycle Diaries." From acclaimed Brazilian director Walter Salles, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is an adaptation of the journals of young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, later known as Cuban revolutionary leader Ché Guevara. The movie will be screened at Parkway Place Theatre on Monday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. as part of Crossroads Film Society's series of independent films. It will also be released on home video next month.
Examining but a snapshot of its protagonist's early years, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is far from being a Ché Guevara biopic. The film depicts Guevara at the age of 23 only, and the remaining 15 years of his life, during which he became intricately involved with Castro's revolutionary movement, are discussed only in the form of title cards just before the closing credits.
In fact, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a virtually apolitical picture, revealing very little of Guevara's influences (though he was certainly a dedicated Marxist by this point in his life). Rather, this episodic narrative touches on some of the circumstances of Guevara's youth that may have contributed to his later exploits, but it does not consider prior or future events; that's for a different movie. (Incidentally, Steven Soderbergh's "Ché," a more sweeping account of Guevara's life with Benicio del Toro in the title role, is due to be released this year, also from Focus Features.)
At the start of the film, the young Guevara (Gael García Bernal, "Y Tu Mamá También") is a medical student in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For no apparent particular reason, he decides to take a break from his studies to launch an impromptu road trip through western South America with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna).
Their journey begins on a motorcycle (which breaks down repeatedly in a series of comic mishaps), and continues on foot and by raft, ultimately covering more than 7,000 miles. Along the way, Ernesto and Alberto have a variety of experiences and encounters with disenfranchised and impoverished locals in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, and the two men are spiritually altered forever.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" gradually (and realistically) evolves from its simplistic "road movie" opening, which finds a pair of friends abandoning their responsibilities and exploring their surroundings, to a crushing indictment of the 1950s social structure in most South American countries, culminating in an internal upheaval (for Ernesto and Alberto) and an emotional wipeout (for the audience).
Though it does drag in spots, it's a leisurely paced and well-organized film, with the stunning Andes Mountains as its backdrop. An immeasurable amount of credit goes to the film's actors, whom director Salles led along the exact route taken by the men in 1952. Bernal, delivering a soulful, almost overwhelming lead performance, has been disturbingly overlooked by awards committees thus far. Like Catalina Sandino Moreno's ignored breakthrough turn in "Maria Full of Grace," much of this is probably owed to the fact that "The Motorcycle Diaries" is in Spanish with English subtitles.
Ironically, for all of the shopping-mall apparel bearing his scruffy image, the general population probably knows very little about Ché Guevara's life, and this film does a measure of service to explain a fragment of his history. Technically, "The Motorcycle Diaries" does feel somewhat incomplete. While one can find in Bernal's performance the beginnings of the revolutionary leader to come, the film seems content to abandon its subject at the two-hour mark, and let another filmmaker handle the more turbulent subsequent decade. For now, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a focused, accomplished look at the man who would be Ché.