The Motorcycle Diaries

Let me preface this by saying I am in no way an expert on Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Cuban Revolution or Latin America. As such, the historical significance of this film is probably lost on me. I know who Che was, I know a little about his life, and I think it's totally badass that he called his executioner a coward before he was shot. Mostly, though, I know him as that guy from the T-shirts. Sad, huh? So I watched The Motorcycle Diaries, a film based on his travels through South America with friend Alberto Granado, from a typical American viewpoint: uninformed. But I'm a quick learner.

I'm winding down my "Must see before the Oscars" list, so I watched The Motorcyle Diaries on DVD right after watching Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, in one marathon session on Sunday. Once I watch Before Sunset, I'll post a double-shot review of both of those. It is funny, though, that the opening title card of Diaries says that the story is of two lives running parallel for a little while, which is exactly what Sunrise is about. Who knew? Anyway...

The Motorcyle Diaries stars Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal as the legendary revolutionary, but not yet. He is still a young man of 23, close to finishing med school, but eager to join his friend Alberto, played by Argentine actor Rodrigio de la Serna, on a motorcycle trip from Buenos Aires to Venezuela, on a quest to see the continent in celebration of Alberto's 30th birthday. I must admit that I figured this setup would get tedious, but since their adventures often take them away from the road, I never got bored. In fact, the further they and the film travelled, the more interested I became. The pair encounter many displaced indigenous peoples, and become increasingly upset at the injustice and hardship that these people suffer. The film never preaches, but it does offer a glimpse into the heart of a young revolutionary. This film's intent is to look into the seeds of Che's evolution from an idealist dreamer to a martyr for communism, and the viewer does really get a sense of what made "Che" out of Ernesto. At a leper colony they volunteer at, he is outraged that the patients live across the river from the staff. He gives a poor homeless couple his only money, instead of buying food or supplies for himself. Et cetera. In writing this down, it seems almost messianic, but Che nevers comes across as holier than thou.

Gael Garcia Bernal gives an exceptional performance considering the immense pressure he must have been under to portray Guevera correctly. Again, I can't judge that, but he brings life and love to a character that could have been a cardboard cutout of the future hero. Even better, though, is de la Serna as Alberto, who straddles the line between sidekick and mentor so well that I am surprised I've never heard of him. He provides comic relief, but more importantly, he provides focus as a second "main" character. Allow me to explain. In Beyond the Sea, Ray, Kinsey, etc., I eventually tired of the main character. Sure, there's some great performances there, but two hours of anybody front and center can get annoying. So The Motorcyle Diaries is a film about Che Guevara, sure, because he's the one that became famous. But it's also Alberto's story, and I think it would work just as well with just him. So a testament to de la Serna's performance is the fact that he made the main character seem redundant. Don't get me wrong, nothing against Bernal, just de la Serna's performance seemed more.. vital.. to me.

The film does have a few flaws, however. The story structure is rather episodic, so just when you get into one story arc, they leave and pick up another. But it is a road movie, so I can't complain about that too much. I just would have liked to have seen more in some areas. Also, the side story with Che's girlfriend in the beginning of the film seems tacked on. I just can't see the intention behind it, maybe it's just me.

Other than those few things, The Motorcycle Diaries is a solid film. I learned from it, which is always a good thing, but it was also greatly entertaining. Adding to my list of overlooked foreign films, along with House of Flying Daggers and A Very Long Engagement, it didn't receive a Oscar nom for Best Foreign Language Film, but deserved one. Oh well. I give it a B.

(As a side note, if you pick up the DVD, make sure to watch the bonus features with the real Alberto Granado, now living in Cuba, where he was invited to work by Che in the 60s. Like the footage of Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles, Harvey Pekar in American Splendor or the end of Schindler's List, seeing the people that the story actually happened adds gravity to the film you've just seen, and this is no exception. Don't miss it.)


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