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Road trip to revolution 

A review of The Motorcycle Diaries

click to enlarge Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael Garcia Berna in Motorcycle - Diaries.
  • Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael Garcia Berna in Motorcycle Diaries.

The Motorcycle Diaries (R)
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The Motorcycle Diaries recounts the true story of an 8,000-mile journey up the spine of South America undertaken by a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his best friend, Alberto, in 1952.

Director Walter Salles strikes the perfect balance between irreverent romp and heartfelt epic as the two young men take to the open road. Despite their departure from Buenos Aires with almost no money and a beat-up motorcycle to share, the two men self-mockingly cast their journey as heroic. They call the beat-up motorcycle "the Great One," and despite their poverty Alberto says he'll pick up a girl in each town they visit.

Latin heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) turns in a commanding performance as young doctor-in-training Guevara. Here is Guevara the revolutionary in chrysalis, a post-collegiate preppy who struggles with asthma but harbors an icy stair and a romantic's heart. A combination of Jesus and James Dean, Bernal captures the qualities that would later make Guevara an international icon of the communist revolution. Alberto (played by Rodrigo de la Serna), Guevara's older, paunchier and worldlier friend, offers a humorous contrast to Guevara's brooding intensity.

Together the two pass through beautifully photographed landscapes, from the snowcapped Patagonia mountain range of their native Argentina to the mystic ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. The journey is accompanied by a robust soundtrack: guitars in the Patagonia, flutes in the Andes and hand percussion in the Amazon.

Along the way the two experience adventures akin to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: They pose as world-renowned doctors in a newspaper in order to con a mechanic to fix their bike. Then when Guevara tries to seduce the mechanic's wife at a community dance, they barely escape a mauling by the drunken mechanic and his friends. "The Great One" dies a rattling death after one-too-many slapstick crashes, and the two are left to wander the desert on foot. Later they travel the Amazon by raft.

But for all the humor, skirt chasing and tall tales, the trip also offers Guevara and his friend a sobering dose of self-discovery. Guevara's emerging compassion for the people of Latin America increasingly guides him to self-reflection. As they travel farther north, they come alongside indigenous Indians dispossessed by Europeans and laborers, begging to work a day for the Anaconda Mining Company. These images of grinding poverty stay with Guevara and appear on the screen as black-and-white flashbacks. As Guevara draws into himself, it's clear he's developing his own philosophy of revolution to unite Latin America and alleviate the suffering of the poor.

The film stops short, however, of delving into Guevara's later life as a revolutionary in Cuba and Africa. Because of this, it should be accessible to viewers regardless of political persuasion. That's fortunate, because the journey the two men take in this film is a journey central to most human experience. Guevara loses himself (his ties to home, his beautiful girlfriend who dumps him), but gains an understanding of the world. Alberto, too, gains similar understanding and by the film's conclusion, the two men seem more like brothers than cantankerous friends.

Easily one of the year's best films, The Motorcycle Diaries offers an adventurous ride. It will raise awareness of South America's beauty and tragic past and deserves to be seen by the widest possible audience.

-- Dan Wilcock

Kimball's Twin Peak

  • A review of The Motorcycle Diaries

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