Gael García Bernal as Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna
Rodrigo De la Serna as Alberto Granado
Mía Maestro as Chichina Ferreyra
Mercedes Morán as Celia de la Serna
Jorge Chiarella as Dr. Bresciani
In January 1952, two friends left Buenos Aires for a trip across South America which would take them 8,000 kilometers in four months. The trip starts out as a fun adventure to see the continent with the help of only a motorcycle, but what they discover is something that will forever alter their view of the world. The elder of the two, 29-year-old biochemist Alberto Granado would go on to become a leader in medicine, while he younger of the two, Ernesto Guevara, would later become a South American figurehead for revolution.
Once in a very long time, a movie comes along that alters your perception or opinion on a subject matter by showing you something you never thought possible. Few may go into The Motorcycle Diaries knowing much about South America or the legacy of Che Guevara, but most should come away from it rather enlightened about a continent that has been mainly steeped in mystery to Northerners. Adapted from the respective journals of the two men-Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and Granado’s Traveling with Che Guevara-this beautifully realized film turns what might have been a simple road movie into a stunning and thought provoking experience.
The road trip starts off with the two guys preparing for the trip with very little fanfare and no nothing to up the characters or their backgrounds, most of which we learn over the course of the journey. Since the two guys are so different, it’s surprising that they decided to make the trip together. Alberto is so much older and more experienced than Ernesto, and while they’re both clearly idealists when they start the trip, Ernesto is innocent and honest to a fault while Alberto is a bit more of a player, especially towards women. Using a combination of bargaining and bullsh*t, they find ways to survive on the road with no money. The big sticking point between the friends is fifteen American dollars given to Ernest by his girlfriend to buy her a bathing suit if they make it to America, which Ernesto refuses to spend on important things like food or shelter or medicine.
At first, the trip is a bit of a lark to see the countryside, but as they progress deeper into the continent, they discover another side of the world that they didn’t know existed, where the indigent natives of the continent suffer in poverty, working dangerous and menial jobs for little pay. To say that discovering the true poverty of the country is a life changing experience would be an understatement, but they certainly get more than they bargained for. For the first time in their lives, they experience the indigents of the country that they never had seen in the European influenced Buenos Aires. When they finally reach the San Pablo leper colony, they’re shocked by the conditions, and it brings the two men together to try to make a difference.
The quality of the filmmaking is the least one might expect from a master filmmaker like Brazil’s Walter Salles, who takes a daring step forward from his earlier films, Central Station and Behind the Sun. For The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles met a number of challenges, the greatest one being the decision to tell a story about the formative years in the life of a South American icon. Shooting the film outside of his native country in a language not his own, Salles decided to use many inexperienced locals for the film, and with a melting pot of a crew with different South American backgrounds, Salles effectively erases the invisible boundaries that separate the continent’s individual countries as easily as the two friends travel across them.
Although this is a terrific story in itself, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if not for the amazing performances by two young actors who have incredible chemistry on screen. Gael Garcia Bernal continues his run as one of Mexico’s best actors, creating a memorable performance as the young Guevara. He brings suitable innocence and naivety to Ernesto as he heads out on the road, as well as an empathy to the indigent people of the country that would certainly help him as a leader later in life, as well as showing a terrific bedside manner as a doctor to the afflicted of the leper colony. Guevara also struggled with asthma early in life, something that may not have been known, but Bernal effectively shows another side to the legendary figure as well as a believable evolution over the course of the film.
Lesser-known Argentine actor Rodrigo De La Serna-no, the last name isn’t a coincidence; he is a second cousin to the real Ernesto-gives an equally impressive portrayal of Granado. He turns what would be a fairly dimensionless character into the perfect counterpart to Bernal’s Ernesto.
The amazing script by Jose Rivera is what drives the film and makes both these characters work with dialogue that quickly makes you forget that you’re reading subtitles. The patter between the two men is consistently great, but some of the best writing comes from Guevara himself as beautiful passages from letters to his mother are used as narrative to the film.
The Motorcycle Diaries is also special because it shows off the beautiful South American landscape, including many places that few will have had a chance to see in the past. This greatly adds to the tale, although it will also add to the comparisons to Bernal’s breakout hit Y Tu Mama Tambien. While that coming of age story was also groundbreaking, there’s a lot more depth to The Motorcycle Diaries on a social and political level
The Bottom Line:
Walter Salles has done it again. Working with two fine actors and a rich and unmatchable South American setting, Salles has created a wonderful, charming and deeply moving rites of passage film that runs the gamut of themes from friendship and tolerance to the division between the rich and the poor. One of the best films of the year so far.