The Motorcycle Diaries
Rated R, 128 min. Directed by Walter Salles. Starring Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mia Maestro, Mercedes Morán, Jorge Chiarella, Jaime Azócar.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 8, 2004
Dr. Goodlove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Proletariat might have been a better title for this ingratiatingly loopy origin story about prerevolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara (starring Y Tu Mamá También’s Bernal as that guy on your T-shirt) and pal Alberto Granado (de la Serna) and their historic, hysteric 8,000-mile sojourn from Buenos Aires to the northernmost sliver of Venezuela astride a rickety 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle in 1952. At the time, the once and future king of freshman-dorm wallspace was a premed student with plans to further his education at a Venezuelan leper colony with the boisterous (and libidinous) Granado by his side. Luckily for posterity, Guevara kept a diary of their long trip, which was published posthumously in 1992 and serves as the guiding light for Salles’ film. Che’s awakening (and this is well before he was tagged with his famous nickname – he sports the somewhat less catchy one of "Fuser" here) is seen as a series of improbable encounters on the road, with the disenfranchised poor, with the displaced of the rainforest, with the aforementioned lepers (around whom Guevara refuses to wear rubber gloves, the better to bond with the poor wretches), and with his own inner struggles. Movie heartthrob Bernal, with his skinny frame and deep-set, liquid eyes, makes for an arrestingly lovely Guevara – he’s the sex symbol for la revolución. And then there’s de la Serna’s stocky, cocky, perpetually horny Granado, who vows to bed a woman in every single country the pair passes through and very nearly does. Anyone looking to this piece of hyper-romantic gorgeousness for a genuine history lesson would be well advised to also check out the actual diaries (as well as Granado’s Traveling With Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary). Salles, along with cinematographer Eric Gautier (Irma Vep), has an eye for the crazy beauty of youth on the road, and you can bet if they ever film the definitive version of Kerouac’s classic, they’ll be the team to beat. The road, after all, is the third co-star of this film, and at times it rivals Bernal’s chiseled handsomeness for sheer intractable magnetism – Machu Picchu hasn’t looked this magnificent since it had Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski seething across it. Is it even possible to de-romanticize one of the most romantic figures of the 20th century? It sounds like a fool’s errand, to be sure, just as young Che’s own outward-bounding seemed over half a century before, pre-Congo, pre-Cuba, pre-Bolivia, out on a mission, part quest, part lark, and all pure experience, absorbed, collated, and finally transformative, from boy to man to icon and beyond.