Written by Jose Rivera
Directed by Walter Salles
Running Time: 2:06
Rated R for language.
The Motorcycle Diaries was a sweet and moving story that was entertaining, but didn't give a lot of insight into the man who would become 'Che'.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is a 23-year-old medical student. His friend Alberto Granado is a 29-year-old biochemist. Together, they decide to embark on a motorcycle trip that will take them from Argentina all the way up to Venezuela. Along the way they visit Ernesto's girlfriend, whose parents hope she breaks up with him; get attacked by Chileans who think Ernesto is trying to steal one of their wives; and work in a leper colony. Their trip is a coming-of-age trip for Alberto, who, by the end, decides that he needs to try and settle down. But, from a historical perspective, the trip is the beginning of the story of Ernesto Guevara, who would soon become better known the world over as Che.
I for one did not realize as I sat down to watch The Motorcycle Diaries, that it was all in Spanish with subtitles. That threw me off, but as with most subtitled films, you get used to reading and watching all at once. I thought the movie was very well made, but was a bit long. The performances of the two leads were exceptional and that was the key to the movie. Without likeable leads, this movie could have been extremely boring. But I enjoyed every moment they were on screen. I guess the biggest problem, if you could call it a problem, was that there almost seemed to be no big conclusion. We meet the two in the beginning as they set out on their trip, then the movie ends with them parting ways. Knowing that Guevara went on to become an almost mythic figure, I was hoping that the movie would end with some revelation or insight as to what happened next. But the movie really is just about their journey together, and the events that took place afterwards were all summed up in a short coda at the end. It made the movie feel incomplete in some ways, even though what was shown was still worthwhile.
I never understood why they wanted to make the trip. There may have been a line or two I missed early on as I was trying to keep up with the reading and the watching. It's also possible that it was just one of those things that people do; pack up and go on a road trip. I've certainly done a couple in my time, although nothing as serious or as long as theirs. Once they hit the road, they had a fierce determination about them, whether it was Guevara refusing to use the money his girlfriend gave him to buy her a bathing suit, or continuing on with the journey when their bike died on them. Watching them struggle up a snow covered hill, or walking through the arid desert, I felt like these guys were on a mission, whether they knew what it was or not. Again, that comes back to the performances of Gael Garcia Bernal (as Guevara) and Rodrigo de la Serna (as Alberto). How similar they are to the actual people I do not know, but for film purposes, they were terrific.
The movie is shot in a very personal way. It feels like you are the third person on their adventure, joining them as they ride the riverboats, meet homeless miners and work with lepers. When Guevara's chronic asthma hits, you feel his pain and even though you know he lives, every attack leaves you breathless yourself. It's not a glossy, flashy film by any means. The rough look of the movie runs in parallel to the rough trip these two were on; even the musical dance sequences sound rough. One question I did have was about their time in the leper colony. They openly wander among the diseased patients, without using any precautions. At one point in the film it is even mentioned that the disease is not contagious. I asked a medical student of mine if this was true, and she said that leprosy is in fact extremely contagious, which is why they're always isolated in the first place. These days if the disease is caught early, you can be medicated which makes it very unlikely that you can pass it on, but back in the early 1950s I'm not sure if that was the case. And if every patient there was medicated, that was never mentioned. A small point I suppose, but one that stuck out in my head, since it was there that we finally got to hear Guevara talk about groups of people being segregated from others.
Knowing what Guevara was going to end up becoming, I kept waiting for some defining moment in the film to show me how he goes from being a medical student to becoming a revolutionary. But there was no one moment that changed him. Throughout the entire trip, different things here and there would slowly open his eyes to what was going on in South America, but nothing where he suddenly realized that he wanted to do something. And that was almost frustrating while watching the film. I wanted to see him change. I wanted to see how Ernesto became Che. Instead we were shown just the very beginning of his transformation. The text coda at the end was good, but very, very limited in scope. I almost hope that this movie does well enough, that they make another film that bridges the gap from the end of this movie, to his meeting with Castro and their subsequent arrival in Cuba.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, The Motorcycle Diaries was a well made, well acted film. I would have liked to have gotten more insight into Che Guevara and the man he was to become, but even without that, the movie is definitely worth a look.