Easy Rider meets Y Tu Mama Tambien, Judge Diane Wild watches it happen, and Latin America gains a cultural icon.
By the age of 39, Argentinean Ernesto "Che" Guevara had helped spearhead a communist revolution in Cuba, went on to try the same in other countries, and was assassinated in Bolivia in 1967 with the backing of the CIA.
Guevara advocated revolution as the only means of addressing social inequities. He viewed the separate nations of Latin America as artificial constructs imposed on the land by colonial forces—nations which needed to be united against their oppressors. So much for Che 101. He is an icon in Latin America for his ideals, but his legend has transcended them. He has become a pop culture hero to many, some of whom celebrate him as anti-establishment but possibly don't remember or don't care what establishment he was anti.
But before Che was a legend, he was, of course, a man.
Facts of the Case
The Motorcycle Diaries tells the story of a pre-Che Guevara. It's 1952 and Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal), or Fuser, as his friend and traveling companion Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) calls him, is 23 years old and almost finished medical school. He and Granado plot a trip around the South American continent, starting from Buenos Aires. It's a journey of 5,000 miles they intend to complete in 4 months on a dilapidated motorcycle called La Poderosa (The Mighty One) that is literally held together with pieces of scrap wire.
Ernesto's diary and letters to his mother form some of the narration, tying together vignettes of their travels and the people they meet along the way. They visit Ernesto's rich but long-suffering girlfriend, who is getting impatient waiting for him to return to her. They fib their way into free meals and places to stay. The dine and drink and dance—Alberto well, Ernesto badly—and charm many of the women and some of the men in their path. When La Poderosa inevitably fails beyond repair, they continue their incredible journey on foot and by boat.
They also meet a couple who were forced off their land, lost everything because of their communist beliefs, and are now compelled to take dangerous work because the mine is the only employer desperate enough to hire them. They meet indigenous Latin Americans who are homeless in their own land. They meet people with leprosy who are ostracized even by the doctors who know they are not contagious.
The sensitive and earnest Ernesto's sense of injustice is awakened, and by the end of the film, he is on a new path—a path that will lead him to Cuba and beyond.
Gael Garcia Bernal is the Mexican Jude Law—he's talented, he's attractive, and, in his home country, he's in every second movie release. Lately he's been slowly taking over the rest of the world, too, in high-profile independent films like this multi-country co-production, as well as the Spanish Bad Education.
After Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien, among other compelling performances, Garcia Bernal's talents come as no surprise. But Rodrigo de la Serna is the revelation here. He's a relative unknown outside his homeland, but shouldn't be now. He plays Alberto as a lively, lusty bullshitter, bordering on the obnoxious but far too likable to completely cross over. He's older but no wiser than his friend, by turns protective and thoughtless.
The quieter, sweeter Ernesto appears to need Alberto's protection. He is physically frail, suffering from brutal asthma attacks, for one thing, and for another, his honesty and empathy often get in the way of his survival instincts. But he has a sense of fun and is no saint—when Alberto wants him to help out with a little lie to generate some goodwill that might get them fed, Ernesto engineers a whopper, letting them pose as world-renowned doctors on a working tour of the continent and gaining them a few empanadas along the way. Between the health struggles, bad dancing, and occasional bad behavior, The Motorcycle Diaries definitely humanizes the icon while showing his growing sense of injustice.
Ernesto and Alberto develop similar philosophies along the way, despite their different personalities. The narration describes the movie's tale as that of "two lives running parallel for a while," and that's a fair assessment. Theirs is a teasing, caring friendship, and this relationship is half the appeal of the movie. The other half belongs to the third, unbilled costar—Latin America. The breathtaking scenery, which ranges from inhospitably barren to invitingly lush, makes The Motorcycle Diaries a story of the land as much as a story of the two men traveling it.
The camera lets us experience as much with our heroes as possible. There are terrific slice-of-life scenes, including a handheld camera following Ernesto into a crowded market as he chats amiably with the merchants, and intimate, jostling shots of the men riding in the back of a truck with the battered motorcycle and a half-blind cow. Parts of the film, particularly conversations between the men and various struggling indigenous people they meet along the way, have a documentary feel.
We see the land through Ernesto's perspective, which takes in the contrast between lives of privilege and lives of destitution, between the indigenous and colonial ways of life. The $15 U.S. that Ernesto's girlfriend has given him so that he can buy her a present is a constant temptation to Alberto, and a not-so-subtle reminder of the power of American lucre over Latin America.
The turning point for Ernesto is meeting the homeless communist couple who end up working for the English-monikered Anaconda Mining Company. Sharing a night in the desert with them, the altruistic Ernesto gives them his blanket. "It was one of the coldest nights of my life, but also one which made me feel closer to this strange, for me anyway, human race," he says in narration.
But it's his farewell speech at the leper colony, where they volunteer their medical skills, that really shows the beginnings of Che the revolutionary. It's affecting but not overstated. It's something of a movie miracle that the men are never seen to condescend to the less fortunate—the writing is sparse and generally unsentimental.
Universal has done a great job on the DVD transfer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic video captures the landscape well, and there's beautiful earthy colors—intense yet natural. Even the minor instances of grain actually help give the film a vintage look appropriate to its 1950s setting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (available in Spanish or French) captures atmospheric sounds in the surrounds, plus the initial roars and final whimpers of the mighty motorcycle.
There are English and Spanish menus on the DVD, but the extras are the same. I thought the Spanish menu might be hiding some additional features, or at least eliminate the English voiceover on the featurette, but no—except for the translation of the text-based biographies and filmographies, and the presence of the appropriate subtitles, the content is identical. While that's completely understandable, in a way, both sides are cheated a little. The Spanish-speaking audience has to suffer through the voiceover guy's cringe-worthy accent while trying to pronounce Spanish titles, and us English speakers miss out on Garcia Bernal's lovely Mexico-by-way-of-England English accent, since his interviews are all conducted in Spanish.
The 20-minute "Making of…" featurette is the most substantial extra, though it's largely a puff piece. There are interviews with the stars, producer Robert Redford, director Walter Salles (Central Station), and—most interestingly—Alberto Granado himself, speaking from his home in Cuba with great affection of his long-dead friend, and Che Guevara's daughter, who talks about discovering her father partly through his memoirs "Notas de viaja," which the movie is based on (along with Granado's "Con el Che por America Latina"). Unfortunately, the interview clips are short and the movie clip padding is long.
The deleted scenes don't add much to the story. Because the movie is quite episodic, rather than being a completely cohesive narrative, I found them disorienting—they were just a few more episodes that I didn't quite know where to place in the overall framework. Other extras include an extended interview with Granado, one with composer Gustavo Santaolalla, and a couple of three-minute interviews with Gael Garcia Bernal made for television. These last interviews are annoyingly stylized and not terribly informative, but offer some insight into his acting philosophy, which raises them slightly beyond something you might see on "Entertainment Tonight."
Because the subject is a legend on the scale of Che Guevara, it's hard to come into The Motorcycle Diaries with no baggage or expectations. This is a quietly powerful movie that has broad appeal, but it's clearly not Che-strength Power, and that may frustrate his ardent fans and foes alike. (Well, his foes might be a little more frustrated.) But legend and politics aside, it's a beautiful movie with moments of near-greatness. The man who would be Che and the DVD alike are presented here with great affection.
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