Who would’ve thought that a film depicting the early years of Ernesto “Che” Guevara could be so amiable? Inspired more by Easy Rider than Malcom X, The Motorcycle Diaries is far too tenderhearted to spike sales of T-shirts featuring the famous revolutionary.
Instead, director Walter Salles (best known for the critically praised Central Station) and playwright Jose Riviera have created a lovely and exotic travelogue through 1950s South America that invokes the metaphysical journey of Jack Kerouac. If it reminds you of a low-key version of Y Tu Mama, Tambien it’s probably because both films boast the dewy-eyed hunk, Gael García Bernal.
Based on Guevara’s journals, the film follows 23-year-old Che and his best friend Alberto Granado (the terrifically mischievous Rodrigo de la Serna) as they travel 8,000 miles from Argentina to Venezuela on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle in search of fun, adventure and girls.
Passing through windswept Andean villages, the desolate Atacama Desert and the magnificent Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, the young men experience an ever-changing landscape meant to instruct and inspire. Encounters with noble and beleaguered peasants are meant to provide Guevara with his first stirrings of political consciousness but these sprinkled moments of social injustice often come across as cinematically forced.
When the duo reaches their medical residency at a Peruvian leper colony, Guevara refuses to wear gloves while treating the ill. No doubt this act of rebellion is supposed to be emblematic of the leader to come, but hardly provides meaningful backbone to the film.
Salles, a skillful director with a delicate eye, decided to shoot Motorcycle Diaries in sequence and, where possible, at the actual locations visited by Guevara a half century ago. His quasi-documentary approach of using local townsfolk as extras and including improvised dialogue with the cast occasionally adds authenticity to the film but more often feels like moments stolen from a National Geographic special.
Bernal effectively portrays a young Guevara with the same soulful, slightly awkward yet honest spirit of discovery that he brought to Alfonso Cuarón’s fiery and sensual Tambien. As a result, however, it’s hard to understand how this sensitive and thoughtful medical student eventually decided to pick up a gun and lead a populist uprising against capitalist imperialism.
It should come as no surprise that Robert Redford is an executive producer. The movie boasts a tasteful and intelligent array of film artists and the source material is handled with respect and care. But that’s the problem. It’s too careful and deliberate. There is no undercurrent of passion or revolutionary epiphany. The intersection between the political and the personal is practically invisible.
Perhaps if the film had a little less pedigree and a little more rough-hewn fervor, it would play less like a high-class buddy road picture and more like the quiet awakenings of a political icon.
Showing at the Main Art Theater, 118 N. Main, Royal Oak. Call 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.