3 ½ stars (out of 4)
In the 1960s, Fidel Castro's military sidekick Ernesto "Che" Guevara became, much like Malcolm X, a worldwide icon of revolution, a martyr whose image was taken up by a generation of dissident American and European students who saw in him a mix of James Dean and Karl Marx. Most of those acolytes probably didn't know much about the real Guevara, but Walter Salles' new film, "The Motorcycle Diaries," offers a surprising, unusually mellow and lyrical introduction.
"The Motorcycle Diaries" is taken from Guevara's early journals and the memoirs of his best friend, Alberto Granado. In re-creating the two friends' real-life eight-month, 8,000-mile ride (only partly by motorcycle) from Buenos Aires to Venezuela, we see the forces, inner and outer, that drove the affluent young Guevara, then 23, to become a violent revolutionary in another country.
Raised in comfort and most likely headed for a comfortable career as a doctor in Argentina's high society, the young Ernesto swerved instead to reinvent himself as the radical "Che," a worldwide symbol of revolt whose posthumous legend, following his 1967 death at the hands of Bolivian forces at age 39, eclipsed that of his revolutionary comrade, Castro.
Yet Salles' movie isn't fiery or didactic. It doesn't rage or storm. Salles romanticizes the youthful Ernesto, played by Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal (of "Y Tu Mama Tambien"). But he also shows that the conditions of poverty and injustice witnessed by the young travelers on their "Easy Rider" journey through Argentina, Chile and Peru would have troubled any humane observer.
Robert Redford is executive producer of "The Motorcycle Diaries" and in a way, it's the ideal Sundance film: a liberal poem on a doomed radical-to-be that uses his adventures to expose a world unseen by most of us, from poverty to military and social persecution to, finally, life in a leper colony.
The film begins as a kind of picaresque near-comedy, with the more introverted Ernesto propelled along by his rowdier extroverted pal, Alberto. After stopping at a luxurious ranch for a visit with Ernesto's rich but impatient girlfriend Chichina (Mia Maestro), the two begin bumbling through a series of road catastrophes, most caused by their own naivete. They are making the trip partly to fulfill Alberto's youthful pledge to himself, partly to flex their manhood. But the breakdowns and tent collapses and misadventures reveal them as no real outdoorsmen.
City dreamers out of their depth, they soon begin to feel the pinch and pain of life away from their comfortable enclave--and that contact with the unfortunate is what changes Ernesto. By the time they reach the leper colony, run by two kindly doctors and inhabited by the ultimate group of social outsiders, Ernesto is completely able to identify with them.
Bernal makes a likable, mysterious, romantic young Ernesto. It's a real star turn, but the film belongs as much or more to his sidekick, played with boisterous humor and humanity by Rodrigo de la Serna. Alberto is Ernesto's political guru, though it's obvious that he'll never go as far as his friend, and he dominates the early scenes with his sheer comic force and fleshiness. He's the character we probably most relate to--and when we see the real Alberto, in his 80s, in the film's coda, that feeling is enhanced.
Salles' recent films--"Foreign Land," "Behind the Sun" and especially "Central Station"--have made him the most internationally popular and often-awarded of current Brazilian directors. Mostly, he works in the humanist/poetic realist tradition of a Rossellini or De Sica--or of the '60s Brazilian cinema novo directors like Nelson Pereira Dos Santos.
In "Motorcycle Diaries," his technique is at its most easy and lucid. Perhaps that's why the film, despite its incendiary subject, never seems like propaganda or special pleading. As in De Sica's or Dos Santos' films, the events we watch in "Motorcycle Diaries" just seem to be happening, life unfolding naturally in its own rhythms and measures. "Motorcycle Diaries" is Salles' best film, but it's not a work that will please any kind of extremist, even though it celebrates a radical icon. Instead, the film reaches back to the past to suggest that life is full of turning points, some of which we recognize and some we don't, and that, in a dangerous world, youth and friendship are to be treasured because, like life, they can pass so quickly.
"The Motorcycle Diaries"
Directed by Walter Salles; written by Jose Rivera, based on the books "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Ernesto "Che" Guevara and "With Che Through Latin America" by Alberto Granado; photographed by Eric Gautier; edited by Daniel Rezende; production designed by Carlos Conti; music by Gustavo Santaolalla; produced by Michael Nozik, Edgard Tenembaum and Karen Tenkhoff. A Focus Features release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:06. MPAA rating: R (language).
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna - Gael Garcia Bernal
Alberto Granado - Rodrigo de la Serna
Chichina - Mia Maestro
Dr. Hugo Pesce - Gustavo Bueno
Dr. Bresciani - Jorge Chiarella
Luna - Cristian F. Chaparro