How does a nice upper-middle class Argentinian medical student become one of the world’s most famous and symbolic revolutionaries? Walter Salles’ movie, based on the books, The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and Travelling With Che Guevara by Alberto Granada, is an excellent starting point, providing a moving and valuable insight into the inspirational trip that the young Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) embarked on with family friend Granada (Rodrigo De La Serna) as they toured Latin America on a decrepit motorcycle affectionately called The Mighty One.
The pair begin their trip at the aristocratic home of Guevara’s girlfriend Chichina Ferrayra (Mia Maestro), which proves to be a stark contrast to some of the poverty they encounter in the eight months ahead. As they journey through the Andes, along the coast of Chile, across the Atacama Desert and into the Peruvian Amazon they encounter tough weather conditions, transport difficulties and many amusing misunderstandings with locals. However it is their dealings with Latin America’s indigenous people as well as their three-week stay at a leper colony, which give the film more gravity – transforming it from a light-hearted road movie about friendship to something more significant indeed.
It is not difficult to see why Gael Garcia Bernal is being hailed as the next big thing in Hollywood. He has already proven himself to the Latin American market with a career history encompassing critically acclaimed movies such as Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien and in The Motorcycle Diaries he demonstrates his talents further.
He focuses his portrayal of Ernesto Guevara on the young man’s awakening without resorting to the mythical image of Che that has come to adorn numerous student posters and T-shirts and successfully takes the character from a nave, honest 23-year old boy to an impassioned, determined, strong 24-year old man with subtlety and honesty.
Bernal, assisted by excellent writing and direction, carefully signposts the incidents that harden Guevara’s character – the letter of heartbreak from his sweetheart, the helplessness in the eyes of a dying woman and the desperation in the faces of an impoverished mining couple.
Credit should also go to his sidekick Rodrigo De La Serna, who makes his film dbut as Alberto Granada. De La Serna brings humour and a great deal of warmth to the role of the lusty, larger-than-life chancer who was Guevara’s travelling companion. His character complements Bernal’s Guevara nicely and the pair have a strong chemistry, making them convincing buddies.
The dialogue rattles with pace and although the movie is subtitled, at times the subtitles seem unnecessary because it is a sheer joy to listen to the Spanish language. The emotion behind the words, accompanied by powerful imagery is sometimes enough to steer the meaning.
Walter Salles’ direction is perfectly judged, with a suitable combination of dramatic moments mixed with a more documentary style, which was created by improvising scenes with the actors and locals on location, so adding to the film’s authentic feel.
The Motorcycle Diaries is an inspirational movie regardless of the Che Guevara myth as – to the credit of its writer, director and performers – it is less to do with the legendary figure and more to do with friendship, awakening and personal journey. The stunning Latin American scenery provides a humbling backdrop and demonstrates a passion for the land, which is perhaps the true star of this movie. Few will leave the cinema failing to want to learn more about this Continent and the stories of its people.