A young Che Guevara takes a South American road trip
In another era, a film about the youthful, formative adventures of a revolutionary-to-be might have been an especially volatile project. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, after all, was a particularly charismatic icon for leftist revolution all over Latin America in the 1960s and ‘70s.
As it is, Walter Salles’ new film—based on written accounts by Guevara and his companion Alberto Granado of their self-styled “epic journey” around South America in early 1952—is a frisky sort of road movie and period piece, a fitfully picaresque tale that gradually grows more serious and ominous. It’s an engaging little film, charming and pungently picturesque, but one that sometimes has a glossy sheen even when it’s trying to get inside grubbily brutal realities.
With the precocious Gael García Bernal playing the 23-year-old Guevara and prematurely avuncular Rodrigo de la Serna playing Granado (29, going on 30), a good portion of the journey-tale plays like a mildly mismatched combination of travelogue and post-adolescent road trip. It’s also a sidelong farewell to dogged innocence for two university students, a medical student and a fledgling biochemist, who seem bent on one more boyish romp before turning fuller attention to the serious ambitions taking shape within each of them.
Viewers expecting some kind of revolutionary “edge” will likely be disappointed here, but with the sunny, genial Bernal playing the young Che and Salles celebrating the grandeur of landscapes (especially in Chile, Bolivia and Peru) and the calm strength and defiance of the indigenous peoples, Motorcycle Diaries is setting Guevara’s actual politics aside and moving instead toward a paean to the downtrodden but undefeated peoples all over Latin America.
Bernal doesn’t quite match his performances in Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá Tambiàn, two more genuinely incisive and challenging films than this one, but he continues to establish himself as a vital force among youngish movie actors. Rodrigo de la Serna, meanwhile, gives the film’s quirkiest and most interesting performance—his Granado is a study in wily intelligence, rueful machismo and lingering immaturity.