Two wheels good

Rodrigo De la Serna, as Alberto, and Gael García Bernal, as a young Ché Guevara, explore the South American countryside in the new Walter Salles film <i>The Motorcycle Diaries.</i>

Rodrigo De la Serna, as Alberto, and Gael García Bernal, as a young Ché Guevara, explore the South American countryside in the new Walter Salles film The Motorcycle Diaries.

Rated 4.0

Revolutionary or terrorist? Freedom fighter or totalitarian? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between? Ernesto “Ché” Guevara became a poster and chic T-shirt boy of populist sympathizers and, more specific, Latin American communism after the young Argentine doctor supplemented his Hippocratic oath with Marxist ideology and house calls with calls for insurgency. He became the Minister of Industries and numero dos man in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and later was executed or murdered (depending on your political preference) in Bolivia in 1967 after his guerrilla band was overrun by government forces supplemented with CIA operatives.

Before Ernesto adopted the nickname Ché (Argentine slang roughly translated as “hey, you”) and became a rebel leader, hero and martyr, he was the oldest son of a typical Buenos Aires bourgeois family. In January 1952, he and his biochemist buddy, Alberto Granado, took a summer-vacation break from their studies. They hopped on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, christened “The Mighty One,” and made a 4,000-mile trek throughout South America.

Using Guevara’s diaries and Granado’s book With Ché Through Latin America, director Walter Salles has made an amusing, moving and fascinating film that surprisingly, and very effectively, plays more like a universal coming-of-age adventure than a nostalgic tooting of Ché’s subversive horn. The Motorcycle Diaries isn’t burdened by a pretentious agenda, however, it is not without socio-political references. It’s more about how two men with a seven-year age difference interact and grow on the road as they squabble, eat, drink, bum and even con their way through the countryside, villages and cities of Peru, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela with very little money in their pockets.

The Motorcycle Diaries does an exhilarating job of placing us in a distant time and place. Salles maintains a languid but steady pace. He interjects the story and snags audience attention with bursts of humor at first, and later seamlessly switches to more dramatic ground as the two pilgrims eventually discard their broken-down bike and intermingle with the locals as they continue by foot and hitched rides.

Gael García Bernal (one of the road kids in Y tu mamá también) feels born to play the part of the conscientious, compassionate Guevara. He has the natural good looks and charisma of a heartthrob, and acting chops as well. He is sweet without being sickening, and he perfectly nails the budding maturity of the asthmatic Ernesto as he works at a leper colony and also bonds with an indigenous couple who are homeless in their own homeland. The only flaw here is that Ernesto threatens to slide into the realm of sainthood. Rodrigo De la Serna is equally excellent as the slightly chubby, womanizing Alberto, who knows he is making his last run as a reckless youth before settling down.

The crisp panoramas of snowy mountains, lush valleys, deserts and ancient ruins of the land, captured by cinematographer Eric Gautier, are both pensive and grand. The indigent music adds significantly to the authenticity of the picture, and we keep abreast of the travel here with location, date and kilometers traversed appearing on occasion in the bottom right corner of the frame.

The Motorcycle Diaries is about idealism, taking risks by telling the truth, disillusionment, injustice, aspirations and dreams. It is about capitalism, provincialism and two friends—one who cannot dance and one who continually dances around the truth—who look like outlaws and command attention wherever they go, and who complement each other’s nature. More importantly, the film is about one young man who finds the world changing him and, reciprocally, discovers how much he wants to change the world.

“Don’t worry. He will come back and be the doctor we all want him to be,” says Alberto to Ernesto’s parents as the two travelers launch their adventure. Fat chance. But that’s another movie—one that’s slated to be filmed next year with Benicio Del Toro as an older and more provocative Ché under the direction of Steven Soderbergh.