Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries / *** (R)

Ernesto "Che" Guevara: Gael Garcia Bernal
Alberto Granado: Rodrigo de la Serna
Chichina Ferreyra: Mia Maestro
Celia de la Serna: Mercedes Moran
Dr. Bresciani: Jorge Chiarella

Focus Features presents a film directed by Walter Salles. Written by Jose Rivera. Based on books by Che Guevara and Alberto Granado. Running time: 128 minutes. Rated R (for language). In Spanish with English subtitles.

I have to say at the outset that I knew very little about Che Guevara going in to this film. I doubt I know much more about the famous Cuban revolutionary having seen it, but The Motorcycle Diaries makes no claims to depict the better-known aspects of the life of this Cuban leader. The film states from the outset that this is not a tale about great men, but merely a tale of “two lives running parallel for a while.”

Taken from books written by both Guevara and Alberto Granado, The Motorcycle Diaries tells the journey of a young Ernesto Guevara and his friend Granado through the South American continent and their experiences in the many diverse countries within. Still a medical student, Guevara and Granado (a biochemist) decide to embark on an expedition to discover the land that birthed and bred them. Despite some protests from Guevara’s family, it is one of those life events that must be capitalized on before youthful inventiveness has passed them on.

The opening passages of the picture offer little originality on the buddy road picture premise. They begin their journey by stopping… at a large estate where Guevara’s love Chichina (Mia Maestro, TV’s Alias) lives with her disapproving family. Just when it seems the film will begin to make some sociological statement about the clashing between the white and blue collar classes of South America, the two rebel doctors move on and the storyline of Guevara’s love interest is conveniently dropped, but not without providing a prop for some later comedy with $15 of U.S. currency lent to Guevara by Chichina.

The first half of the film sort of drags along, as these two somewhat goofy characters make their way north from Buenos Aires on a fading Norton 500 motorcycle. The two get by concocting a premise for their journey as a study of the people of America for the purposes of advancing medicine so people will give them food shelter and some shady repair on their bike. While not the complete truth, there is some merit in their story as the final stop on their journey is a leper colony in Peru where Guevara plans to lay the groundwork for his primary field of concentration in medicine, leprosy.

Up to this point the film gets by on the charm of the two men, the good looks of Gael Garcia Bernal (The Crime of Father Amaro) as Guevara and the buffoonish nature of Rodrigo de la Serna (a star of Latino television) as Granado. Director Walter Salles (Central Station) provides a picturesque travelogue of South America; but without much dramatic through line up to the halfway point, one begins to wonder just what the point of this journey might be. Then the Norton breathes its last gasp and even the title of the film seems a bit limited.

Upon their arrival in Peru a sense of purpose begins to creep through, in the character of Guevara at least. Guevara has spent his journey observing the people of the land, people with both stories of success and failure; and with his introduction to the lepers, people not generally treated as equal, a feeling of injustice rises to the surface of Guevara’s consciousness and the pilot seeds of a future revolutionary are planted.

The leper colony is divided in half by the Amazon River; the nuns who established it quarter the staff on one side while the patients are quartered on the other, and it is under strict rule. Guevara pushes all the boundaries of the nuns’ rules, sickened by the way the lepers are not treated as people, but rather specimens. This section is the most powerful of the film with a relationship between Guevara and one of the lepers who refuses to undergo surgery providing some nearly poetic conversations. Guevara’s passion for the patients and the work to keep them healthy forms the heart of the story and grounds it into something beyond its more shallow beginnings.

The powerful second hour of the movie makes up for the meandering first half, but I fear hardly provides insight into what the real Guevara was about. The movie is true to its word of simply being about two men traveling along parallel lives for a while; and at the end those paths do diverge, although notes at the end reveal that Guevara and Granado did reunite in Cuba under Castro. It seems to me, however, that the Ernesto Guevara represented here is such a gentle soul and nice guy that this is more of a leftist rumination of the early life of the myth of Che Guevara, rather than a reality of the man who must have darkened more than a few human lives with his role in the revolutions of countries that weren’t even his home -- a man who committed acts and lead others to acts of which the boy in this film could never conceive.

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