Monday, June 27, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)


A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

No Communist icon has filled so many capitalist coffers as Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Youthful look of that Latin American revolutionary leader, forever preserved by his martyrdom, as well as total irrelevance of his questionable ideas and revolutionary methods in post-Cold War world, turned him into the most convenient icon for rebellious youths in developed Western countries. His face is ubiquitous thanks mostly to the T-shirts made in Third World sweatshops by multinational corporations – the very embodiment of evil Che Guevara tried to fight. There are, however, better ways to pay homage to this great and controversial historical icon, and one of them is THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, 2004 biographical drama directed by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles.

The film deals with the event that preceded Che's revolutionary career. It starts in 1952 Buenos Aires where Ernesto "Fuser" Guevara (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), 23-year old medical students a semester short of graduation decides to spend few months travelling across South America with his best friend, 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo De la Serna). They start with an old motorcycle they would have to ditch and continue on foot. Their path leads them through Argentina, Chile and, ultimately Peru. Along the way they experience all kinds of adventures, but young Guevara is becoming less thrilled with the adventure and more affected with the poverty, injustice and oppression he had witnessed in various countries. Two of them finally come to volunteer as physicians in leper colony where Guevara's idealism and political ideas start to take shape.

Some critics accused THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES of glorifying a historical character of a questionable reputation that includes brutal elimination of political enemies, advocating terrorism as justifiable tool of social change and, which is even more important, giving bad example to the thousands of his gullible supporters whose futile revolutionary attempts only made oppression and injustice bloodier. But this criticism isn't valid. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES doesn't glorify Che nor endorses his politics. Instead it only shows what made Che into revolutionary. The film portrays Che not as a revolutionary superhero, but as a normal human being who sees his trek as an wonderful opportunity to explore new lands, pick girls, live without job or parental authorities and do all the things carefree young people like to do.

Walter Salles, who gained road movie credentials with CENTRAL STATION, makes this formative journey look fascinating. The movie is shot on authentic locations, all being wonderfully captured by Eric Gautier's cinematography. Local people are used as extras and actors in small roles, underling the film's authenticity. On the other hand, one of two actors playing the protagonists of this saga proved to be somewhat more questionable choice. Rodrigo De la Serna, Argentinian actor and real-life cousin of Che, is very effective as the older and seemingly wiser character who has little understanding for Che's newly found idealism. He also provides a lot of humour in many charming little vignettes. On the other hand Mexican superstar Gale Garcia Bernal appears to be chosen for this role less because of his acting ability and more because of his immense popularity among cinema audiences – a popularity which is supposed to match Che's charisma. Bernal tries hard, but he lacks physical resemblance with Che and sometimes, in an effort to be worthy of such formidable character, tries too hard. As a result, his Che is at times too solemn and too serious.

Yet, despite that little flaw, for most of the viewers, regardless of their political beliefs, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is a journey worth taking.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)


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