By the time I was old enough to have anything resembling a political conscience, Che Guevara was already murdered and reduced to an iconic image festooning posters in college dorm rooms (and, less famously, a reference in the David Bowie song, “Panic in Detroit”). So I came to The Motorcycle Diaries knowing only the most basic facts of his life. Still, I went into this film prepared to love it.
I came away from it knowing a little bit more about Che, but feeling like I’d been dealt a movie from a very stacked deck — one that was frankly a little wanting in the dramatic department. The performances and Walter Salles’ direction were impressive, but not much else. Afterwards, I wandered among the film’s many glowing reviews, in an attempt to understand the raves, but when even the ace critic Andrew Sarris couldn’t make the praise comprehensible to me, I gave up.
The film covers the life-changing trek that young Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) made through South America with his friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), and doesn’t delve into Che’s later totalitarian-minded excesses. I expected something of a lionization of the idealistic side of the youthful Che, and that’s what the film gives us.
But I didn’t expect the screenplay’s simplistic approach to how he developed a social conscience. Once the film establishes a pattern of Che and Alberto encountering one social injustice after another, it becomes rather predictable, though some of the duo’s engaging “buddy movie” antics break things up a bit.
The fact that Che came from an upper-middle-class Argentine family excuses some of the approach, but it’s a bit hard to swallow the idea that prior to this trip, the 23-year-old Che never knew there was such a thing as poor people. It’s similarly difficult to believe that his road-trip would turn into an almost nonstop itinerary of encounters with the oppressed. Once you realize this is the film’s structure, it becomes … well, a bit on the dull side. The movie feels a lot longer than its 128 minutes.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many fine things in The Motorcycle Diaries. Visually, it’s an often-stunning film. There are moments of true grandeur — a misty boat journey where the pair dream of opening a free clinic in the midst of the natural splendor around them, their approach to majestic Inca ruins, their early morning departure from a leper colony — which convey the feeling of actually being there.
There are also some fine scenes between the two friends and a charming encounter with a bookish doctor (Gustav Bueno) who wants to be a writer. At a birthday party for Che at the leper colony, the future revolutionary makes a compelling speech about injustice; the import of the moment is reflected in the facial expressions of Alberto, who realizes that he’s lost his friend to a greater ideal. Similarly, the film’s black-and white-tableaux of impoverished people is a brilliant touch, and takes on a special resonance when photos of the real Che and Alberto appear during the ending credits.
Unfortunately, other elements of the movie are less successful. The film’s first really “big” moment of awakening feels both forced and simplified. Che meets an out-of-work miner (Brandon Cruz, Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and his wife (Vilma M. Verdejo) who have been persecuted for joining the Communist Party. When Che throws a rock at a mining truck (his first act of civil disobedience), it seem all too pat; I got the point, but I didn’t believe it. Even when the material jives historically, it feels slightly unreal on an emotional level.
Bernal — the heir apparent to Antonio Banderas — was an inspired choice for the role of young Che. He captures both the character’s wet-behind-the-ears quality and the innate intelligence that will change that naivete by the film’s end.
Though it’s clearly less compelling than it might have been, The Motorcycle Diaries is a film worth seeing. Rated R for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke