The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) / Drama-Adventure
aka Diarios de Motocicleta

MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexuality
Running Time: 128 min.

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mercedes Moran, Juan Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro, Marina Glezer, Sofia Bertolotto, Ricardo Diaz Mourelle
Director: Walter Salles
Screenplay: Jose Rivera (based on events in the books "Notes de Viaje" ("Travel Notes") by Che Guevara and "Con el Che por America Latina" ("Travels with Che Guevara") by Alberto Granado)
Review published February 21, 2005

At its heart, The Motorcycle Diaries is a road trip/coming-of-age film comparable to some others, but still one of the better examples of the genre thanks to excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography, engaging direction, and a healthy dose of character development.  However, it is also a biographical story about the early days of Che Guevara's life, traveling through South America and learning about the world, and shaping the opinions he would carry with him the rest of his life.  The Motorcycle Diaries definitely works better as a straight drama than as a biography, and in fact, director Walter Salles is quite content in letting the story develop without drawing attention to the fact that it is really about the molding of one of the most important political figures of the 20th Century.  It's story of a boy becoming a man, and once he arrives, he sees that there is little importance in being a man, and what is important is the strength in communities, with shared interests, ideals, and goals.

In the early 50s, Alberto (Bernal, I'm with Lucy) and Ernesto (De la Serna) are friends who decide to "discover the world" by traveling throughout South America on their beat-up old motorcycle, and see the countries and people residing within them first-hand, hoping mostly for some fun and adventure along the way.  Throughout the course of their journey, the two men have some good times as well as bad, and Ernesto in particular sees something deeper in meeting the downtrodden and diseased people, hearing an inner voice that helps him see that there is more to life than he originally thought.

First, I must say that there are going to be two types of people who are going to view The Motorcycle Diaries, and as a result, two different opinions will probably form as to how successful the film is.  The primary group of people are looking to see a good film, which director Walter Salles (Central Station) has definitely delivered.  Removing all of the historical significance from the equation, this is an often interesting and enriching tale of friendship and of Latin America as it existed back in the early 50s.  There is a profundity to the slow periods of the film, and the richness of the locales, combined with the enlightenment that occurs in two young men, makes this a rewarding and pleasurable movie-going experience. 

The secondary group of viewers will be those coming into the film in order to see or learn more about Che Guevara, particularly people who have read the books on which this adventure is based.  To these viewers, there may be limitations as to how successful the film is, as Salles doesn't come close to touching all of the bases, and isn't always striving for accuracy in terms of the events or the inner workings of Guevara's mind.  Salles has made a conscious decision to portray Ernesto as a noble everyman, stripping away many of the distinctive layers that made Che what he was, even before he had major political aspirations.

So how to review this film?  Well, this has always been an easy decision for me.  I always strive to take each film as a unique entity, divorcing it from the literature or events from which it is inspired.  On that note, The Motorcycle Diaries, even with some occasional lulls, is a very entertaining, interesting and engaging experience, and one of the better films of 2004.  The performances by Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna (who is an actual descendant of Che's) are first-rate, and the supporting players, many of whom are not experienced actors, gives the film an authentic feel that pays off extremely well during the movie's more poignant moments,

It is a film that can be enjoyed with or without the political context right up until the very end (in fact, some viewers may not really be conscious that it is based on Guevara's life until the epilogue), and which offers enough food for thought in addition to stimulating entertainment to make you want to take a trip with these two young and adventurous young men on more than one occasion. 

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo