October 21, 2004

Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

When I first saw the trailer for this, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the music. It was a solo acoustic guitar, but the melody that it played just grabbed me, a floating progression playing behind the images. This combined with the great looking cinematography made for a film that looked intriguing to say the least. The final thing that struck me, was the tag line at the end of the trailer, "If you let the world change you and you can change the world."

After seeing the trailer, I was on the fence about seeing it. First off was the question of it would even play anywhere near me. Second was that I had heard mixed reviews regarding it. Thirdly, I am completely uneducated when it comes to Che Guevara, so I didn't know if I wanted to see a movie about a motorcycle trip he took. In the end, it came to my area and I decided to make the trip to see it. In the end I liked it, except for some of the tacked on ending. Also, I am not sure I would have seen it if I had known that he was good friends with Fidel Castro and was part of the Communist revolution in Cuba. But, I will put any political thoughts to the side and let the film survive or fail on it's own merits, as politics is not one of my strong suits. A last note, not being familiar with Che was probably a good thing going in, as my expectations were limited, allowing me to enjoy the film as is without the outside complicating influences.

The film opens with Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and Alberto Granado about to embark on an 8,000 kilometer trip from Argentina to Peru. They are young medical students out for an adventure that would take them to a leper colony in the northern end of Peru. To make this journey, they have an old motorcycle called "The Mighty One," which we soon learn is not so mighty. They make a side trip to Ernesto's girlfriend's home where she gives him an ultimatum about returning. They continue on their quest. We learn that Ernesto is shy with the ladies, and honest almost to a fault, whereas Alberto is forward and not adverse to playing up a con. We follow them as they struggle to make the journey, they have no money and very little food, so they rely on the kindness, or gullibility of strangers.

Along the way the duo encounter many interesting people. Each time they take away a little something from the experience building to a cumulative change in their lives. There is the mechanic and his lonely wife, the sisters at the restaurant, but there are also the more eclectic encounters. The Incan girl who tells them about a wall that had been built in the city, the communist couple who were forced off their land and are in search of work at a mine, the cruel foreman of the mine. The most important of these encounters takes place once they arrive at the leper colony.

The leper colony is the longest single segment of the film. They arrive to discover the colony is split by the Amazon river, lepers on one side, medical staff on the other. Ernesto dives right into the work, ignoring the rules, such as wearing gloves when with the patients as leprosy is not communicable. They become friends with the colonists, treating them as humans rather than outcasts. It is a wonderful segment to see how they treat the people there and how the people there respect them and take care of them in return.

The Motorcycle Diaries features wonderful acting performances from it's two leads. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Ernesto Guevara and gives a riveting performance. I first saw him in Y to mama tambien, another very good film. He has grown a lot since then. Both him and Rodrigo de la Serna bring a high level of humanity to the project, both performances, plus all those around them feel true. They don't come across as forced or false in anyway. It s easy to connect with them as they embark on their trek. We see the characters develop in subtle ways over the course of the film. In the end we can see they are not the same people they were when they started.

Directed with a gorgeous look by Walter Salles, we get a glimpse of a continent we don't often see on the big screen in America. From the small towns, to open fields, even to the ruins of Macchu Picchu. We follow our actors through their journeys from the plains to snow covered mountains, and through each of their personal steps of growth in their interaction with other people. The film plays as part personal journey and part travelogue. It is not a perfect film, but one that chronicles an important portion of the lives of two developing people. Walter Salles has injected such a high level of humanity into this work, that it is hard not see it, it may be a but dramatic at times, but that doesn't diminish the effectiveness of it. The screenplay was based on the written word of both Che Guevara and Alberto Granado, and I have not seen any indication that the truth was stretched, although I am sure some license was taken, the script was good, although I have read that there is more depth and richness in the Spanish that is not translated in the subtitles.

The thing that I wasn't expecting when I went into this film was the amount of comedy sprinkled liberally throughout. Their humorous ride and wreck of "The Mighty One," the one liners, the interaction with women. There were a number of laugh out loud moments that I did not expect. It broadens the appeal and lightens up the mood to balance the overall serious tone of the film and extended dramatic sequences.

The portion I did not particularly care for was the way it ended. Initially it ends with Ernesto and Alberto parting ways, Rodrigo to take a job and Ernesto returning to Argentina. It then goes on to show clips of the many people they met on their journey, in black and white to signify memory. I didn't think it was needed and oversentimentalized the journey, but that's OK, I could live with it. Then it goes on with a text display explaining how Ernesto became Che and was friends with Castro and fought for his ideals in Bolivia and Congo before his CIA supported assassination. I didn't need that, it was making Che into this martyr which I felt was out of place with the tone of the rest of the film. I didn't feel the need for that information as it didn't really impact on the journey they took, it should have been left as is.

Bottomline. Save for that very last portion, it is a beautiful film telling a tail of not only a physical journey but a psychological one. Great performances, beautiful cinematography. Overall a very good film.



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