"The Motorcycle Diaries" details the eye-opening, life-changing seven-month trip through South America that 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara De la Serna, later to be known as Che and become the leader of the Cuban Revolution, took with 29-year old pal Alberto Granado in 1952. As a biopic of the revolutionary, the film, directed with loving visual detail by Walter Salles, is unenlightening. Save for the concluding footnotes about what happened to Guevara following his odyssey, no information is given about his future life, nor are there many signals as to who he would ultimately become. Political and historical statements are kept at a minimum, and when they do arrive they lack much power. Those walking into the picture hoping for an education on Guevara's work will leave malnourished and not knowing much more than they already did.
Putting aside its non-fictional roots and viewing it as simply a road movie, however, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is impassioned, aesthetically dazzling, and never less than a spellbinding entertainment. As a medical student in Buenos Aires, Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) puts aside his studies on the eve of his final semester and hits the road with Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), a busted-up old motorcycle their form of transportation. What is supposed to take four months eventually stretches to seven, as they travel through Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela in all kinds of weathersun, rain, and snow. When their motorcycle finally dies out, they turn to hitchhiking, boarding a boat, and using a raft.
Director Walter Salles puts the audience squarely in the shoes of his two protagonists, and the results are gripping. For the viewer, it genuinely feels as if he or she is taking a trip through South America, meeting the diverse citizens of the countries, witnessing the gorgeously lush sites, and going through all of the experiences and pitfalls that Guevara and Granado do. In an ingenious move that brings reality and immediacy to the proceedings, lifting the film above the conventions of a mere road picture and into the realms of a true-to-life travelogue, "The Motorcycle Diaries" was filmed in order and on-location at all of the places Guevara and Granado visited.
The cinematography by Eric Gautier is stunning, to say the least, vivid and picturesque and no doubt aided by the pure beauty of the South American cities and countryside. When need be, Gautier's lens turns starker to show the societal darkness and poverty that goes along with parts of the continent, although this aspect could have afforded being showcased more for Guevara's climactic catharsis to hold the impact it intends. Save for a couple encounters with the homeless and an elongated stop in the third act where Guevara and Granado volunteer at a leper colony, the patients segregated from the workers by the length of the Amazon River, the countries do not appear as sad and downtrodden as they should. Because of this, Guevara's statement at the end that he has changed by the "injustice" he has witnessed is unpersuasive. It is not that Guevara's real-life journey couldn't have had such an effect on his life, but that its treatment within this filmic version does not satisfactorily cement such an assertion.
Based on the journals of Che Guevara and a book by Alberto Granado, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is an intoxicating voyage through places rarely captured in cinema with such a degree of depth and distinctness. If the film isn't entirely successful at bringing home the points it wishes to make, the trip itself and its look at the people Guevara and Granado meet along the waymany of them women Granado is constantly trying to pick upare entirely rewarding. Gael Garcia Bernal (2001's "Y tu mama tambien") and newcomer Rodrigo De la Serna (a descendant of Guevara's) deliver faultless performances as the two men, each getting something different out of their journey and with different degrees of influence. "The Motorcycle Diaries" is simple yet ruminative, deliberately paced but always fully enthralling. In other words, it is like going on an invaluable 8,000 mile vacation for the affordable price of a movie ticketwell worth the ten dollars.