On the Road With Young Che
In the spring of 1952, two young men set out by motorcycle on an ambitious, footloose journey that they hoped would carry them from Buenos Aires up the spine of Chile, across the Andes and into the Peruvian Amazon. (They made it, a little behind schedule, though the unfortunate motorcycle did not.) Their road trip, however inspired and audacious it might have been, could have faded into personal memory and family lore, even though both travelers produced written accounts of their adventures. The older, a 29-year-old biochemist named Alberto Granado, is still alive and appears at the very end of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Walter Salles’s stirring and warm-hearted reconstruction of that long-ago voyage. Granado’s companion was a 23-year-old medical student named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, whose subsequent career as a political idol, revolutionary martyr and T-shirt icon — Che! — reflects a charismatic, mysterious glow onto his early life.
“Is it possible to be nostalgic for a world you never knew?” Ernesto wonders as he contemplates Inca ruins in the Peruvian highlands. Mr. Salles’s film, as ardent and serious a quest as Ernesto’s turned out to be, poses a similar question. In making their movie, the cast and crew retraced the route of Granado and Guevara three times, trying to connect not only with the varied, rugged landscape of South America but also with the hopes and confusions of an earlier time: an era before the Cuban revolution, before the military coups and dirty wars of the 1960’s and 70’s, before the democratic resurgence and economic catastrophes that followed.
The filmmakers are not so naïve as to suppose that the old days were simpler or more innocent than the present. The movie’s feeling of freshness and possibility comes from the wide-eyed intelligence of its heroes. But one reason to explore the past is to try to rediscover an elusive sense of forgotten possibility, and in Mr. Salles’s hands what might have been a schematic story of political awakening becomes a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges. What “The Motorcycle Diaries” captures, with startling clarity and delicacy, is the quickening of Ernesto’s youthful idealism, and the gradual turning of his passionate, literary nature toward an as yet unspecified form of radical commitment.
In declining to follow the subsequent course of that passion — into the Sierra Maestre, the Congo and the mountains of Bolivia, where Guevara met his bloody end — Mr. Salles risks being accused of idealizing his subject. It’s a fair charge, but one that misses the director’s fidelity to his literary sources. Guevara’s diaries, discovered in a knapsack long after his death, were published in 1993, and much of their appeal lies in the sense of immediacy they convey. Their author did not know who he would become, even as the notebooks themselves dramatize a crucial stage in his development.
At the beginning, at home with his bourgeois Buenos Aires family, Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) is not Che, but “Fuser” — sensitive, asthmatic and perhaps a bit of a dilettante. Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), lecherous, plump and gregarious, full of good-natured, blustery trash talk, is Falstaff to Fuser’s Prince Hal. While there is a worthy goal at the end of their journey — they intend to work in a leper colony in Peru — the main purpose is tourism, both high minded and low. They want to see as much of Latin America as they can — more than 8,000 kilometers (about 5,000 miles) in just a few months — and also bed as many Latin American beauties as will fall for their ridiculous pick-up lines.
Alberto may be the self-declared ladies’ man, but Mr. Bernal, with his smoldering eyes and equine features, is the movie’s heartthrob. Though the film does, by the end, view Ernesto as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose, he is also portrayed as a mischievous, eager boy. Early in the film, the travelers stop in the seaside town of Miramar to visit Ernesto’s girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), whose wealthy parents clearly disapprove of him, to say nothing of the uncouth Alberto (who promptly seduces the family’s maid). The scenes between Ernesto and Chichina have the delicious ache of late-adolescent longing, a feeling that suffuses the film even as it turns its attention to graver matters.
At times, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, bounces along like a conventional buddy picture, animated by Ernesto and Alberto’s mechanical mishaps and good-natured squabbles. But the film, written by José Rivera, is really a love story in the form of a travelogue. The love it chronicles is no less profound — and no less stirring to the senses — for taking place not between two people but between a person and a continent. Mr. Bernal’s soulful, magnetic performance notwithstanding, the real star of the film is South America itself, revealed in the cinematographer Eric Gautier’s misty green images as a land of jarring and enigmatic beauty.
At the end of the film, after his sojourn at the leper colony has confirmed his nascent egalitarian, anti-authority impulses, Ernesto makes a birthday toast, which is also his first political speech. In it he evokes a pan-Latin American identity that transcends the arbitrary boundaries of nation and race. “The Motorcycle Diaries,” combining the talents of a Brazilian director and leading actors from Mexico (Mr. Bernal) and Argentina (Mr. de la Serna), pays heartfelt tribute to this idea. In an age of mass tourism, it also unabashedly revives the venerable, romantic notion that travel can enlarge the soul, and even change the world.
A. O. Scott, NY Times, September 24, 2004