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Vicious Cycle

Che Biopic Covers a Lot of Ground But Ultimately Goes Nowhere

Two-Man Gang: (from left) Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael García Bernal hit the road in The Motorcycle Diaries.

The Motorcycle Diaries

Director:Walter Salles
Cast:Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mía Maestro, Mercedes Morán, Jean Pierre Noher, Lucas Oro, Marina Glezer, Sofia Bertolotto, Ricardo Díaz Mour
Screen Writer:Walter Salles
Release Date:2004

Opens Oct. 8 at the Charles Theatre

By Lee Gardner | Posted 10/6/2004

When it comes to movies, real people and real lives often pose problems: too boring, too predictable, too unbelievable, too uncooperative with the needs of drama, too true, in the sense that a person and his or her life don’t always boil down to two tidy hours of compelling screen time without the kind of fudging or prettifying that makes critics grumpy. No wonder people make these things up.

Too boring is not a problem for the true story behind The Motorcycle Diaries. In 1952, twentysomething middle-class Argentine friends Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) and Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) set off on a beat-up motorcycle to explore the whole of Latin America, from the pampas to the Andes to the Amazon. In the course of the pair’s picaresque pan-continental adventures, Ernesto forms the political consciousness that eventually transforms him into Latin American revolutionary and global cultural icon Che Guevara. Ultimately, however, too predictable becomes a factor.

From its first shots, The Motorcycle Diaries establishes its biopic bona fides with its visual style. Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station, Behind the Sun) captures Ernesto and Alberto packing for their trip in natural light with a handheld camera, a setup used throughout that gives almost everything that happens that extra vérité oomph. He also dispenses some speedy exposition. Ernesto is an aptly named medical student nearing graduation, with plans to specialize in leprosy (in one of the film’s more memorable grace notes, the camera finds him fumbling a corroded human skull out of his bag on a crowded commuter train). Alberto is a somewhat more established biochemist, but also a loudmouth and total horndog. In voice-over, Ernesto speaks in portentous tones of their quest to see the whole of the Americas by motorcycle; for his part, Alberto wants to get laid in as many countries as possible and finish up the trip on his 30th birthday.

Nothing about that dynamic changes as their planned four-month romp by motorcycle extends into an epic slog. Bernal’s Ernesto is a good boy who pines chastely for his upper-class girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), and whose failed attempts at hooking up on the road seem half-hearted at best. De la Serna’s Alberto is a blustering bundle of oversized appetites who does his best to make up for Ernesto’s lack of conquests. While Alberto uses his wiles to bullshit them up food, shelter, drink, and sex, Ernesto is compulsively honest, to the point of increasing their privations by foiling Alberto’s scams and even insulting those who show them hospitality.

As they travel further and further from their middle-class roots, they find their assumptions about the trip and their world abraded away by contact with the urban working class, itinerants forced to slave at dangerous jobs for little pay, small farmers pushed off their land by the powerful, and indigenous people still suffering the fallout from Spanish oppression. At their penultimate destination, a leper colony on the Amazon, Ernesto finally sees a chance to do some good by breaking down the many barriers between the patients and the doctors and nuns who attend them. In the end, Ernesto puts his very life on the line to bridge the gulf. But you sorta knew he was going to do something like that anyway.

Early in the film, Chichina stops Ernesto cold in the midst of a heated backseat clinch by asking him, “What do you want?” The question is both immediate and existential, and Ernesto has no ready answer. But Salles never allows for any doubt that bright, young Ernesto will make the right decisions. He starts out a saint, and winds up even more saintly. While it’s a pleasure to watch the charismatic Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También, Pedro Almodovar’s forthcoming Bad Education) suffer and ponder, it’s hard to get too swept up in what amounts to another story of a good-hearted bourgie discovering his social conscience among poor people. It doesn’t help that Salles barely has time to treat the noble-to-a-soul downtrodden that Ernesto encounters as anything more than poignant snapshots (literally—black and whites).

Salles worked from a screenplay adapted by Jose Rivera from Guevara and Alberto Granado’s own personal accounts of the trip; the director even cuts to the aging real-life Granado at film’s end and leavens the final credits with their photos of the journey. Whatever minor license Salles may have taken, it’s undoubtedly a true story about real people who would go on to have significant effect on the world as we know it. And it is told with skill and features plenty of sheer moviegoing appeal. Even as Salles and company do their best to document the grittier realities of South American life, they also capture an often ravishing continent, where, in this telling, even a truck driver is likely to know a few lines of Neruda. The primary cast is excellent. There’s even a cute puppy. Pleasant, yes; revolutionary, no.

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