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Foreign film explores revolutionary journey

Chris Kepner | Monday, October 25, 2004

In “Diarios de motocicleta” (“The Motorcycle Diaries”), two young friends take to the road for an 18-month tour of South America on a struggling motorcycle they lovingly refer to as “The Mighty One.” Kind of sounds like a modern-day “Easy Rider,” Argentinean-style, doesn’t it? Truth is, what starts out as a seemingly typical buddy road trip flick blossoms into a mature, thought-provoking film from director Walter Salles.”The Motorcycle Diaries” is a true story, based on the diaries kept by the two central characters. Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna is played brilliantly by Gael García Bernal (“Amores Perros,” “Y tu mamá también”), one of the most promising young actors from Latin America. Rodrigo De la Serna’s portrayal of Alberto Granada, the other half of this memorable duo, is equally impressive.Che Guevara is the iconic revolutionary who most famously assisted Fidel Castro in the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1956. Guevara fought, both directly and indirectly, for socialist revolutionary movements in other Latin American and African countries right up until his CIA-assisted murder in Bolivia in 1967.In 1952, when the journey chronicled in “The Motorcycle Diaries” begins, Ernesto Guevara is a 23-year old medical student.How did he get from medical student to revolutionary? “The Motorcycle Diaries” begins to answer that question, as Guevara encounters indigenous South Americans living in poverty, homeless in their own land. He visits ancient Incan ruins and reflects on this extraordinary, exterminated race: “The Incas knew astronomy, brain surgery, mathematics, among other things, but the Spanish invaders had gunpowder. What would America look like if things had been different? How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?” As his perspective changes, he begins to question an economic system that favors a few at the expense of many and becomes impassioned with the idea of a united South America.A bit of irony comes halfway through the film when “The Mighty One” stalls out for the last time. Here is a film that from the poster looks like a sophomoric jaunt around the continent, and midway through the motorcycle is literally taken out of the picture. No, surely the focus of “The Motorcycle Diaries” is how two men’s lives change after witnessing the plight of their people.Despite this heavy subject matter, there is plenty of comic relief to be had, especially from the leading duo. Being penniless most of the time, they come up with some hilariously creative ways of conning food and drink. The bickering between the two friends plays well, and Alberto’s way with the ladies is priceless.The fact that “The Motorcycle Diaries” is in Spanish should not deter anyone with a shred of respect for good filmmaking. It is beautifully shot, giving the viewer such a fantastic look at the varying South American landscape that one would be hard-pressed to find it better. Salles has given us a film of extraordinarily high visual aesthetic complimented by gorgeous music and seamless continuity. The superb acting of the two leads is supported extremely well by the cast, touching our hearts in even the smallest roles.From the series of black and white shots in which indigenous South Americans glare directly into the camera with fire in their eyes, the experiences that affected Che Guevara so deeply on this journey are painfully obvious.