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The Motorcycle Diaries

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna
Director: Walter Salles Jr.
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: September 2004
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Mia Maestro, Mercedes Moran, Jorge Chiarella, Jaime Azocar, Sofia Bertolotto, Ulises Dumont, Facundo Espinosa, Susana Lanteri, Jean Pierre Noher, Gustavo Pastorini

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

They say that traveling broadens. I recall my own trip to the areas covered by the principals of "The Motorcycle Diaries" by director Walter Salles ("Central Station"). This was in 1967 when I traveled with a group of 20 high school teachers who received summer fellowships to zoom throughout the western regions of South America. I came back from the trip with anecdotes for the classroom, a better-than-tourist's eye view of the area since we had lectures from prominent South Americans, and had fun being with a group of like-minded people–though like the two principals in this film we did not always get along so well. Truth to tell, while I was able to enliven some high-school classes, particularly the honor students who at least pretended to be interested, my political were not the spine of celluloid coming-of-age dramas Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), though, were changed right down to the core. Most of us older folks here in the States recall that Ernesto "Che" Guevara was instrumental in helping Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba, which brought down the Fulgencio Batista. Yet we think, how could a guy from an upper-middle class household in Buenos Aires, comfortably situated as a medical school student, be so radicalized to be the famous (or notorious) Che, whose icon is one of the one hundred most recognizable in the world and is worn on T-shirts of mostly well-off kids here (who just may be rebelling against their families rather than Motorcycle Diaries," based on two books–Guevara's "The Motorcycle Diaries" and Granados's "With Che Through Latin America," will help greatly to see how Che Guevara, turned into a violent revolutionary.

However, I don't believe the principal aim of director Salles or scripter Jose Rivera is to give us an inkling of bourgeois turned radical, but rather they provide us with a fleshed-out drama that could be put on the front burner of people whose favorite channel is akin to National Geographic. It's a coming-of-age story, not of the usual teenagers or eight-year-olds who learn to make peace (or not) with their families but of two young men, Che at the age of 23 and Alberto at the age of 29, whose rugged travels take them from the urban contentment of Buenos Aires through the desolate mines of Chile, and on north to the leper colony in San Pablo, Peru.

Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) is depicted as a serious fellow throughout, making us wonder how such a stiff could form the bonds he did with the lumpen proletariat of western South America–where Eric Gautier filmed them mostly on location in Argentina, Chile and Peru (with Colombia and Venezuela fit in within the last of those areas). Contrasted with the medical student with but one term to go when he takes this sabbatical, Alberto, a biochemist, is a hale-fellow-well-met whose Jay-Leno- like appearance signals to us right off that this chap would be the comic member of the duo.

They travel together for the first eight months of 1952 on a 1939 motorcycle which they ironically call The Mighty One and which breaks down not halfway to their goal but not until El Poderosa visits a couple of nasty spills on the intrepid travelers. They avoid any road with the slightest similarity to the New York State Thruway or the Trans-Canada highway, zipping along the back roads not excluding Chile's Atacama desert. When their contraption finally dies, they are able to persuade people along the way to help them with other forms of transport, including truck and raft, ultimately a flight on a cargo plane out of Caracas where Alberto remains to take a job in his field. The highlight of the journey is in a leper colony, most meaningful to Che because in school he majored in that field of medicine. As expected, they bond with the patients, the nuns, the nurses and the doctors there and in one situation, Ernesto persuades a reluctant patient to undergo surgery to save her arm.

If you've ever traveled with a tour group–generally the most comfortable and thereby least challenging form of expedition–you may have noticed how after a few days or a week, some folks simply do not get along with others and the company breaks up into cliques. It's all the most amazing that Alberto and Ernesto, not necessarily sharing the same goals (for example Alberto is a dancer while Ernesto is a stiff), remained on friendly terms throughout, whether riding on the same motorcycle, on a truck and a raft, sleeping in the same quarters without a break of a single night. "The Motorcycle Diaries" will please armchair travelers, and readers of National Geographic and New Republic alike.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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