Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mia Maestro, Mercedes Moran, and Jorge Chiarella
Director: Walter Salles
Writing Credits: Jose Rivera
Distributor: Focus Features (US 2004)
Rated: R for language

Riding a motorcycle, as countless riders, films, and writers have shows us, is much more than just a means of getting from one point to another. It is the very definition of experiential journeying. Oh, a car or train is fine, I to the world that you can roll down halfway, a sunroof with its claustrophobic view of the heavens, a climate-controlled passing of time and places. But on a motorcycle, you cannot escape your environment. With nothing separating the rider from nature -- the combination of speed, wind, and tactile sensations of every dip, bump and highway -- there is an awareness of the universe that is unparalleled among man's traveling machines. You can love your automobile, but you can have a love affair with a motorcycle.

Whether it is literature (Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), or film (Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider), or music (Steppenwolf, to name but one), artists have often been inspired by the motorcycle experience. Few, however, have captured the personal transformation that can occur through this most visceral method of travel. Walter Salles' new biographical film, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, does exactly that, and shows how a continent-covering bike ride shaped and formed Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, the young man who would eventually become Che Guevara, the famous Cuban revolutionary and iconic hero of rebellion. Written by the award-winning playwright Jose Rivera (Marisol), this extraordinary drama never presents us with the Che known to millions; instead, it gives us Ernesto, young, immature, unprepared for the world. Following him through his first tenuous steps towards self-identity, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is the nominally a story about a bike ride, but it is really about the transformation such journeys engender so magnificently. Furthermore, it eloquently and remarkably captures the budding ethical, emotional, and political sensibilities of a legendary man of history.

Before finishing college and his studies to become a doctor, Guevara (played with astonishing passion by Gael Garcia Bernal) took off in 1951 on a months-long trip across the South American continent with his friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). Having been in the bustling urban world of Buenos Aires for most of their lives, the journey -- across Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Venezuela -- is like those of many young people who, before settling down to a professional life, go off to see a part of the world beyond their own. Guevara and Granado, full of exuberance and vigor, begin their trip like two frat boys, scalawags obsessed with women and fun. As they travel, however, they are confronted by capitalism's lingering injustices: abusive poverty, broken families, and unchecked prejudice. The humor and youthful passion of the two men is slowly stripped away in Rivera's script, replaced by a questioning earnestness to understand the larger world and their place in it. Through interactions with strangers they meet -- industrial workers unprotected from corporate abuse, hardworking craftswomen struggling to eat, and the tenderhearted but beleaguered residents of a leper colony -- the burgeoning seeds of personal politic are crucibled together. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is a memory play of sorts, both memoir and cantos, a historical glimpse that continues to call humanity to action.

Salles, the masterful director of Central Station and Behind The Sun, lets the audience come to these realizations on their own; indeed, politics are rarely discussed by the characters. Through subtle direction and focus, Guevara's early life is given shape and form. Images of the duo on their trust cycle are set against truly staggering South American landscapes: ruddy plains, pristine lakes, blinding blue skies, lush green fields and aridly bleak deserts. The contributions of mankind are put into stark relief, too: the ancient ruins of Macchu Picchu one moment, a grungy strip-mining factory the next. The villages visited by Guevara and Granado burst with color even as they reveal their decay; the people, who Guevara suggests should not be divided by political borders, are full of vivacity despite the difficulties of economic poverty. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES demands not only an audience's concentration, but also its interaction with the images; the world it presents to young Guevara is also given to us, as if to say...what will you do, having seen this?

The central performances are the glue that holds THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES together so exquisitely. Rodrigo de la Serna, an Argentinean star in his first major international role, gives Alberto a lotharian charm that is difficult to resist: funny, effervescent, and perpetually horny, he remains the grounding force and guide to his younger friend's changing worldview. Bernal, for his part, is simply sensational in the role of Guevara. Young enough to understand the process of developing a personal code, the actor best known for Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien shows us a timid but mesmerizing young man on the edge of major discoveries. Whether Guevara is learning the limits of his girlfriend's devotion or the brutal conditions of itinerant workers, Bernal brings a wide-eyed expressiveness to them that allows us inside the moment, crossing the limin of understanding with him. As the trip continues, the changes in Guevara are delicate and slow to develop; in Bernal's hands, they are always clear and beautiful to watch. It is the first performance I've seen this year that deserves, and could get, multiple honors during the coming awards season. (One other thing: THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES features one of the best musical scores I've ever heard. Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting, stripped-down paean to the rhythms and melodies of Chile, Peru and Argentina is the perfect accompaniment to this most personal of journeys.)

A love letter to South America and a striking document of man's relationship to his world, THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES is an important and satisfying journey through the that can only be taken, perhaps, from the seat of a motorcycle, exposed to the elements, wind whipping through one's hair. It illuminates our connection to things we cannot connect to when standing still. Motion, it seems, creates movement inside us. Is that not the nature of revolution?

-- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2004 Mixed Reviews & the author. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Mixed Reviews or the author is prohibited.

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