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The Motorcycle Diaries

By Maximo Zeledon
Published May 5, 2006

Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries is baffling because it refuses to be political despite the fact that its protagonist was one of the most radical revolutionaries of the 20th century.

Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries is a baffling, beautiful film based on the diaries of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). It is baffling because it refuses to be political despite the fact that its protagonist was one of the most radical revolutionaries of the 20th century. The Motorcycle Diaries instead introduces us to the lesser known facts about Guevara’s life and the horny tedium of his youth.

The time is 1952 and the young Argentine is about to set out on a road trip to discover South America on a 1939 Norton 500—that is part of the description given in the official film synopsis. But there is only so much that can be done with that premise before it turns into a mockery, and until the film’s release the question about how Che’s story would be handled remained unanswered—stereotypes and ignorance historically abound when Tinseltown takes on south-of-the-border culture. So, when it was announced that Salles and Robert Redford were involved in the project there was a sense of great relief. Alas, it was only temporary. What we get, ultimately, is a charming but misguided road film.

The focus of The Motorcycle Diaries is not Che the Marxist guerilla or Cuban revolution but rather the eccentricities and ambiguities of youth. There is nothing in this film dealing with Guevara’s fury and violent political philosophy, which would ultimately pledge itself to only one principle: the desire to die for the utopian dream. We don’t see the machismo and morbid abandon that contributed to his greatest and most frightening achievements as a guerilla fighter. Not one trace of fanaticism and recklessness, unless you consider plunging into the Amazon River or throwing a rock at a truck outside an American-owned copper mine an act of insurrection.

We are denied the whole man. In this regard the film becomes a voluptuous narrative devoid of any revolutionary context. As for the true nature of Guevara, this is clearly revealed in one of his most famous remarks: “I am neither Christ nor philanthropist...I am the complete opposite of a Christ...I fight with whatever arms I have at hand for what I believe in, and try to destroy my opponent rather than letting myself be nailed to a cross or anywhere else.”

The Motorcycle Diaries is not audacious enough—it is too childish and free spirited for its own good. The film travels high and wide, and its destinations—Argentina, Chile, Peru, Venezuela—are as varied as its emotional moods, but nothing hints at the tragic things to come. Every frame has been cleansed in order to fit current prejudices and nostalgia. The plot is too lighthearted and dispassionate, there’s too much gratuitous playfulness, and everything is held back in order to engage our sympathies. Gael Garcia Bernal is too beautiful. In fact, had he been any prettier this movie could have been called The Diaries Of Don Juan. Garcia Bernal is a fine actor and he possesses the inquisitive passion to carry any film, but there are too many wide smiles diluting Guevara’s grave gaze in this performance.

We are captivated with the landscape and its people (who materialize from all over, unexpectedly giving the film a doc

Good (two stars)

Rated R for language

In English