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The Motorcycle Diaries

Gael García Bernal stars in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) as 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a medical student who cuts himself loose from his bourgeoisie lifestyle and accompanies his free-spirited friend, Alberto Granado, on a 1952 road trip exploring the South American continent as they travel from Buenos Aires to a remote Peruvian leper colony. The two young men spend most of the first part of their eight-month trip flirting with comely senoritas and pitching head first from their rickety motorcycles, but gradually they become affected by what they see as the plight of indigenous peoples struggling to survive the cutthroat whims of the upper classes who treat them like dispensable laborers. For a movie about one of the most polarizing political figures of the 20th Century, The Motorcycle Diaries is surprisingly less of a polemic than it is a dual-layered romance: It is a love story between a young man and the ideology that would define his future, and a love story between the filmmakers and the idealistic fantasy that Ernesto "Che" Guevara has come to embody. Directed by Walter Salles (Central Station), and adapted from Guevara's published account of the trip by screenwriter José Rivera, The Motorcycle Diaries has come under fire from political columnists across the spectrum for its doe-eyed softening of Che's image (see here for a takedown from an anti-Che perspective; and here and here for laments from pro-Che factions). These are fair complaints, even though the scope of the narrative deals ostensibly with Guevara's less political, pre-revolutionary coming-of-age (he would later acquire notoriety as a key strongman for Fidel Castro's Cuban revolt, and was finally killed while leading a hapless Communist uprising in the mountains of Bolivia in 1967). After all, Salles' vision of Guevara's transformative journey is little more than a series of blandly comical misadventures followed by moments of quiet empathy as he visits with the desperately sick and downtrodden. Although The Motorcycle Diaries is swelling with physical beauty — from the scenic, dusk-lit landscapes of the Andes and the Amazon to the rugged sensuality of Bernal's handsome Ernesto — one has to wonder throughout the pleasant-but-ultimately-remote story if the plot would be of any consequence or interest if it were not the prelude to the career of a revolutionary-turned-T-shirt-icon? Salles' picture depends too heavily on extraneous context to inform it with meaning to be of any appeal to those not already invested in the Cult of Che, and as the movie has been deemed too delicate by dedicated ideologues — both those galvanized and repulsed by his ruthless passions — it exists instead as a soothing balm for reluctant Che-fixeés, who prefer the adult contemporary Che-lite romantic vision of a handsome young man nobly pursuing Third-World "social justice," but who are uncomfortable with acknowledging the disturbing violence that was involved. As such, The Motorcycle Diaries, despite its fine production qualities, feels like a dreamy, half-assed self-delusion (or possibly a cynical PR makeover), and too adoring of its hero for its own good as work of a drama or a relevant historical biopic. Bernal (who also played Guevara in the 2002 mini series Fidel), though subdued, is nonetheless a strong presence, and Rodrigo De La Serna makes for a charming, raffish sidekick as Alberto. Produced by Robert Redford. Universal presents The Motorcycle Diaries in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in Spanish with English subtitles (although there is a separate channel designated for English subtitles, we could not turn off the subtitles on our review player; selecting the optional French subtitles resulted in both English and French subtitles sharing the screen). This disc also includes a few deleted scenes, a short reminiscence by the real Granado, who lives in Cuba; a 20-minute "making-of" featurette; a couple of brief TV spots about Gael García Bernal; and the featurette "Music on the Road" with composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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