Before he was executed by a Bolivian firing squad in 1967, Argentina’s Ernesto Che Guevara had become (at the side of Fidel Castro) an icon of guerrilla warfare, a killer in a beret who celebrated hatred as the key to revolution. That image of Che (a name he acquired later in life) has been co-opted by everyone from rockers to ad whores. But you won’t find him in The Motorcycle Diaries, a mesmerizing look at an asthmatic, rich-boy medical student in the act of discovering his insurgent spirit.P>he impetus for this enlightenment is a 1952 motorcycle trip that Ernesto (Gael Garc’a Bernal), then 23, took with his biochemist pal Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), 29. Jose Rivera based his script on the diaries both men kept of their eight-month trip through South America (from the snows of the Andes to the heat of the Amazon. Cheers to Walter Salles, the Brazilian director of 1998’s Central Station, for keeping the focus intimate and thrillingly immediate.P> good part of the film’s power is the way it sneaks up on you. The boys are sniffing out adventure, not an odyssey that will change their lives. Ernesto has been living large in Buenos Aires. He stops off at a resort for a fast hookup with his girl (Mia Maestro). The tart-chasing Alberto just wants to get laid. Neither man is a paragon of Easy Rider cool. For ters, they’re riding Alberto’s junk bike, a 1939 Norton 500 he calls the Mighty One. Salles gets terrific comic mileage out of the bike, especially when it breaks down and forces the guys to hitchhike or journey on foot.
t’s the slowing of the trip that gives Ernesto and Alberto a chance to observe the ving workers and the politically oppressed they encounter in Chile, Peru and Venezuela. Whenever possible, Salles shot in the actual locations, letting us see what the protagonists saw, including the remnants of the Incan culture in Machu Picchu.P>ost moving of all is the visit to the San Pablo leper colony in the Amazon. Ernesto feels an instant connection with the lepers. It galls him that the patients and the hospital staff live on opposite sides of the river. His night swim (gasping for breath with each stroke) to join the lepers is the film’s true climax.P>alles has already taken heat from critics who think the compassionate Ernesto doesn’t jibe with the executioner he became when he and Castro took down the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959. That Che will be the subject of a planned Steven Soderbergh film, ring Benicio Del Toro. But look closer at the scenes Salles seems to catch on the fly, such as Ernesto throwing a stone at a mining truck carrying men to exploitative labor, and you see how quickly romantic ideals can harden into brutal ideology.P> he actors meet the film’s challenges every step of the way. De la Serna finds the humor and the messy humanity in Alberto, who joined Ernesto in Cuba and makes an appearance, at age eighty-two, in the film’s coda. The Mexican Bernal, far from the erotic romp of Y Tu Mama Tambien, gives a breakthrough performance, playing Ernesto like a gathering storm. In his published diaries, Che wrote, “I’ll leave you now, with myself, the man I used to be.” In this wild ride of a movie that is part epic poem and part political provocation, it’s that man who holds the screen as a portent of history.