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The Motorcycle Diaries
A Latin American Journey
by Ernesto Che Guevara

. "Motorcycle Diaries"

Two Argentinian medical students, propelled by the romance of travel, set off from home in Buenos Aires for an adventure on the road. Their intention is to cross the continent by covering 8,000 miles in eight months on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle. But this journey, with its dimensions of difficulty, exploration and discovery, is more than a travelogue in the guise of youthful exuberance.

Actually, what we have here is a political biography in the guise of youthful adventure. By virtue of who these guys are, it's a re-creation of the early years of Cuban dictator Castro's military and political sidekick, "Che" Guevara and, accordingly, it's based on the facts provided by two autobiographies, Ernesto "Che" Guevara's "The Motorcycle Diaries" and Alberto Granado's, "With Che through Latin America." These two authors are the characters of the movie in their formative years.

Being an actual journey, it begins on an actual date, January 1952. Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a 23-year old medical student who has learned enough to have acquired doctoral skills and a bedside manner that's the equal of Dr. John Carter of "ER" (Noah Wyle). Buddy Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), six years older, is a biochemist, a cutup, and the owner of the aging motorcycle he laughingly calls "La Poderosa", the mighty one, a mechanical beast that affords the trip some of its funny moments.

Nothing, at first, is taken too seriously. The first stop is Ernesto's girlfriend Chichina Ferreyra's (Mia Maestro) rich father's estate where he can't quite commit himself to anything permanent until he sees where his journey will take him. But, he takes her $US20 to buy her a blouse in the big city. Once his painful honesty makes him disclose the secret to Alberto, his friend is constantly on him to spend the money to ease their discomforts on the road, or to satisfy his own needs, pleas that are consistly rebuffed by the purity of Ernesto's honesty and loyalty. We're definitely into building an image here.

As the motorcycle wears its way to a breakdown and money becomes depleted, the pair finds ways to promote food and shelter at every point and in city and villages, meeting a varied cross section of society and all the adventure they set their hearts on. Until, that is, they try to get jobs working as miners for a large corporation. Here, they meet up with a pair of communists fleeing persecution who have been rejected for the jobs. This is a turning point in Ernesto's social consciousness and political destiny.

To amplify this theme and give it more substance, there's a major sequence in which the two ply their medical training at a leper colony. Immediately, Ernesto begins his folk hero stature by refusing to abide by the mother superior's rules calling for doctors to wear gloves when they're attending to patients. Ernesto not only eschews the questionable protection but he won't show up for mass, the consequence of which is to be denied food for supper. That the regard for him, by this time, is not in question, his leper patients bring him food.

The separated community of doctors and nurses celebrate Ernesto's birthday and he finds his political voice with a speech of thanks. But, clearly, he's not be considered all words. His heart is equally with the patients who, on the other side of the river, can't join the celebration. The boat being gone from the dock, he swims across a river considered dangerous, to a great clamor of welcome and admiration, bordering on the biblical. His qualities of leadership are being established.

When this phase of his life is ended by a return home, the buddies split up. The serious Ernesto is not ready to make any quick decisions about what he will do with his life until he has time to reflect on the true meanings of his experiences and his personal growth.

If the purpose of this film is essentially to support the morality and romanticized legend of the man who became one of Cuba's liberators, you couldn't have a better actor to pull it off than Bernal. Calm steadiness and inner strength seem completely natural to him, effectively set off against the more impish behavior of Rodrigo's spirited Alberto. And for a biography, you also couldn't come up with a more entertaining script than Jose Rivera's dynamic and well paced adaptation.

Director Walter Sales, of course, is in for the greatest credit and highest regard for what is, quite besides the acclaim and the festival awards, an accomplishment. With a creative legacy that includes the splendid and moving "Central Station," his creative vision translates the human condition and universal motivations to a level of cinematic artistry that should be the envy of any director in the craft. Here he manages to entertain us with a feast of character and adventure while preserving the sainthood of his legendary subject.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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