The Motorcycle Diaries tells the story of a 1952 road trip taken by the 23-year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) to see South America, “to explore a continent we had known only in books.” Based on memoirs by the two, the film shows Guevara at the outset as a good bourgeois Argentinean, a medical student in Buenos Aires who wants to treats lepers and is incapable of dishonesty. The journey is depicted as the moment of Guevara’s political awakening, as he sees firsthand the hardscrabble lives of many South Americans and their abuse and exploitation by powerful industries and landholders and indifferent governments, but it blends picaresque elements, as the two are forced to live by their wits when the money runs out, the motorcycle breaks down, and Granado tries to bed the entire female population of the continent.
The episodic nature of the road movie weakens the film’s momentum, but the longer sequences maintain sufficient interest to keep the viewer involved. The film’s centerpiece is Guevara and Granado’s stay at a Peruvian leper colony on the Amazon River, where their energy, high spirits, and compassion enable them to connect quickly with both the staff and the patients. In a two-week stay at the colony, the friends are shown breaking down social barriers between the groups and bringing a new joy to the lives of the afflicted. I haven’t read either man’s account of the trip, so I can’t say if they claimed to have had such a huge impact, but the filmmakers (the director is Walter Salles and the script is by Jose Rivera) don’t make it convincing. It’s not enough to show the doctors and nurses beginning to treat the patients without wearing rubber gloves (the film explains that leprosy is not contagious in treatment, so the gloves serve only to create a social divide between the sick and the healthy), we need to understand why the nuns who enforce the practice were persuaded to abandon their entrenched policy. That Guevara and Granado are rakish and full of life just doesn’t seem reason enough. The scene in which Guevara is given the nickname “Che” also has a perfunctory feel, as though the filmmakers knew they had to include it but couldn’t be bothered to invest it with significance.
This is Garcia Bernal’s second time playing Guevara, and he seems at home in the role, effective at conveying the future revolutionary’s humanity and integrity even when the story gets treacly. He and De la Serna have the chemistry of old friends, and his high-minded Guevara complements his wily and lecherous traveling companion. Granado often plays the comic foil, but there is depth to De la Serna’s performance and a convincing depiction of his affection for Guevara. That their scenes together feel so authentic only weakens the parts of the film that are constructed as civics lessons. The filmmakers show us the young Guevara’s eyes being opened to the deprivation and abuse of the common people, but again they fail to conceive them in dramatic terms. Worse, though, are Guevara’s later flashbacks to those moments, in which the people he’s met are shown in static, black and white shots constructed to resemble the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange. It feels insulting—we were there 15 minutes ago when he met these people. We remember who they are and the impact their stories had on Guevara.
The Motorcycle Diaries has the ambitions of an important film but not the sensibility. It relies too much on the chronology of the actual events for its structure and explores too little the dramatic possibilities of its situations. Garcia Bernal’s voice-over is poetic at times but too often merely describes the scene being shown. There are pleasures to be had, in the energetic, thoughtful performances and the South American landscape (the scenes in Machu Picchu, in particular, are breathtaking, though too short and too few), but they’re overwhelmed by the sense of the great film it might have been.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()