Film-Forward Review: [THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES]

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THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
Directed by: Walter Salles.
Produced by: Michael Nozik, Edgard Tenembaum & Karen Tenkhoff.
Written by: José Rivera, based on the books The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara & Traveling with Che Guevara by Alberto Granado.
Director of Photography: Eric Gautier.
Edited by: Daniel Rezende.
Music by: Gustavo Santaolalla.
Released by: Focus.
Language: Spanish with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA/Germany/UK/Argentina. 128 min. Rated: R.
With: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna & Mía Maestro.

An opening intertitle discloses, ďThis isnít a tale of heroic feats.Ē In fact, itís a coming-of-age road film careful not to offend. In 1952, handsome medical student Ernesto Guevara (later to be renamed Che and played by Gael García Bernal) and the older, pudgy Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) are two middle-class Argentineans who set out to explore the South American continent on a 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle. They hope to arrive in Venezuela in time for Granado's 30th birthday. Their first destination is the home of Guevara's aristocratic girlfriend Chichina (Mía Maestro) and her pretentious family. Upon arriving at the chateau, Alberto asks, "Where the f--- are we, Switzerland?" Despite Guevara's advances, Chichina remains virtuous, while Granado rambunctiously scores with a maid. Back on the road, it's only a matter of time until the rundown bike gives out, and the men are forced to hitchhike, coming into contact with the people of the land.

The two historic personalities are reduced to opposing stock figures. Granado is such a loud and obnoxious freeloader it's a wonder why anyone would want to spend five minutes let alone five months in his company. It's as if De la Sena was directed to be more like John Belushi. Predictably, Guevara is the good doctor, ministering comfort to the dying with a soft, gentle whisper. Coming in contact with the indigenous population, Ernesto remarks in a voice-over, "Their faces were tragic and haunting." Because the economically disenfranchised drift in and out of his journey, only offering snapshots of themselves, Ernesto's ruminations come across as a bit patronizing. And the portrayal of Guevara, written one-dimensionally, remains symbolic, just as he does on countless T-shirts.

The breathtaking scenery is the real star of the film, especially of Machu Picchu with streams of fog falling and rising amidst the ruins. Overall the film is like a series of pretty postcards with poor people - Masterpiece Theatre for Marxists - offering little in political insight. At the end, an intertitle reveals Guevara was killed in 1967 with CIA support. Only then is American interventionism in Latin America directly addressed. Now there's compelling political dynamite. Kent Turner
September 24, 2004

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