Young Che Guevara: ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ (2004 movie)

The Motorcycle Diaries (movie, 2004):  Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael García Bernal push a Norton motorcycle

The Motorcycle Diaries is a 2004 Spanish-language buddy film about two guys from Argentina on a leaky Norton motorcycle taking a road trip through much of South America in 1952. One of the guys is the young Ernesto Guevara (a.k.a Che Guevara), who would go on to become an iconic Marxist revolutionary immortalized on Che T-shirts (read the book: Che: The Diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara), and a close comrade of Fidel Castro.

This movie received a good amount of critical acclaim, and I procrastinated in seeing it, afraid that it would be too political or too heavy.

It is neither. It is a visually-attractive, atmospheric piece that flits from anecdote to anecdote and gradually runs out of gas. There are a number of enjoyable scenes — some humorous, others serious — that ultimately don’t lead to anything more specific than an overall tone of wistful compassion.

Rodrigo de la Serna and Gael García Bernal in The Motorcycle Diaries (movie, 2004)

The guys (pictured above, left and right: Rodrigo de la Serna as biochemist Alberto Granado and Gael García Bernal as medical student Guevara) are good-looking and charming. Their best moments are the funny ones, and there are brief flashes of the subtly ironic sense of humor that tickles Spanish-inflected writing from Don Quijote to Carlos Castaneda to The Milagro Beanfield War. De la Serna’s lusty appetites serve as a nice foil for Bernal’s virtuous introspection, and it would be interesting to see these two in a movie that developed these characters. Here, the fun is tempered somewhat by oppressed people and a couple of weeks of volunteer work at a leper colony. Also, the asthmatic young Guevara is stricken several times by frightening attacks.

This is the second film by Walter Salles that I have seen, having previously enjoyed Central Station. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is very stylish, and the movie’s music is particularly intriguing (the song “Al otro lado del río” won an Oscar).

Watching The Motorcycle Diaries was not unenjoyable, but when it was finished, it was lacking meat. As a Che Guevara biography, it offered little insight. Little was learned about South America or leprosy or motorcycles — just some nice-looking scenes and interesting faces set to good music.

I seriously got a lot more out of Alton Brown’s motorcycle odyssey, Feasting on Asphalt.

I’m giving this one an ambivalent 3 out of 5 stars at Netflix.