(WARNING: CLICKING ON ANY OF THE HYPERLINKS IN THIS ENTRY MAY RESULT IN A NOT-SO-FRIENDLY DATE WITH YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY.)
Based on the actual memoirs of Che Guevara, the film opens on a bustling sidewalk just outside the home of the upper middle-class Guevara family in 1950's Buenos Aires, the cosmopolitan capital of Argentina. On the verge of graduation, their 23-year old asthmatic son, Ernesto (played by Gael Garcia Bernal of Y Tu Mama Tambien), opts to take a year off before his final semester of medical school to join his 29-year old skirt-chasing college friend, Alberto Granado, for an 8,000 mile adventure up the spine of the South America aboard a rickety, oil-drinking motorcycle named La Poderosa.
As Ernesto and Alberto load La Poderosa (which incidentally translates as The Powerful One) with food and clothing, the voice of Ernesto, reads from his own diary in a voice-over in what will serve as the film's narrative structure. At moments, the language rivals the poeticism of Neruda:
A tale of two lives running parallel for a while...
What we had in common was our restlessness, our impassioned spirits and a love for the open road.
And through their parallel experiences on this yearlong journey- both fair-skinned young men of the European high-society of Buenos Aires, traveling on the open road of rural South America - the effects on their individual lives couldn't be more different. For Alberto, it becomes an exploration of the body as he erects a campaign to bed a woman in every country on the continent. For Ernesto, it becomes an exploration of the mind and heart that will lead him to become Che Guevara, the international revolutionary who will launch what will become the only successful socialist revolution in the Americas, and who will influence artists, philosophers, and leaders the world over.
Scamming for lodging, scheming for sex, finagling for food and motorcycle repairs, Alberto and Ernesto experience their own individual disappointments and epiphanies. But in the countryside, which is in stark contrast to their bourgeousie homes in Argentina, they experience a revelation which is larger even than all of South America: From Chilean farmerworks to Peruvian mineworkers to lepers in a quarantined Amazon colony, indigenous red-skinned men and women, in a concerted effort by colonizers across the continent, were being not only marginalized, but systematically erased from the vision of modern South America. (Which is not unlike the fate of the native peoples in all of the Americas.)
While this revelation is profound, other insights into Che Guevara, the man, the myth, are much more subtle - even sketchy. We do learn how Ernesto came to be called Che (the word, che, is an interjection specific to Argentine Spanish, and is how all Argentines are generally referred to by non-Argentines in Latin America). But we are left to surmise the source of Ernesto's passion for the socialist movement: Is it an encounter with an indigenous family in the desert, who has been evicted from their farm for supporting the Communist Party? Is it the two or three camera shots of Ernesto reading Marxist literature? When Ernesto defies a head nun by refusing to wear gloves while visiting patients quarantined at the Amazon leper colony, we see his compassion and commitment to social equality, but these are just light strokes that leave a vague impression of the persona of Che Guevara.
Too brief to be a biopic, Motorcycle Diaries works perhaps best when taken as travelogue. There are the quaint villages dotting the green hills of Chile; the bitterly beautiful blizzards whitening the Andes mountains; the relentless sandstorms of the Atacama Desert; the wildgrasses and passionate blossoms along the Amazon River.
As the awestruck Ernesto stands atop the majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, comparing its divine temples to the dirty, industrialized city of Lima, which teems with factory smoke, rats, and garbage, he questions the true meaning of progress:
Give up all of this [Machu Picchu] for this [Lima]?
Motorcycle Diaries presents a refreshing view of an "other" America - a perhaps truer America - which rarely gets explored on film. This makes it worth seeing. And Gael Garcia Bernal's portrayal of a young Ernesto is convincing. But the payoff at the end of the film raises far more questions than answers about the persona of Che Guevara. Rather than feeling filled up, I left wanting to open a book.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.