THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES directed by Walter Salles, written by Jose Rivera, produced by Michael Nozik, Edgard Tenenbaum and Karen Tenkhoff, with Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mía Maestro. 128 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (October 1). For venues and times, see Movies, page 120. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Ernesto Guevara would be 76 this year. If he'd lived, he'd have faded by now. But one revolution in Cuba, one Alberto Korda photograph and one bullet to his thorax made Che Guevara an icon.
The photograph is important. The picture that shows up on catwalks and sitcoms fixed Che as the face of radical chic. It's sexy. There's no equivalent picture of Nelson Mandela or even Fidel Castro.
To his credit, director Walter Salles dismantles the T-shirt Che Guevara and builds again. The Motorcycle Diaries tells the story of a young medical student, a man of middle-class privilege, as he travels up the length of South America with his badass friend Alberto Granado.
At every stop, Granado makes friends and chats up women, but Guevara (Gael García Bernal) is shy and uncertain in almost all things except his principles. He cannot tell a lie.
He won't deceive a man who asks about the tumour growing on his neck. Later, when an old doctor hands him an unpublished novel and asks his opinion, Guevara can't help but tell him it's basically unreadable.
Drawing from books by Guevara and Granado, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera locate the roots of Che's future in his sincerity and stubbornness. Over the 8,000 kilometres he and Granado travel in 1952, they grow into men. It's fascinating to watch how witnessing the same events - abuse of workers in Chile, Incas oppressed in Peru - turns one man into a humanitarian and the other into a revolutionary.
The Brazilian Salles tells this story of two Argentines on the road with a rare, pan-American embrace. This isn't a rabble-rousing movie, or an especially fast one. Salles goes for the slow build, showing how each new experience shifts Guevara's perspective. Dancing to Chipi Chipi adds something. So does swimming the river between a leper colony and a hospital.
Because we know what became of Ernesto Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries carries a simple, unspoken message: experience makes a difference. Travel may not always broaden the mind, but it fixes it. On Che's way