January 26, 2005 -- “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a nostalgic look back to the days when communism was still the great red hope for poor people and political idealists. It was near the height of its power, decades away from its final decline and decay.
The story follows a young Ché Guevara (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna), who would later become the rock star of South American communists (contrasty Ché Guevara posters used to adorn college dorm walls), and his friend, Alberto Granado, who still runs a medical facility in Cuba. Guevara was was a medical student, Alberto Granado, a biochemist. The two students took a long trip around South America in 1951 and 1952 and wrote about it in their diaries. Their accounts of the trip were later made into books, and then a movie (screenplay by Jose Rivera). The idea of the trip was a simple journey of exploration. It became much more than that.
The two men started out on their trip riding Alberto's 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle, hence the movie's name. In addition to the scenic wonders of Peru, Chili and Argentina, they also find grinding poverty, injustice, exploitation and misery during their eight month, 8,000 mile journey. Both men are changed forever by their experience. Both come away from their journey with a determination to try to change things. Both men did, in their own way.
The understated story comes off much like a diary. There is a lot of mundane detail, the two friends arguing and bickering. Frequent crashes and repairs to the motorcycle. Various hustles to try to get food, repairs and money. Miles of motorcycle driving and walking. Many of the people they meet are unremarkable. The message does come across, but it definitely is not overstated. Beautiful location photography captures both the stunning beauty and the stark desolation of the areas traveled.
Guevara comes across as sensitive, idealistic and straightforward, while his friend, Alberto Granado, comes across as more of a party animal. We don't really see the proficient killer that Guevara would later become. Their brief stay at a leper colony is one of the more interesting parts of their journey. It is also the occasion of the one fantastic part of the journey, when Guevera does something truly extraordinary and unexpected. The role of Guevara is played by Gael García. Granado is played by Rodrigo De la Serna, who is actually a second cousin of Guevara. The movie was filmed on location, following the 1952 route taken by the two men. It is a tale of the genesis of revolution, but also a tale about a deep friendship and a remarkable journey. It rates a C+.
You may find it surprising I did not give this film a higher rating, as many other critics have. My reviews are unlike those of many other critics in that I try not to rate films higher, or lower, than they should be rated depending on whether or not I agree with the politics inherent in the film. I try to keep politics compartmentalized as much as possible. “The Motorcycle Diaries” wears its liberal heart on its sleave almost as much as “American Beauty” did, but it isn't as entertaining, even as a travelogue. It is entirely possible for a film to be well-crafted and entertaining, even if I happen to disagree with the politics it pushes. A good example is “Hero,” a film some critics panned because they viewed it as favoring some positions taken by China's totalitarian government. Another example is “We Were Soldiers,” panned by some critics because they thought it too conservative (glorifying America's imperialism) for their taste. I liked both films, without agreeing with the politics of either film. Liberal, conservative, neutral, who cares, as long as it is a well-made, entertaining film? I mean, what are you going to do as a critic, write, “this film was a masterpiece, but I'm going to give it a negative review because I don't agree with its politics”? That is nutty.
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