The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna

Directed by: Walter Salles

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

The real Che Guevara. Actually looks a bit like George Clooney in some photos...

What do I know about Che Guevara? Not a lot, actually. He was a famous South American revolutionary. He wore a beret. Students like to have posters of him on their walls. He was in Evita (except of course he had nothing to do with Eva Peron at all). Oh, and he was sexy (okay, Antonio Banderas and David Essex were sexy when they played him. In Evita).

The Motorcycle Diaries does not set out to fill me in on Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's heroic revolutionary deeds, which eventually led to his murder in 1967 and subsequent canonisation as a folk hero, the accepted pretty face of socialism. Instead, the film looks at his formative years, when, at the age of 23, he set off on a voyage of discovery around South America with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna).

Based on the journal Guevara wrote whilst on the road, the film sees the pair set off on their adventure perched precariously on a rattletrap Norton motorbike, from which they fall with painful regularity. From their native Argentina they travel through Chile to Peru, where they spend time volunteering at the San Pedro Leprosy Colony, before finally making it to Venezuela, where their paths must diverge. Their tent blows away in a storm, their bike breaks down, they're chased from town by irate husbands. They're skint and hungry and footsore, and asthmatic Che is often very ill. Your typical student gap year, then. Except that, whilst it may be hard to believe that a year spent bungee jumping in New Zealand, trekking through the Rain Forest and lounging on Thai beaches is really a life changing experience, for Ernesto and Alberto, it genuinely is.

Rodrigo de Serna as Alberto and Gael Garcia Bernal as Che in The Motorcycle Diaries

On their travels, besides taking in some breathtakingly beautiful and stark scenery, they encounter the indigenous people of South America and hear their stories: sad tales of exploitation, poverty and hardship, yet told with a stoic acceptance and a refusal to be beaten that is both harrowing and heartening. A lot of the characters they meet seem like the real deal, not actors at all. As they chat to the street people of Lima or the lepers of San Pedro, the film seems more like one of Michael Palin's round the world diaries than a work of artifice, and is all the more convincing and moving as a result. Sure, we get llamas and ponchos, but the immediacy of the characters prevents any of them from appearing clichéd.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Che Guevara: sexy

The film is a traditional rites of passage movie, the bumpy road they travel a clear metaphor for the path that leads from youth to adulthood. Che, a medical student, is a wide-eyed innocent when he sets out on his journey, filled with idealistic notions about one united South America. As he falls in with the indigenous peoples, far from becoming disillusioned, he only becomes more convinced that his ideas are right. Young, passionate and far too honest for his own good, he's given to rash and impulsive feats of bravado that foreshadow his wholehearted involvement in the Cuba revolution. One of the aims of the film may be to de-mythologise the great legend by showing him as a real person, but it also reveals him to be a true, natural born hero and man of the people, not afraid of physical danger, nor of voicing his true opinions and standing up for what he believes in. Yet his goodness never becomes annoying or sentimental, and he's all the more appealing and lovable for it. (Oh, and Gael Garcia Bernal's Ernesto is very sexy.)

Likewise Alberto, older, wiser and not afraid to bend the truth if it'll buy him a hot meal or a bed for the night, is an enormously warm and genial character. Their relationship retains a perfect balance between close camaraderie and good natured banter and, like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, this is a film where you really, really like the central protagonists and, as a result, you love the film too.

Displaying the same passion, commitment and love of country as Che and Alberto, The Motorcycle Diaries is a love song to the culture, history and people of South America. Okay, so the voiceover can be a little heavy handed - we get the fact that Che's social conscience has been awakened by his journey, we don't really need the message hammered home - but this is a minor quibble. Warm, beautiful, uplifting and utterly credible, it's a fantastic and intelligent piece of film-making. And not a beret to be seen.

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