'Motorcycle Diaries' presents the man who would be Che

by Linzi Sheldon | 10/19/04 5:00am

His face is found on posters, T-shirts, stickers and hats -- an immediately recognizable face, almost always in black against the red backdrop of communism. To some, he is the symbol of a revolution that changed Latin America forever; to many who are unfamiliar with his story, he symbolizes a vague idea of rebellion and anti-establishmentarianism.

But "The Motorcycle Diaries" is not a story about the revolution in Cuba or the guerrilla warfare in Bolivia. It is not about the man behind the iconoclastic picture, but the man before the iconoclastic picture; that is, the impressionable idealist Ernesto before he was Che.

"The Motorcycle Diaries" is a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece in sound, cinematography and story that brings life and emotion to Che's early years -- the years that are often passed over in historical accounts. It is a poignant portrayal of the asthmatic medical student, the awkward dancer and overeager lover, and above all, the tender man of the people and outraged idealist who saw suffering and injustice and decided to do something about it.

From the wide-open straw-colored fields and dirt roads of Argentina, to the vivid blue Chilean skies, to the misty greens and grays of Peru's Macchu Picchu and leper colony, the film captivates with its snapshots of South America. One would be quite content to simply absorb the movie as a reflection of the Latin American culture, even apart from the actual epic story of Che.

Despite being told completely in Argentine-accented Spanish with English subtitles, the film is a joy to both the ear and the eye. The cinematography, both vivid yet grainy at times, keeps the eyes actively scanning and absorbing the screen, and the beautiful, expressive sound of the Spanish brings even more beauty to the film.

I attended the movie with a friend from Venezuela, who reveled in the depiction of the South America she knows and loves and commented on the beautiful sound of the Argentine accent. Even the humor and the colloquialisms were truthful to Latin American culture, she said. The film itself is not only a historical depiction of an epic journey, but it is also a nostalgic and accurate souvenir of South America, 1952 and even today.

Good-naturedly bantering back and forth with curses and nicknames, Gael Garca Bernal as Ernesto and Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto Granado make a perfect pair with believable dialogue and palpable chemistry. De la Serna takes on the role of the mischievous older brother, while Guevara plays the honest-to-a-fault, earnest medical student, adventurous romantic and lover of the people. Surprisingly, the movie has a lot of laughs, most stemming from the men's banter and physical comedy as they tumble off their unreliable motorcycle, "The Mighty One."

Casting Garcia as Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a stroke of genius. His face reflects Guevara's wonder, indignation, frustration and pain as he accompanies his friend in search of adventure and destiny. During an eloquent speech upon his departure from Peru, one sees not only sincerity and earnestness, but also a deep hunger and determination beneath the warmth of his brown eyes. And in the eyes of his companion there is both admiration and fear, as he, with the audience, begins to see that Guevara is destined for something much greater than anyone can fathom.

In his diaries, Guevara noted that he could feel something changing -- or was it he and his traveling companion who were changing, he wondered. It seems fitting and ironic that upon soliciting help from a farmer, the farmer would tell Guevara that he "like[d] his face very much." The story of Che Guevara is brought to life by "The Motorcycle Diaries," with the sounds of Latin American mambos and tangos and the sights of the continent he would soon transform.

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