Ernesto "El Che" Guevara de la Serna is a seminal figure of 20th century history–a Commandante in the revolutionary army that overthrew the Batista regime in Cuba, a right hand man to Fidel Castro, an educated and articulate Marxist/Maoist. Independent, violent and idealistic, Che became a poster boy for the left-leaning youth of the 1960’s and beyond. He was executed in Bolivia in 1967.
In 1951, interrupting his medical school career, Che, age 23, embarked with a close friend, Alberto Granado, a biochemist, on an extended motorcycle trip through South America. Both men wrote books documenting their travels together, books on which screenwriter Jose Rivera based the screenplay for The Motorcycle Diaries. It’s a film in the long traditions both of road movies (Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise) and "buddy" movies (Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), with the the added burden of representing biographical aspects of a charismatic modern hero.
Opening with the farewells to his well-to-do family, the film consists of an episodic series of experiences chosen from the books. Some, such as Che’s departing visit with the aristocratic girl he loves, difficulties with weather and the decrepit old bike, and flirtations with local girls (Granado called himself the "sexual ambassador from Argentina"), are handled with lightness and charm, if without pressing pertinence to the exploration of a revolutionary in the making.
Other sections of the film are more to the point, as Che discovers the injustice bred by the colonialist history of South America–Europeans dominating the native peoples who live in poverty and despair. The corporate industrialists (Anaconda Mining in particular) are seen as exploiters of the natives, people who have become homeless in their own lands. A visit to Machu Pichu emphasizes the contrast between the grandeur of the one-time indigenous culture and the miserable conditions of the descendents of that civilization.
The final major stop included in the film is the extended visit they made to the San Pablo Leper Colony in the jungles of Peru, a place where the lepers were housed on one side of the Amazon and the doctors, staff, and nuns who cared for the lepers lived on the other side of the river. That arrangement acts as metaphor for all the divisions among people that Che has observed over his journey, extended symbolically when he, in a spontaneous act both of courage and foolishness (he was asthmatic) swims across the river to the leper side.
But the totality of The Motorcycle Diaries never manages to invest in Che the gravitas, the charisma or the powerful determination of this man who just three years later would be joining up with Castro in the Cuban revolution. Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, El Crimen del Padre Amaro) is sympathetic and has the depiction of asthma attacks nailed, but when he makes the one political speech in the film, at his birthday party at San Pablo, the words are there but the fire is missing. The role needed the backbone and anger and aggression of a revolutionary; what is delivered is a schoolboy liberal. (Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto is a delight, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that no muchacha could resist.)
Director Walter Salles (Central Station, Behind the Sun) also misses on another crucial level. The Motorcycle Diaries gives the impression that this journey was the first for a young man who starts out as a blank slate. In fact, Che was well read politically and pronouncedly leftist before the motorcycle trip was ever undertaken. And the depictions of his observances on the journey don’t have the cinematic teeth they need. Salles uses talk about the economic and political problems rather than dramatizing them and he omits any graphic visual observation of the poverty and injustice which so influenced Che.
The Motorcycle Diaries ends up being a romanticized and lightweight road movie, a charming diversion, rather than the incisive biographical work that it should have been.