It is a rare biopic that does not venerate its subject beyond all reason, and “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a rare film. It gives us Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinian revolutionary, in all his youthful, mercurial glory. It suggests a Che who began as a slightly selfish, somewhat irresponsible man who gradually grew into the figure known to history. It doesn’t assume we will be interested in Che just because it tells us to; it gives us a story worth being interested in.
Played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Che is depicted here with his buddy Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), who traveled via motorcycle with him through South America in 1952, when both were medical students. They predate the Beatniks just a bit, but their idea is essentially the same: see the world, have some fun, meet some girls. They have little money or food, and their motorcycle (nicknamed “The Mighty One”) would charitably be called unreliable. It will be an adventure, to be sure.
The first act of the film is mostly light-hearted and even wacky, as they encounter the expected mechanical problems, misunderstandings with locals and whatnot. Granado wants to have a good time, as does Che, but Che has a sensitive soul, a gentleness that probably had his professors convinced he would make a fine doctor someday. Gradually, Che and Alberto grow up, and as they tour the continent, Che becomes aware of the plight of the working class.
Bernal and de la Serna’s performances are strong, and their chemistry together as friends enhances the many scenes that consist primarily of just the two of them. JosÃ© Rivera’s script, if a little episodic, nicely builds each man’s character development, and Walter Salles’ direction, if a little too reliant on obvious symbolism (like Che swimming across a river from boyhood to manhood on his birthday), is nonetheless sure-footed and capable. His noble endeavor to show a revolutionary’s evolution pays off nicely.
B+ (2 hrs., 4 min.; in Spanish with subtitles; )