‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is a beautifully told story that charts a young Che Guevara

Gael García Bernal is Che Guevera in 'The Motorcycle Diaries'
Gael García Bernal is Che Guevera in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’

I have to confess, I am not really familiar with Che Guevara, the famous and infamous revolutionary. What little I know about him is what’s detailed in this film, Motorcycle Diaries, a beautifully told story that charts a young Che Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado, as they journey through several South American countries in the early 1950s.

Perhaps if I’d had some understanding of the man Che would become after the film before seeing it, I may have felt differently. Perhaps if I was a believer in his cause, I would have seen the film with more emotion. Perhaps if I knew of some of the terrible things he was accused of, I would have been disgusted by how the film idolized him.

Instead, I was the virtual blank slate, having no knowledge of his place in history.

Motorcycle Diaries follows Ernesto Guevara, a medical student who is one semester away from graduating, and Alberto Granado, a biochemist. With an old motorcycle, they set out to see the continent. Along the way, they lose their bike, con men and women for food and services, and spend time helping a colony of lepers.

It’s an interesting film, touching at moments with some strong performances by both Gael Garcia Bernal, as Guevara, and Rodrigo de la Serna, as Granado. Bernal really shines here, not only because of his strong performance, but because of the beautifully written character. So much is said, yet much is left unsaid, expressed through looks and moments that allow Bernal to really display his talents.

Gael García Bernal (front) and Rodrigo de la Serna co-star in 'The Motorcycle Diaries'
Gael García Bernal (front) and Rodrigo de la Serna co-star in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’

This is the second film I’ve seen where Bernal was a featured player. In Bad Education, he turned in a strong performance as well. But here, much of his work is subtle, taking advantage of small moments. One example would be when Guevara reads a letter from the woman he left behind. Although it is not revealed what is in the letter, the dialogue-free moments after he reads it makes it pretty clear.

I was impressed by how the film wasn’t afraid to not say something. Too often movies feel they must tell the audience everything. God forbid a moment go by where some extraneous dialogue isn’t used to make sure the audience understands exactly what it is they just saw.

It is not my wish to minimize the performance by Serna. Although he is largely the sidekick here, he delivers the part with some natural presence that he often upstages the scene with his humor.

However, as Motorcycle Diaries came to its conclusion, I was left feeling I didn’t get the full effect. To me, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was just a fictional man who discovered the realities of the society he lived in during a life-changing road trip. To others, however, this story was probably an exploration of a national hero. Had I knew who the man was, or what he represented before seeing the film, then perhaps I would have thought differently.

For those who believe Che Guevara was a dangerous, cold-blooded killer, this film could be seen as a glorification of a bad man. Yet those who believed in him could see it as a graceful, complimentary film that honors him.

Me? I felt it was an enjoyable, often humorous, often touching film about discovery. A well told, well acted production that is graceful and smart.

The DVD contains a few deleted scenes, a pair of interviews from Spanish television with Bernal, along with one with the film’s composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, who created some simple yet beautiful music. Yet the highlight is really “A Moment with Alberto Granado”, an interview with the real man who made the journey with Che Guevara. He discusses the trip, and several of the real photographs from their journey are featured.

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