A film about Che Guevara could go one of two ways: nice and easy, or rough. That also depends on whether a filmmaker's emphasis falls on Guevara's pre- or post-revolutionary years. With "The Motorcycle Diaries," Walter Salles, the gentle Argentine director of tearjerkers such as "Central Station," lays us down, as a mother might lay a sleeping babe, in the small, cozy space of Guevara's transition from youthful idealist to political icon. For most of the film he's Ernesto, an asthmatic from Buenos Aires, and he doesn't do a lot that would earn him pop sainthood or make him the star of his own T-shirt.
Salles's movie is not the sexy rock 'n' roll polemic you might expect from the likes of an Oliver Stone. This is a soothing, if incredibly digressive movie, with the occasional Marxist nod and lots of symbols that add up to an impressionistic portrait of the rebel as a placid young man.
Salles and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Guevara, admirably take a back road to the movie's hero, showing us a kid who is basically trying to grow up. We meet him in 1952, after he's made his decision to postpone a last semester in medical school to tour South America with a 29-year-old biochemist named Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a portly fellow whose rickety 500cc Norton they use to get around the continent. Things get off to a comic start: We see the motorcycle from behind, packed like a donkey on wheels and making a buzzy sound, like the pages of a book being quickly flipped.
Based on the separate memoirs of Granado and Guevara, both adapted by Jose Rivera, "The Motorcycle Diaries" winds through the South American countryside, stopping here and there. First up is Miramar, Argentina, for a visit to the country manse of Ernesto's chaste girlfriend Chichina (Mia Maestro). He brings her a dog and tells her she'll keep it and her virginity intact until he returns. Alberto scores with one of the housekeepers, and then the boys are off. There are barroom brawls, spills on the bike, and spells of tourism, sleeping on people's property and among the peasants. Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the man Ernesto will become, such as when he diagnoses an old man's cyst, without sparing his feelings.
Eventually Ernesto and Alberto make it to Chile, where they meet two communists -- a miner and his wife -- and tell them that they've been traveling for leisure and not for work. This is a foreign concept to the couple and a crystallizing moment for Ernesto and the movie, which to this point has been borderline picaresque and completely pastoral. The next day Ernesto has a moment of righteousness, hurling a stone at the truck of the miners' exploitative foreman. But Ernesto's political awakening rarely seems more than petulant.
Once "The Motorcycle Diaries" arrives at its final destination, Peru, where the boys volunteer in a leper colony, it tries to shake its leisurely atmosphere. At Machu Picchu, Ernesto talks about starting an indigenous revolutionary party. But we're distracted: The setting is really quite breathtaking. And while Salles again demonstrates his remarkable gift for the come-from-behind emotional attack -- the final 20 minutes, with the lepers, are moving -- the movie feels compromised by its buddy-movie obligations, which call for Ernesto and Alberto to be on different pages of the same book. But I don't mean to grouse: Without that formula, there'd be no de la Serna, who's warm, feeling, and utterly soulful. Salles leans on him for every ounce of the movie's levity.
That, of course, means the task of embodying the film's gravity falls to Bernal, who's typically radiant. But here he's cursed with beautifying everything he touches and a lot of what he sees. Like Jude Law, even when Bernal is dirty, it's never dirty enough. Is he too pretty to play Guevara? Not especially. Guevara had a rugged, earthen sexiness. Still, you have to wonder how things would have turned out for him if he'd had Bernal's bedroom eyes. Maybe this is the trouble with "The Motorcycle Diaries." It's handsome by association.
Salles closes "The Motorcycle Diaries" with a black-and-white slide show of South American workers and their families. They look content, and there's a sincere evocation of the portraits taken for the Works Progress Administration of Depression-era Dust Bowl farmers. Like those photos, the ones here turn struggle into art -- like the movie's hero, they're too nice-looking. You remember the images and content fondly, but are the Peruvian underclass really people whom you'd want to look back on the way you would a good meal? For a movie, this feels inadequate, despite its splendors and, later, its social dismay. It does, however, have the makings of a grand postcard.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Motorcycle Diaries