Movie Review: Che Takes a Road Trip in “The Motorcycle Diaries”

3 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The first half of “The Motorcycle Diaries” comes across as an artier that usual road trip movie. Most of the requisite elements are there: the protagonist, Ernesto, the protagonist; an unreliable mode of transportation, here a motorcycle ironically dubbed “The Mighty One”; Ernesto’s goofy buddy; lack of money and all the other conventions familiar to viewers of Road Trip. But the viewers’ knowledge of Ernesto’s future gives the film an added dimension.

Ernesto is Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known as the poster and t-shirt icon Che (Gael García Bernal), here a 23-year old medical student. “The Motorcycle Diaries” is based on the memoir of the same title by Che and Alberto, the buddy (Rodrigo De la Serna). They set off from Bueonos Aires in 1952 with a simple aim: “Get laid in every country in South America.” Or, “Every town if we’re lucky.” The tone is light, the problems often comic and the South American scenery is stunning. So far, so good.

The Mighty One meets gives its final hurrah about halfway through the film. At this point, many of the other clichés also vanish and “Motorcycle Diaries” undergoes a rapid transformation into a bildungsroman (or bildungsfilm, if you will). Ernesto and Alberto take to walking and hitchhiking, and are forced to confront more of the people they pass. Though the film keeps politics to a minimum, we see Ernesto’s rapid awakening to the everyday suffering of poor people, which culminates in a long passage set in a leper colony.

The film is alternately warm and annoyingly heavy-handed. Some of the dialogue is overly blunt and obvious, even for a subtitled film (a Spanish speaker may be able to illuminate this further). However, García Bernal gives a credible and nuanced performance, and De la Serna manages to make his somewhat underwritten foil character amusing and likable. It’s easy to fault the film as being too easy on Che. It suggests he will become Albert Schweitzer, not a violent revolutionary. But the movie does not purport to be weighty or a definitive treatment of Che’s life. It is enjoyable for what it is: a reflective, entertaining treatment of the early years of a revolutionary.

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