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Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Posted on the 05 December 2013 by Sirmac2 @macthemovieguy

The Motorcycle Diaries

Released in 2004, The Motorcycle Diaries is a biopic based on the memoir of Ernesto Guevara, more commonly known now as the iconic Che Guevara. The film chronicles his exploits in 1952, when he and his best friend Alberto Granado embarked on a South American road trip with just a motorcycle and the packs on their backs. The journey begins with ideas of youthful exploits, but quickly changes as the two men observe the impoverished lives of the people they meet. The men become aware of the social injustice of being considered “lower class”, and they become more aware of the genuine identity of the South American people. This trip starts in motion the radical ideas that Guevara had for uniting his South American family, helping those who can’t help themselves, and attempting to defeat the Westernization of his culture. The film also takes into account the separate work by Granado, Traveling With Che Guevara: The Making Of A Revolutionary.

The making of the film was an important task, as Guevara is such an internationally recognized figure. Although the film is recognized as being a Argentinian effort, the film is an interesting international mix. Director Walter Salles is from Brazil, but the screenplay was written by a Puerto Rican, Jose Rivera. Guevara was played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who had previously played Che in the 2002 miniseries Fidel. Argentinian actor Rodrigo de la Serna played Granado. The film was an international co-production, with South American companies from Argentina, Chile, and Peru, teaming up with companies from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and The United States to make this film happen. American producer/director/actor Robert Redford even served as an executive producer. This kind of international involvement just highlighted the importance of the subject matter. Alberto Granado himself was even hired on as a “consultant”, and followed the film crew on their journey.

Bernal went through months of preparation for the role, reading all of Che’s written works, as well as speaking with his living family members, as well as meeting with the (at the time) still-living Granado. The work paid off as The Motorcycle Diaries opened to international acclaim, winning an award at Cannes, and nominations at the Academy Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Goya Awards. The film also won three Argentinan Film Critics Association Awards, as well as the BAFTA for Best Film Not In The English Language. Internationally, The Motorcycle Diaries made over 40 million, plus another 16 million here in the US. It is the 12th highest grossing foreign language film of all time in the US, the highest Argentinian release on the list, and the top grossing South American release (three Latin American films, however, have surpassed it).

The film fought to get it right, with the crew shooting on location as much as possible. They even visited the actual San Pablo Leper Colony as Guevara and Granado, and many of the “lepers” featured in the film are actual lepers living in the colony, some of whom were alive when the real Guevara traveled there. Because of this, tourism in the area actually spiked following the films release, as others wished to travel in the same footsteps as Che.

The film itself is a startlingly beautiful achievement. The film never looks or feels like an independent feature, and clearly features film technique on par with any “Hollywood” release. Actor Gael Garcia Bernal gives a completely honest performance as Guevara, at first capturing him as a privileged youth pursuing a medical degree, and turning that idea on its head. As the film progresses, Bernal shows Guevara as more introspective, and acutely aware of his surroundings. Bernal, as Guevara, is clearly personally affected by the poverty surrounding him, and his desire to help each individual is present in the frame. In a particularly affecting scene, Guevara finds himself at a bedside of an elderly woman close to death. She is clearly in pain, and Guevara doesn’t have the medical supplies with him that he needs to take care of her. He instead gives her some of his own medication, as he suffers from asthma, in hopes that it will help ease her pain. He makes the decision to be without, so that another may suffer a little less. Rodrigo de la Serna, as Alberto Granado, offers a character who doesn’t immediately respond to the poverty the same way Guevara does. At first, Granado seems to be inconvenienced by the situations he is in, and never personalizes himself with the situation. It isn’t really until their arrival at the leper camp, where Granado fully realizes the gravity of the situation he’s in. There, Granado finds himself aligned more with Guevara’s idealism. Together, they choose to help as they can, and they both become frustrated with their genuine lack of supplies.

The film is beautifully shot, and features expansive panoramic shots of the South American landscape. There is an understanding that the person who is shooting this film loves the land that he came from, and the natural beauty, capturing it perfectly on frame. The film is expertly lit, never too dark, because the director and cinematographer truly want you to take it all in. Not just the countryside, but the villages and the people that inhabit them. Even though the subject material may be dark at times, they made a clear decision to make sure that you would be able to see everything happening. As this film is also a period piece, they made sure the film was historically accurate. The vehicles, the costumes, and the lack of technology (even in non-impoverished areas) highlight their efforts. The score beneath the film, and the music within give a sense of culture beyond the images on the film. The song “Al otro lado del rio”, by Jorge Drexler, is a particularly interesting piece used to highlight the score written by Gustavo Santaolalla. The song translates to “On The Other Side Of The River”, which is a perfect correlation to the events happening on the film. The realization that there is a cultural divide, and there are things happening that Guevara and Granado were unaware of, is poetically told through song. It’s no wonder the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, becoming the first Spanish language song to win that award.

Earlier this semester, we watched another road trip film, also featuring Gael Garcia Bernal. Y Tu Mama Tambien was also a story about two rather upper-class youths exploring the world outside their own, and finding themselves being born anew. In that film, the main characters were even younger and more disconnected. All they wanted from life was to party, have sex, and have fun. Their journey put them on the path to self-awakening. However, those characters never felt the same desire to help their fellow men the way Guevara and Granado did. Instead, Julio and Tenoch became men, and even though they were likely improved as men by the situation they found themselves in, neither seemed to be on a path to a future of activism and helping others the same way Guevara and Granado are by the end of The Motorcycle Diaries. Both films are interesting journeys of self-exploration and self-discovery, but interestingly with different results.  Also, while The Motorcycle Diaries felt like an accomplished major studio release, Y Tu Mama Tambien always felt independent, highlighting the more homegrown movement it took to bring that film to the screen.

American Road Trip movies are possibly less successful and less introspective. Often, the road trip genre in America is used for comedy, with We’re The Millers, Identity Thief, Due Date, and The Hangover franchise being more recent examples of that. The most introspective “road trip” movie is likely Into The Wild, which featured a lead character already disillusioned by his middle-class lifestyle, who chooses to abandon it without making any interaction with people outside of his own socio-economic structure. This film also is a solo road trip, and lacks the ability to compare the growth between two friends over the course of the trip. The fact is that North Americans don’t have the same problems as South American’s, so when we venture from one city to another, we aren’t really experiencing an entirely different subculture. There isn’t a road trip drama featuring two friends who travel into an impoverished area and decide to stay and make a difference. Often times, our films about poverty feature characters already well aware of their poverty and looking to make changes from within. I suppose that’s what makes The Motorcycle Diaries so interesting in the first place, because it is so culturally unique. It speaks true to the people it represents, just like our American road trip films speak true to our culture. We aren’t worried about the same things, or concerned with the same issues. More importantly, we don’t have leper colonies.

In conclusion, The Motorcycle Diaries is a unique effort, because it dares to explore the world outside of our idea of social norms. The film works because it feels like we haven’t seen this story before. As Americans, we are unfamiliar with the idealism of Guevara, and are intrigued by the process that led him to be the iconic revolutionary he is today. While many may not agree with his ideas, there is a core foundation explored in The Motorcycle Diaries that resonates with audiences worldwide, in every culture. Alberto Granado died in 2011, and all that remains of his travels with Che now are the written works, and this film. It is always a difficult task to bring a historical figure to the screen, but to bring a revolutionary icon like Guevara is even more challenging. I believe this film did a great job representing both Guevara and the continent he loved so much.

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