Rehumanizing the icon and eternal T-shirt emblem isn't quite taken to this extreme in The Motorcycle Diaries, but we do get a fine chance to contemplate Ernesto Guevara de la Serna as the awkward but impassioned young man who would soon become El Che. It's a noble and satisfying effort -- and a fine film. Based on Guevara's memoir, Diarios de Motocicleta: Notas de Viaje, as well as his friend Alberto Granado's Con el Che por America Latina, the project delivers as both biography and road movie. It's a deceptively humble epic, an illuminating part of the Che legacy.
Spanning much of 1952 and hundreds of kilometers across South America, this chapter of Guevara's storied existence concerns his misadventures at age 23, the year before he earned his medical degree and several years before his guerrilla philosophies would transform the lives of millions and lead him to his execution and martyrdom. The movie starts out frothy, with Guevara (Mexican star Gael García Bernal, Y Tu Mamá También) and Granado (Argentinean star Rodrigo de la Serna) almost playing Latino Tom and Huck astride Grenado's roaring 1939 Norton 500, which they affectionately nickname La Poderosa ("The Mighty One"). Setting off from their upper-middle-class origins in Buenos Aires (where precocious Guevara studied Marx and Freud), they cruise, wipe out, struggle through a blizzard and crash into cows until the motorcycle ceases to be their focal point and the road transforms them. Their friendship flourishes, along with their vastly expanded perceptions of their whole continent and its people.
Screenwriter José Rivera renders this portrait in three parts, starting with footloose high jinks, shifting into social awareness and compassion, then culminating in the realization of Guevara's inherent inspirational and healing qualities. Director Walter Salles (Behind the Sun) stamps each scene with images exotic and indelible. This is no mere TV biopic; with unforgettable landscapes and richly emotive faces, Salles imparts the indigenous poetry of Argentina, Chile and Peru.
Not presuming to deliver the definitive Che Guevara story, The Motorcycle Diaries provides a smart, insightful prologue to the career of the man who continues to inspire countless people around the world. And technically, it's all top-notch, from the gorgeous cinematography (by Eric Gautier) to Gustavo Santaolalla's daring, anachronistic score to the charming dance sequences. (Good luck getting "El Chipi Chipi" out of your head.) If that one omnipresent image of Che threatens to eclipse the actual man behind it, this warm, welcoming film provides much material to understand the life that formed the icon.