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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Che Guevara and South America
by Jeffrey Chen

That Che Guevara is the selling point of The Motorcycle Diaries is somewhat misleading. The story is based on two books -- one written by Guevara and the other written by his journey partner Alberto Granado -- both containing accounts about an adventure these two young men took through South America in 1952. But it doesn't cover the period of Guevara's life for which he gained fame -- his later participation in guerilla warfare-driven revolutionary activities. Thus, we are expecting something more in-depth about the man himself and perhaps his formative psychology, but, curiously, what we get is a rather blatant form of hero worship.

For that matter, the hero here probably doesn't even need to be Guevara. The Motorcycle Diaries mostly avoids politics and concentrates instead on the character's developing humanity. It does such a focused job of portraying a sympathetic bleeding heart personality that it's practically an application for sainthood. This person in the movie is a great, caring human being -- and, conveniently, he also has the looks and charisma of Gael García Bernal. Had I not already known who Guevara was, I might have been surprised to find out he turned to violence to achieve his ends rather than founding a medical facility like his friend Granado did.

This approach actually serves to disconnect the character from the person of Che Guevara -- it ends up counteracting the attempt to humanize the figure. The sowing of Guevara's political seeds as depicted in this movie serves to add to his myth. He's shown as someone who goes to great lengths to be honest and concerned, and poor Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) seems served up almost solely for the sake of contrast. Where Granado, a smooth-talker, would lie to make the best of a situation, Guevara respectfully tells the truth and is  rewarded for his honesty. By the time the movie reaches its emotional climax (involving a river), it's built up the hero to appear more than human. The portrayal emerges as such a deft exercise in audience endearment it could make Steven Spielberg blush -- but even Oskar Schindler was shown with flaws.

It's more rewarding, then, to view the movie in terms outside of Che Guevara, for much goes on around him in this robust travelogue. At best, The Motorcycle Diaries is a loving tribute to South America. Guevara and Granado's trip takes them through Argentina, Chile, and Peru, and the fact that the filmmakers retraced the steps of the journey and filmed many of the locations visited by the two adventurers is itself a poignant commentary on the state of the continent itself -- not much seems to have changed in 50 years. The poor conditions of a people still considerably behind the metropolitan standards of civilization deserve a spotlight. This is a road movie very much in love with the road it travels, and it asks viewers to extend their hearts to it, too.

The Motorcycle Diaries tells as much about South America as it does about Guevara -- perhaps even more, for the  character representing Guevara here dwells in a realm on the edge of believability. The environment, though, is easily, painfully believable. It's arguable whether the movie does a bigger favor for the myth of El Che or the reality of South America. 

(Released by Focus Features and rated "R" for language.)

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