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Overall Rating

Awesome: 34.57%
Worth A Look43.21%
Average: 17.28%
Pretty Bad: 1.23%
Total Crap: 3.7%

6 reviews, 45 user ratings

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Motorcycle Diaries, The
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by Mel Valentin

"A hagiographic, sanitized version of the early Che."
3 stars

"The Motorcycle Diaries," directed by Walter Salles ("Central Station," the remake of "Dark Water"), with Gaul Garcia Bernal ("Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and the forthcoming Almodovar film, "Bad Education") as the lead character, mythologizes Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean radical activist turned Cuban revolutionary leader (Che ultimately lost his life attempting to lead a peasant uprising in Bolivia in 1967) and since his death, pop culture icon for the left, into secular sainthood (and later, off screen, revolutionary martyrdom).

Che, as a young, upper middle class medical student on the verge of adulthood, decides to postpone his last semester in medical school to undertake an 8,000-mile journey across the South American continent with his longtime friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a biochemist about to turn thirty. The journey is timed to one last, prolonged bout of adolescence, freedom without responsibility. Granado offers Che picaresque adventures on the back of an antiquated motorcycle, a 1939 Norton, without the noisome intrusion and oversight of joyless parental figures. The Motorcycle Diaries is also at its most engaging (and entertaining) in the early scenes that follow Che and Alberto’s misadventures on their decrepit motorcycle. These scenes are imbued with a sense of humor and levity missing from the remainder of the film, when Che’s encounters with the dispossessed turns Che and the film toward humorless sentimentality.

Che and Alberto first stop at the well-manicured ranch of wealthy family friends. While Che has a youthful crush on the daughter, Chichina (Mía Maestro), Alberto is defined and driven by his overactive libido (Alberto succeeds in seducing the maid). Che, in contrast, is mostly chaste in his attitude toward the women around him, preferring, at first, traditional loyalty to his girlfriend, and later, a misjudged dalliance with the wife of a motorcycle mechanic. When otherwise faced with pursuing physical pleasures or adhering to his idealistic principles, he chooses the latter. Che takes the Hippocratic oath seriously.

Che’s character is further defined by his natural reticence, and a shy, physically awkward nature (Che is at his most human in several scenes when he attempts to dance, failing each time). The film is at its strongest here: allowing the audience to look behind Salles attempt to mythologize Che. Unfortunately, Salles prefer to turn Che into a demigod/revolutionary, rather than a human being whose experiences shaped his political and social beliefs (some would argue, for the worst). The mythologizing is at its worst in the final act, with Che and Alberto's arrival at a leper colony heralding the arrival of the "pure" Che, who, no longer distracted by physical desire, turns his undivided attention to serving the leper community. Che also upends the social hierarchy between the doctors, the staff, and the lepers, first by choosing not to wear gloves while visiting or treating the lepers and, later, in a heavy-handed attempt at symbolism, swimming across the Amazon to visit the lepers on his birthday (Salles even engages in overcooked Christian symbolism, as the lepers carry an exhausted Che on their shoulders).

The Che Guevara we encounter in The Motorcycle Diaries lacks psychological complexity or depth. Che, is more observer than actor, and a passive, reactive character whose experiences are almost always secondary and of minimal consequences to the other characters he interacts with along his journey: he may be a witness to the injustices and indignities suffered by others (described onscreen by non-professional actors), but he suffers or experiences little on his own, with the exception of occasional homelessness and hunger that can be easily ameliorated by a telegram home requesting money from his upper middle-class parents. There is no sense of real risk, real danger, or, outside of his ambivalent relationship with Alberto, anything approaching an external conflict, except in the abstract class and social system Che encounters on his journey. Conflict, if handled correctly, highlights the difficult moral dilemmas faced by the protagonist, and the protagonist's responses result in personal change and growth. Here, Che is relegated to filling his notebooks with the personal stories of the peasants and patients he encounters along his journey.

For example, in an early encounter between Che, Alberto, and a native couple searching for work at a nearby mine, Che's passivity is clearly evident. The work at the mine is presumably harsh and dangerous, with men selected daily for employment by a manager for the mine. What could have been a more persuasive segment in the film is undermined by Salles' choice to allow the couple to tell their story directly to the camera as Alberto and Che sit nearly, raptly listening, but never showing the couple's mistreatment first-hand. Second-hand accounts of personal experiences, like the ones featured in The Motorcycle Diaries, lack both urgency and immediacy.

A director of Salles' obvious talent should have realized the inherent problems in focusing his film on a passive, reactive protagonist (and finding workarounds, even if it meant fictionalizing Che's story further for dramatic purposes), but instead Salles chose to misuse (or willfully misunderstand) a visual, dramatic medium that's dependent on character choice and action to fully engage an audience. Instead, South American social, political, and cultural history is presented schematically and all too simplistically, and Che's later development into doctrinaire revolutionary is left disconnected from the earlier, mythologized Che. The audience can only surmise, without additional evidence, the reasons and experiences behind Che's subsequent transformation into a revolutionary leader, a leader who willingly accepted violence as a necessary instrument of revolution.

As political tract or conventional narrative, "The Motorcycle Diaries" proves to be a major disappointment, certainly undeserving of the accolades showered on it by critics seduced by its (fatally simplistic) leftists politics or Gaul Garcia Bernal’s charismatic central performance. Despite Bernal’s valiant efforts, his Che is less human being than an idealized figure from the near past. Perhaps Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming biopic, with Benicio del Toro as Che, will give audiences the Che of history, a complex, flawed idealist turned dogmatic, authoritarian revolutionary (and all that entails).

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originally posted: 09/04/05 13:38:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/02/10 chris. I wonder...who is it that is innocent of murder? 5 stars
1/23/10 plgrm It'd be nice if Hollywood, instead of indulging in self-serving mythmaking, 2 stars
11/13/07 ercadel getereralge 4 stars
4/29/07 Christine Good story, very complex ,and makes you think. 5 stars
1/03/07 Charles Tatum Inspiring as in "I want to overthrow the govt and kill people"? 3 stars
9/29/06 Jin inspiring and very unique 5 stars
8/29/06 Jake An entertaining movie about a communist 4 stars
5/24/06 Bert Best movie ever, best story ever told! 5 stars
11/22/05 Kurtis J. Beard Poetic film. Visually stunning. Great acting. 4 stars
11/04/05 Bad Critic A very good movie. Strong performances and a great plot. 4 stars
11/03/05 Madd Mooper A solid enough film, enjoyable on a certain level although don't look for greatness 4 stars
8/30/05 Nick Kraemer great imagery. great story. doesn't get caught up in politics 5 stars
7/13/05 the grinch the "legend" was a murderer,READ and find out who this guy really was,movie sucked too 1 stars
6/10/05 Simon Solid. Its focus seems misguided due to some faulty filmmaking at times, but overall good. 4 stars
5/09/05 Alex Amazing performances, great movie!!. A life changing experience, South America's reality 5 stars
3/29/05 Phil M. Aficionado Visually stunning, but left me with a "where's the beef" reaction 3 stars
3/29/05 JoannaVan Langen LOVED it! LOved it!! Loved it!!! 5 stars
2/18/05 dian anderson GREAT MOVIE 5 stars
1/30/05 Carrie Hubbard All I could say for this movie was, Huh? 1 stars
12/30/04 y2mckay Solid film and top performances, De La Serna steals movie 4 stars
12/24/04 green gremlin All those multinational corporations ceo's deserve to be locked up in a filthy leper colony 5 stars
12/19/04 Landshark But for our own biases going in, we'd probably call "Diaries" a lesson in values 5 stars
12/13/04 Gary Coulter Fantastic insight into the man, as opposed to the legend. 5 stars
12/07/04 Elisa Excellent 5 stars
11/29/04 Peteco Very good. 4 stars
11/25/04 drfardook Visually excellent. Performances good. Editing needs a little tweak. 4 stars
11/05/04 your worst goddamn nightmare Very Very good film. The latter part was a little too overdrawn tho... 4 stars
11/03/04 Hillary Roth powerful 5 stars
10/28/04 Dennis Nice movie, but probably better if you have an interest in south america 4 stars
10/28/04 Maria Captures the moment beautifully 5 stars
10/24/04 Suzz excellent film/great performances all around 5 stars
10/20/04 Jenna very cool movie 5 stars
10/19/04 Betsy beautiful translation of a truly inspiring book 5 stars
10/19/04 Dave See it's Karma, leave your Dogma in the lobby. 5 stars
10/19/04 Helga Fellay excellent 5 stars
10/18/04 Judith Levitt Wonderful, informative as well as beautifullly done 5 stars
10/17/04 Stevo This movie is powerfully written and beautifully acted. 5 stars
10/10/04 Kay Sarich I thought the film was excellent, it really made me want to do good in the world. 5 stars
10/07/04 Ted C An awesome inspiring delightful visual feast for the eyes 5 stars
9/29/04 Betsy Brain-dead salute to a thug and terrioist - Redford is deep in the loony left 1 stars
9/15/04 jim great 5 stars
8/15/04 Christine Todd Inspiring and real 5 stars
5/11/04 Marina Veiga beautiful and very funny 5 stars
3/12/04 Roberto De La Serna Awesome says it all 5 stars
2/08/04 Sophie Great film. Almost historically accurate 5 stars
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  24-Sep-2004 (R)
  DVD: 15-Feb-2005



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