Friday, 18 February 2011

Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

This has been out in the UK for about a week (at the time of writing in September 2004), and I had the good fortune to catch it on a day off last weekend.

Walter Salles' (Central Station, co-produced City of God) new film tells the story of the young Ernesto 'Che' Guevara's voyage around South America with his friend Alberto 'Mial' Granado, and the discoveries and personal journey made during the 12,000km+ trip.

I'll start with the negatives, or negative (for there is only one). I haven't read Che Guevara's diaries, on which the film is based. Nor, indeed, do I know much about his life or his work as a revolutionary. Nonetheless as a 'Great Man's Origins' story, in which category this film definitely sits, the whole thing feels a little convenient; the influences too obvious, the references too direct. You know throughout this film exactly where it's heading. Having said that, maybe it was foolish of me to expect anything else from a biopic of such a passionately adored character.

But that is my only gripe. Set aside the above issue, and what you are left with is a beautiful, beautiful tale well told of two friends sharing an extraordinary experience. I was surprised at Salles' ability to differentiate the characters so clearly despite their almost identical reactions to most situations and events. I was half anticipating de la Serna's Mial to become the antagonist to Garcia Bernal's 'Fuser' (Guevara's childhood nickname) at some point in the film, but that never happened. Instead, Salles' chooses to use Mial as the engine, bouncing off Fuser's introspection to keep the story moving along. In doing so, Mial might be in danger of becoming little more than a plot device, but Salles carves him into a character of equal standing to Guevara, the oil to Fuser's vinegar. De la Serna's performance brings out the quality of the writing of his part; the vices and foibles of the young man, his humour, insatiable appetite for women, and silver tongue are all delightfully handled.

By contrast, Bernal's performance is one of introspection. The odd melodramatic asthma attack aside (I'm an asthmatic myself - if you were that hyper during an attack, you'd be dead in about 30 minutes), his performance is spot on. From his leaving his family behind at the start of the film, through his first moment of violent rebellion (throwing a rock at an abusive mining company truck), to his explaining to his friend at the end why he needs to spend a long while alone, Bernal is not overcome by the magnitude of the man he is portraying. He plays him as a kid on his first real adventure away from home, much like any pre-university teen in the UK on his GAP year. The beauty is in the subtleties, and through nuances he suggsts that what he witnesses and experiences over those thousands of miles will stay with him and shape him for many years to come.

Not much to be said about the rest of the cast. The supporting players do well, even if not a one of them is on screen for longer than about 5 minutes through the whole film.

The diversity of locations is astounding, Salles' giving a real sense of what South America might have been almost half a century ago. He finds indigenous Peruvians who still speak Quechua, he shoots in an unspoilt Amazon of timber huts and rafts, he even gathered a skeleton crew (I'm guessing here) and got genuine footage of his two leads in Machu Picchu. This is all ably, and at times beautifully, shot by Eric Gautier (Intimacy).

It being about a week now since I saw the film, it has had a chance to settle. The strongest feeling I have for the film now is wonderment. I want to read Che's diaries, I want to go back to South America, I want to meet all these extraordinary people. But above all I want to see the film again, see a young man to whom I can relate, not a revolutionary giant whose name perhaps holds more significance now than his deeds, whose face is emblazoned on more posters and t-shirts than James Dean.

Fuser is just a kid like any other. In this film we come to understand how he became Che Guevara, a man unlike any other. If this isn't a shoo-in for a best foreign film Oscar nom, I'll eat my hat. It's gorgeous.

The film.

Not my hat.

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