From It Happened One Night to Kings Of The Road to Pee-wee's Big Adventure, successful road movies have to find a way to capture the shifting landscapes that the characters travel through, as well as the changes those landscapes exact. In The Motorcycle Diaries, star Gael García Bernal lets his eyes tell the story. A child of upper-middle-class privilege on the verge of finishing medical school, he journeys from Argentina through Chile in the hopes of making it to Venezuela in time to commemorate the 30th birthday of his earthy traveling companion Rodrigo De la Serna.
Bernal hopes for little more than adventure and maybe some long-overdue affection from his wealthy girlfriend when he sets out with De la Serna on a rickety antique motorbike. Instead, he has his eyes opened to how most of Latin America lives when the journey takes them from the big city to a sprawling estate to provincial villages to mine-camp destitution to a leper colony. Handsomely shot by Brazilian director Walter Salles and beautifully played by the two leads, The Motorcycle Diaries would amount to little more than a minor, softly politically conscious coming-of-age story, if not for its historical context. Instead, it plays like a lefty analog to one of Paul Harvey's "The Rest Of The Story" radio segments. Because that young man played by Bernal grew up to be (dramatic pause) Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Guevara's accomplishments as a revolutionary are relegated to an endnote. Dramatically, this helps The Motorcycle Diaries, letting it focus on the story of one person's developing conscience as he comes to recognize a vision of Latin America that stretches across the borders of nation and class. Subtly shifting his character with each stop along the road, Bernal reflects a better understanding of how his world works, and how it might be changed.
He delivers a wonderfully thoughtful performance, his deepening seriousness complemented at every point by De la Serna's high-spiritedness and Salles' evocative use of scenery. It becomes easy to overlook the fact that the film, written by Jose Rivera (who was working from writings by Guevara and real-life companion Alberto Granado), ends up playing like the first chapter of a hagiography. The complex figure of Guevara—who saw liberation as a product that could only be produced by, in his words, a "cold killing machine," and who put that theory into practice—doesn't really work as a saint. There's a gun that's never used, and some talk of gunpowder at the site of some Incan ruins, but mostly, Bernal's Guevara just comes to realize that oppressed people have feelings, too, and that there's a lot to be learned from touching lepers. In the end, the stately film ends up revealing little of the man behind the unchanging icon of revolution now emblazoned on T-shirts, British beers, and trendy handbags. It just offers a cuddlier version of it.