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Quiet revolution

A soulful 'Motorcycle Diaries' takes Che Guevara's radicalization slow.

September 24, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"The MOTORCYCLE DIARIES" is not what you might be expecting. Though it links future charismatic revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, criminally attractive Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and a Norton 500 motorcycle nicknamed "La Poderosa," the powerful one, don't expect to put it on the shelf next to "Hells Angels on Wheels." This might be the quietest, most meditative motorcycle movie ever made.

On second thought, however, maybe it does belong on that shelf. Like riders everywhere, Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado were changed by their bike experience, by the eight months they spent in 1952 going 8,000 South American miles, but not in the way they expected.

For significant historical figures -- and Guevara, whether you consider him a beacon of truth or an example of what conservatives like to call "adolescent revolutionary romanticism," was indisputably that -- are not all forged in caldrons of fire. As this soulful and reflective film, as gentle as it is potent, ably demonstrates, transformation is no less convincing for being a gradual process that comes on its subjects all unawares.

Brazil's Walter Salles, best known for his 1998 "Central Station," was the right choice to direct a film that, knowing enough not to push too hard, simply unfolds in front of us. Salles' brand of straightforward naturalness comes off as effortless, but it is a lot harder to achieve than it looks.

A key element in this process is screenwriter Jose Rivera. Working in Spanish from books written by both participants, he avoids thunderous epiphanies in favor of catching quiet moments on the fly. His script helps us feel we're on the journey with these two men as they "explore a continent only known in books" and discover not only life but their place in it.

And then there is Garcia Bernal, already a star due to "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and sure to get bigger after this and Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education." At 24, roughly the same age Guevara was when the trip began, he has the gift of unforced magnetism, the ability to make unselfconscious sensitivity heroic on screen.

Guevara has been done by everyone from Antonio Banderas in "Evita" to Omar Sharif (opposite Jack Palance's wacky Castro) in 1969's "Che!," but what makes this performance stand out is that it does not tip its hand. Because Garcia Bernal has the sense and skill not to play Guevara like the great man in training, we get to see an individual learn and expand from experience, to tag along as purpose gradually reveals its inexorable hand to him.

Nothing anywhere nearly this serious is in the offing when these two young men begin Alberto and Ernesto's Excellent Adventure. They will leave their native Argentina, head north through Chile, Peru and Colombia and end up in Venezuela at the top of the continent. "This isn't a tale of heroic feats," Guevara's voice-over says at the outset, setting the tone. "It's two lives running parallel with common aspirations and dreams." Like, it turns out, finding girlfriends in every country they visit.

Of course, it doesn't work out quite that way for Granado (Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna), a 29-year-old pharmacist whose bluster conceals a good heart, and Guevara, at 23 one semester away from his medical degree. Though he came from a politically aware family (something the film does not mention), Guevara had yet to evince interest in social issues.

The journey begins with a visit to Guevara's sweetheart Chichina (Mia Maestro) and her stuffy landed-gentry family, and then gets going in earnest. Or at least as much in earnest as these two guys can manage.

For it turns out that mishaps will characterize this trip as much as anything more purposeful. The travelers' tent blows away, they ineffectually chase women and scrounge for food, they take so many destructive spills the mighty Norton has to be abandoned, and the journey, amid much bickering, continues via walking, hitchhiking and the occasional passenger ferry.

Whereas Granado's conniving presence remains a constant, the sensitive Guevara subtly changes. He's always an idealist, someone who almost cannot tell a lie, a determined man whose inner toughness has been forged through a battle with debilitating bouts of asthma, but his travels give greater scope to a burning compassion and a slowly growing anger at injustice.

Because the deeper these men get into their journey, especially on foot, the more serious things get, the more the continent's problems of poverty, expropriation and exploitation quietly but steadily reveal themselves. An extended stay at a leper colony on the Amazon in Peru (leprosy was an area of specialization for both men) is the emotional climax of that journey, and of the film.

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