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Michelle Thomas

Published August 27th, 2004 | by Michelle Thomas

The Motorcycle Diaries Review

Classification: 15 Director: Walter Salles Rating: 4.5/5

In 1952 two young Argentines, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, set out on a road trip to discover the real Latin America. Ernesto was a 23-year-old medical student specialising in leprosy; Alberto, 29, a biochemist. Romantic and slightly naïve, these two nice middle-class friends leave Buenos Aires on a knackered 1939 Norton 500, optimistically named La Poderosa (The Mighty One), to travel through the Andes, along the coast of Chile, across the Atacama desert into the Peruvian Amazon, arriving in Venezuela in time to celebrate Alberto’s 30th birthday.

Walter Salles’ follow-up to Central Station starts out, like Ernesto and Alberto’s journey, light-hearted and a little bit naughty. Alberto is single, horny, and looking forward to getting laid in every town in South America, while Ernesto is committed to his pretty, aristocratic girlfriend Chichina, whose parents disapprove of their relationship. The pair fall off their bike, bicker, make up, quarrel again. After a collision with a herd of cows leaves La Poderosa badly damaged, Ernesto and Alberto continue their journey on foot.

Physically exhausted, hungry, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food and lifts, the boys begin to see a different Latin America. Their chance meetings with people on the road take on a different meaning, as they encounter the poor and the dispossessed. They spend time in the ancient Inca capital Machu Picchu, contrasting the magnificent remains with the slums of modern Lima before travelling on to a leper colony at San Pablo, in the heart of the Amazon. The leper colony is administered by nuns, who have a policy of segregating the sick from the healthy, and refusing to feed those who don’t attend mass; Ernesto and Alberto choose to ignore this, refusing to wear gloves and freely mingling with the lepers while earning the displeasure of the Mother Superior.

The Motorcycle Diaries is wonderful, working on so many levels; subtle and deft. It is at once a coming of age story, a rite of passage, a road trip and a buddy movie. Gael Garcia Bernal is splendid as the young Che, charming, awkward and passionate by turns, but the newcomer Rodrigo de la Serna is equally good as Alberto; their constant bantering and bickering – and their real concern for each other – so well done. These are two extraordinary young actors.

Walter Salles has said that the film is about Ernesto Guevara before he became the legendary revolutionary hero ‘El Che’. The political awakening of both Ernesto and Alberto is delicately done. There is no defining moment, just a cumulative effect, an organic process; the social and political reality of Latin America – the beauty of the landscape contrasted with the poverty of the people – takes over little by little, in such a way that, by the end, you realise that they have been transformed by their journey. It’s also very funny.

The Motorcycle Diaries made me want to give up my job, travel round South America, become a revolutionary, get shot by the CIA, and shag Gael Garcia Bernal. Not necessarily in that order…

Who could ask for anything more?

Read The Motorcycle Diaries review by Nik Huggins


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