- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

It looks like a banner weekend for New Left nostalgia. Aging but ideologically steadfast radicals may find reaffirmation in both “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which evokes Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a shy and idealistic youth, circa 1951-52, and “Going Upriver,” which recalls Sen. John Kerry as a young lieutenant and then antiwar protester, circa 1969-71.

The long-range advantage certainly resides with Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’ “Diaries,” a fictionalized fragment of biography derived in part from vintage Guevara journals that were published about a decade ago.

Mr. Salles is best known for an earlier picaresque fable, “Central Station,” imported in 1998. He may generate a more far-reaching vogue with this project, with its potential for sentimental appeal to those who revere Mr. Guevara as a martyr as well as those barely acquainted with his political misadventures.

A convert to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary exploits, Mr. Guevara perished in Bolivia in 1967 while attempting to rally the peasantry to a communist insurgency.

Mr. Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera keep historical hindsight prudently in the background while depicting the young Guevara, portrayed by the Mexican matinee idol Gael Garcia Bernal.

The historical figure is resurrected at a still hopeful point in his life, long before the choices he made led to despair and calamity.

The shy and introspective figure in the movie shares a prodigious odyssey with a somewhat older friend and medical school student, Alberto Granado, who owns their initial means of transportation, an antique Norton motorcycle that repeatedly conks out, transforming them into hitchhikers eventually. As impersonated by Rodrigo de la Serna, Mr. Granado is also a more vigorous and entertaining cinematic companion.

At the time, Mr. Guevara was studying to become a doctor and his friend a research chemist. They covered about 8,000 miles of the South American continent, starting west from their home in Buenos Aires and bearing north when they reached Valparaiso on the Pacific coast.

From there it was more or less up the Andes until they reached the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Their final destination was a leper colony on the Amazon, where the original medical vocations once again loomed large during a three-week stint as volunteers.

There’s a compelling scenic and emotional attraction in the ambitious itinerary itself. The filmmakers keep new locations coming so deftly in the early reels (while superimposing place names and mileage figures for map watchers in the audience) that the sheer accumulation of impressions and landscapes proves exhilarating. For a while you seem to be along for a classic ride.

Unfortunately, there are slippery and slack patches down the road, not to mention a predictable ideological agenda, which insists that this journey marked both men decisively as future political revolutionaries.

Specifically, certain episodes bring the travelers into fleeting contact with the poor or frail. As enacted, these encounters seem no more telling or authentic than the romantic, facetious or physically perilous situations emphasized in the early going.

The scenario seems to get earnest arbitrarily. Social piety obviously insinuates itself during a sequence about impoverished copper miners and then again during the finale with the lepers, who dote on Mr. Guevara’s ministrations to such an extent that you’re rather surprised that he fails to take up prolonged residence.

Ultimately, the movie doesn’t really possess a decisive impact. I realize that Gael Garcia Bernal is regarded as a fashionable dreamboat in some circles, but he may with equal justice be dismissed as a pretty face who hasn’t quite discovered a personality.

**

TITLE: “The Motorcycle Diaries”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Walter Salles. Executive producer: Robert Redford. Screenplay by Jose Rivera, based on the journals of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, memoirs by Alberto Granado and biographies of Mr. Guevara by Jorge Castaneda, John Lee Anderson and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Cinematography by Eric Gautier. Music by Gustavo Santaolalla. In Spanish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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