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THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mía Maestro, Gustavo Bueno, Jorge Chiarella
Director: Walter Salles
Audio: Spanish 5.1, French 5.1
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Universal
Features: Making-of documentary, deleted scenes, A Moment with Gael García Bernal, A Moment with Alberto Granado, Tomo Uno (Take One) with Gael García Bernal, Music Of The Road featurette, cast and crew filmographies
Length: 127 minutes
Release Date: February 15, 2005

How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?

Film ****

What is the essence of a truly memorable road trip?  Is its worth measured in the distance traveled, the time elapsed, or the experiences garnered?  Is a road trip merely an excuse to reach point A from point B, or is the process of the journey itself fundamentally more life-affirming than the actual arrival?  Today, many people have the wrong impression of what constitutes a memorable road trip.  Most families accept an unoriginal and banal concept - a comfortable but dull ride in a big, lumbering SUV with cool, conditioned air circulating inside while a portable DVD player entertains the backseat passengers.  This is, in short, entirely the wrong approach.

Transit within a mobile steel cage that utterly isolates passengers from the outside world defeats the very purpose and joy of an ideal road trip.  The air must be tasted, each bump in the road must be felt; our hair must be salted with the breath of the untamed winds.  These experiences demand that insignificant “creature comforts” be ignored or dismissed entirely.  After all, nobody ever remembers the uneventful journey in which nothing happens and everything goes smoothly.  We only fondly recall, years later, those colorful treks flavored by annoying mechanical breakdowns, ill-advised detours down some strange country road, and the exhilaration (or bewilderment) of being utterly lost in a strange land.  Any consequent flare-up of temper over petty matters merely adds further spice to the journey.  Therein lies the true essence of the memorable road trip.

The best time to undertake such an adventure is in one's carefree youth, when the daily worries and hassles of everyday existence have yet to sap a bold and spirited wanderlust.  For most people, youth is that fleeting instance in life when optimism, boundless energy, and a confident aura of invincibility seemingly prevail over all obstacles.  Our hearts are touched with fire, and our spirits known no bounds.  In this springtime of our lives, with the span of limitless years stretching before our mind's conceptual horizon, we have little to fear from failure or delays.  Anything and everything is possible.

Youth, then, is a time for exploration, for amassing the wealth of adventures which will form the nucleus of our later philosophies and personal ideologies.  In the trials and tribulations of youth, the origin of our dreams and aspirations is created.  These experiences will ultimately influence the true measure of a person and his subsequent achievements.

Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) is an intimate reflection of one such experience, a rite of passage for young Ernesto "El Fuser" Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal).  Soon to graduate into his new profession as a specialist in the treatment of leprosy, twenty-three year old Ernesto has planned for some time to take several months off from his studies for one final hurrah - a road trip through thousands of miles of the vast South American expanse.  Ernesto will be accompanied by his close friend Alberto "Mial" Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), a self-proclaimed “wandering scientist” with a dream of finishing the journey by his thirtieth birthday.  Together, both young men share a restless passion for the open road, and Ernesto in particular determines to embark upon his cathartic journey, with or without the blessings of his family.

Ernesto's youth and vitality compel him to make this journey before life passes him by.  He would not wish to end up, as Alberto dutifully points out to his young friend on the eve of their departure, as an old and weary man sitting alone and forgotten in a local café, nodding off into a daydream about a lifetime of opportunities not taken or paths not visited.

Thus, on January 4, 1952 from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the two young Argentines begin their road trip.  It will be a trek through the very heart of South America to explore a continent they know only from books.  The trip will take the two adventurers west to Patagonia and into Chile, then north along the Andes to Machu Picchu, and next to the San Pablo leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon before finally concluding in the Guajira Peninsula in Venezuela.  Their grand adventure will ultimately carry both young men over twelve thousand kilometers of South American backcountry.

Their sole mean of transportation is Alberto's classic 1939 "Norton 500" motorbike, christened "The Mighty One."  It may be old and not entirely stable, but this motorcycle amounts to the men's only faithful roadside companion (at least for the initial leg of their journey).  Unfortunately, neither Ernesto nor Alberto is a particularly adept motorcyclist.  The Norton being a notoriously difficult bike to handle, the two men take frequent tumbles onto the dirt roads and pebble roads of their journey, and their motorbike, already creaky and worn, irreparably breaks down in sections as the days transpire.  Even so, all bumps, bruises, and countless little delays aside, Ernesto and Alberto persevere onward, walking alongside the bike if needed and generally enjoying their once-in-a-lifetime odyssey.

Of the pair, Alberto is the more colorful and charismatic character.  He regularly employs an abundance of charm and clever ruses to elicit sympathy, food, and shelter from locals along the journey.  Ernesto is the more quietly thoughtful one, content to observe and to slowly assimilate the experiences which will eventually alter his social consciousness.

Following a brief detour to Miramar, Argentina, home of Ernesto's girlfriend, Chichina (Mía Maestro), Ernesto and Alberto turn northward along the Perúvian coast.  Early on, a gusty night storm steals away their tent, yet neither rain nor snow can delay the journey for long as Ernesto and Alberto continue onwards, making the rounds of local food markets and small town communal dances along the way.  There is occasional melancholy for the people and places left behind but always excitement for all that is still to follow.   Their travels take them through the Desierto de Atacama and even onto the Amazon River.  They cross a desert together, they starve, they freeze, and when “The Mighty One” can no longer continue with them on their journey, Ernesto and Alberto shoulder their backpacks and take to the roads by foot.

By March, they reach Valparaíso, Chile, where Ernesto begins to recognize that the ties to his past are being slowly severed.  From this pivotal point onwards, The Motorcycle Diaries diverges upon a more contemplative and introspective path.  The next stage of the journey begins in mid-May in Lima, Perú when Ernesto and Alberto meet Hugo Pesce, director of Perú’s leper treatment program.  Dr. Pesce provides them with references to a leper colony in San Pablo, Perú, and by early June, Ernesto and Alberto arrive at the colony via riverboat for the final stage of their journey.  It is a stay during which, as Dr. Pesce hopes, Ernesto and Alberto will each learn important lessons about the value of life, lessons which will thereafter change both men.

This more somber tone, a remarkable development in which the nature of the film changes from a fanciful and light-hearted buddy road trip film into something deeper and more affecting, reveals the true heart of the film.  A respite at Machu Picchu affords Ernesto time to reflect upon the centuries-old plight of the native South American Indians, who possess a long-dormant potential for self-determination and emancipation from social injustice.  It is a moment of epiphany for the impressionable young man, and later encounters with further Indians only contribute to Ernesto's changing personal ideals.  The Motorcycle Diaries evolves into more of a pseudo-documentary than a straight narrative, reflecting South America’s diverse ethnicities and multiple cultures.  In this way, the latter half of The Motorcycle Diaries ultimately demonstrates Ernesto's transformation from a mere doctor of the body and physique into a nobler healer for the heart and spirit of the people.

As with all good things, the parting of the ways for Ernesto and Alberto eventually arrives in Caracas, Venezuela on July 26, 1952.  After a trek together of over twelve kilometers during which both young men bonded not only with themselves but with the many peoples of their travel, the two men would not meet again for another eight years.  Both men would accomplish great, world-changing achievements in their later lives, helping to fulfill a vision of a more united South American people, but that, as the saying goes, is a remarkable story for another day.

The Motorcycle Diaries is based on the true journey as recounted in “Notas de viaje” by Ernesto Guevara (in his letters home and diary entries during the journey) and “Con el Che por Latinoamérica” by Alberto Granado.  The Motorcycle Diaries even closes with a poignant shot of the real Alberto Granado, while the closing credits include actual photographs of Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara together.  With shades of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También, this film celebrates the spirit and beauty of the Latin American landscape and its ethnic people.  Such things simply cannot be experienced within the confines of an enclosed road vehicle.  After all, who knows how the unfiltered sights and sounds of a life-defining journey, experienced in the fresh air and unencumbered by rigid time schedules or pre-planning, may alter one's perception of society and community forevermore.

Video ****

The Motorcycle Diaries is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.  Colors and skin tones are generally realistic.  Details are crisp and always distinguishable even in the film's many nocturnal or rainy scenes.  The video quality looks very good.

Audio ****

The film is presented in its original Spanish with an alternate French dubbed track.  Portions of the soundtrack are also in Quechua, the ancient Incan language.  The film is dialogue-driven but showcases many instances of cultural music and natural ambient sounds from the Latin American countryside.  English and French subtitles are also available but do not translate the date and distance captions (in Spanish) which appear frequently in the film.  Even so, just keep in mind that the start date is January 4, 1952 and the end date is July 26, 1952 (with all distances measured in kilometers), and you should be able to follow the film's chronology easily enough.

Also, listen for Jorge Drexler's "Al Otro Lado Del Río" during the closing credits.  This was the first Spanish language melody to win an Academy Award for Best Song.

Features ** ½

Wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought.  I am not me anymore.

The Motorcycle Diaries was produced by Robert Redford and distributed by Universal under its independent "Focus Features" label.  Other recent entries under this label have included such acclaimed films as Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Swimming Pool.  Brief clips for these films as well as The Ice Harvest, Far from Heaven, Winter Passing, The Motorcycle Diaries, and many more pop up whenever this disc is loaded into a DVD player.  Fortunately, should you grow tired of seeing them, these three minutes of promo spots can be bypassed directly to the main menu at any time.

Curiously, there are two separate sets of menus and screen selections.  One set is in English, and the other is in Spanish.  Otherwise, both sets are identical.

There are a handful of short bonus offerings on this disc.  The “Making-of” documentary (22 min.) includes interviews with the cast and crew about the film.  It is, however, essentially a promotional featurette, complete with critical praise and award listings from multiple international sources.

Of more interest are three deleted scenes (8 min.), presented without commentary or explanation.  They are viewed back to back and appear to be fully edited and complete sequences, too.  The first scene involves an amusing outdoor picnic.  The second is a funny and bumpy hitchhiking ride with a “blind as a bat” driver along a gravel path.  The third scene is a conversation between Ernesto and some inhabitants of the leper colony.  In general, these scenes are all worthwhile and were probably cut from the film for length than for any other reason.

A Moment with Alberto Granado (3 min.) is an interview with the real Alberto Granado as he recalls his adventures with Ernesto Guevara.  His remembrances reflect the general veracity of the film’s depicted events.  This short featurette shows Granado’s family life today along with vintage photographs of Granado and Guevara in their younger days.

A Moment with Gael García Bernal (3 min.) is a short conversation with the actor.  This flashy interview was originally televised on Telemundo, the Spanish-language broadcast network and offers a mini-biography of the rapidly rising film star.  Bernal also briefly describes his motivations for becoming an actor and his thoughts about portraying the Latin American revolutionary and folk hero Guevara.

Tomo Uno (Take One) with Gael García Bernal (2 min.) provides Bernal with another opportunity to discuss his still-young career and his thoughts on the film.  Bernal’s comments in this mun2 featurette, made for the Latino entertainment cable network, are initially similar to those found in the preceding featurette but soon delve into Bernal's personal philosophy about acting.

Music Of The Road (3 min.) is an interview with Gustavo Santaolalla.  The composer describes how he was first attracted to the project and how his score for The Motorcycle Diaries relates well to the drama and emotion of the film's images.

Finally, there is a cast and filmmakers section that lists biographies and filmographies for the film’s stars but mostly for the crew, including director Walter Salles and executive producer Robert Redford.  Remember the names of Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna; both actors give truly promising, star-making performances in The Motorcycle Diaries.

Summary:

The Motorcycle Diaries is an evocative and frequently humorous trek through lush Latin American landscapes and towns.  This poignant film embraces the spirit and experiences of youth and reveals how such adventures can strongly influence our personal beliefs later in life.  Definitely one of the best films of 2004 and highly recommended!

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