The world knows Che Guevara as the Latin American firebrand who backed Castro in the Cuban revolution. Guevara's youthful diary—published posthumously as Mi Primer Gran Viaje ("My First Big Trip") and, in English, as The Motorcycle Diaries—described the Argentine's journey across South America and helped to establish Guevara as a free-thinking beat-generation hero. With his film The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles uses Guevara's account, and that of his traveling companion Alberto Granado, as guidelines for an improvisatory travelogue of self-discovery.
This sort of film, which can be interpreted as an endorsement of the man's later politics, walks a fine line. Salles must show Guevara—played by Y tu Mamá También sex symbol Gael Garcia Bernal—to be a young man shedding callowness in favor of social awareness. Though he cannot ignore the controversial figure Che will become, Salles must be truthful to the limited foresight of the men's historical accounts and admire Che's newfound conviction, if only as far as this story takes him. As much as The Motorcycle Diaries is a story of a leader in the making, Salles gives equal weight to the profound friendship of the two men, emboldened by the pressure cooker of lengthy and trying travel.
Salles's naturalistic approach to the photography and editing informs the actors. Both Bernal and Rodrigo Serna as Granado turn in performances of realistic warmth and credible self-searching. The screenplay by playwright Jose Rivera skillfully translates the straightforward diaries into quietly compelling dramatic terms. Encounters with actual natives of the various South American locations breathe with humor and vital energy, but the film lives or dies in a memorable swim between two shores, which Salles imagines as a symbolic manifesto for Che's future commitment to revolution.
[For Groucho's interview with The Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles, click here.]