One of the young men astride that untrustworthy metal steed in The Motorcycle Diaries is, of course, Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), accompanied by his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). Guevara would go on to fight for social equality under the auspices of the Cuban Revolution and then become the handsome, gun-toting revolutionary-of-choice for subsequent generations of status quo-defying kids.
Brazilian director Walter Salles has focused on a side of Che many young viewers can relate to -- a 24-year-old dressed in leather helmet and goggles, yearning for adventure. Rather than the full-fledged radical, here Che is a thoughtful medical student whose life course is changed by travels from his home in Buenos Aires to Chile, Peru and Venezuela. The Dennis Hopper to Bernal's Peter Fonda is Alberto, the buddy film's archetypal fun-lovin' sidekick. The chubby, girl-crazy fast talker provides a contrast to the sensitive, asthmatic, intense Che.
On their journey, Che and Alberto encounter a Peruvian couple driven from their land and wearing the stricken, leathery expressions of the Okies in The Grapes of Wrath. On a boat from Lima, Che observes the brutal divisions of class, where the lowlier ranks are actually dragged in a separate dingy behind the boat, an epiphany Salles anachronistically punctuates with peels of electronic guitar.
Che's philosophical growth over the course of those travels -- recorded in letters to his mother and diary entries that are the basis of the film -- culminates in a three-week stay at a Peruvian leper colony. It is there, where the lepers and their caregivers are divided by the Amazon River, that Che slowly recognizes the gulf that separates the exploiters and the exploited in South America.
The Motorcycle Diaries suffers from the difficulty of showing Che's awakening consciousness. Much easier and more emotionally satisfying to convey is how Che puts that consciousness into action, which doesn't occur until late in the film in the leper colony scenes. The Motorcycle Diaries is a sweet, subtle -- too subtle, in fact -- alternative to the Sturm und Drang of the usual Hollywood bio-picture. But there is, unfortunately, something watered-down and amorphous in Salles' approach. It takes a long time to even realize this is not the typical freewheeling buddy picture. The film's revolutionary sensibility is often less vital and intense than the meatier politics of another New Latino road movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien (also starring Bernal).
If Che's transformation into the poster child revolutionary is in part explained by his pistol toting and his handsomeness (as opposed to homelier revolutionaries like Marx and Rosa Luxemburg), then our sympathy for Che is intensified by the boyishly beautiful Bernal, who believably conveys the wounded transformation from innocence to knowledge. Bernal's charismatic beauty is matched by the phenomenally lovely landscapes the two men encounter -- landscapes that slowly become tainted by the ugliness of what they find there.