Sometimes a movie comes along that shows you exactly what the filmmaking art is all about. The Motorcycle Diaries is just such a movie. It deals with the trials and tribulations of the young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna whilst he was still a medical student and before he became slightly more famous as "Che" Guevara, and his friendship with Alberto Granado, a fellow medical student as they take an eye opening and often hazardous motorcycle trip across the South American continent.
Along the way, the two friends encounter women and adventure in equal measure, as well as hostile locals, friendly locals, illness and danger, but are most affected by what they witness the treatment meted out on the native populations (or what remains of them) by locals. It is this factor that influences young Ernesto the most, and obviously what drives him to become the famous (or to some infamous) revolutionary he would be most remembered as. Granado on the other hand sees the whole thing as a big adventure at first, but whilst it takes him longer to awaken his social conscience, when he does the transformation is all the more uplifting.
As Ernesto, Gael Garcia Bernal gives a committed performance as a relatively privileged young man from a well to do family who, as his journey progresses, realises that much of his own privilege is gained at the expense of others and ultimately gives him the first inkling of his life's calling (to quote Alberto "I am not me anymore, at least I am not the same me I was"). The fact that Bernal is a highly charismatic young actor also helps to humanise the man who would become "Che" (which is actually utilised by Argentineans in much the same way as "dude" or "mate" is used by us), and allows us to empathise with his social awakening to the inequities of not only his own country but the continent as a whole.
That is not to say that Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto is any less watchable than Bernal. Initially coming across as a chubby, fun loving man who sees the journey as nothing more than an excuse to get laid in a variety of countries, his journey from self satisfaction into a more well rounded human being is all the more satisfying because he has much further to go.
On top of a couple of top notch performances, director Walter Salles has crafted a truly beautiful movie, breathtaking in scope and wonderful to look at (particularly when the two friends reach the Incan city of Machu Pichu). The film also has a number of noteworthy and often very touching scenes, in particular an extended section when the two friends stay and help out in a leper colony, something that has a deep impact on both of them, as well as the viewer.
Part road movie, part travelogue, part adventure and part social commentary, this is a film that has much to offer both the casual viewer and the more committed cinephile. Do not be put of by the subject matter, a deep understanding of "Che" Guevara is not necessary to enjoy this film, or the undoubted political slant, neither is a hindrance to the viewer's enjoyment. Ultimately a movie about two friends and their deeper understanding of each other and the world around them as a result of their experiences.