After earning rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, Walter Salles splendid film The Motorcycle Diaries played at the Toronto International Film Festival this year as one of the Gala Presentations at Roy Thomson Hall. The film seems destined to win the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, and may indeed creep into the major categories for best film, best actor and best director. |
In January, 1952, an asthmatic 23 year old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young medical student and his good friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), a biochemist jumped on a battered old motorcycle and set out to explore the South America they knew only from books they had read. Their journey, partly on the motorcycle, partly on foot, would take them across the snow swept Andes Mountains, across the Atacama Desert, through the basin of the Amazon, and finally to a leper colony close to Peru. On this journey, deeply affected and moved by what he has seen, young Ernesto will become El Che, the revolutionary who became a warrior for Castro, was killed by the CIA and in death became a martyr and symbol of countercultural revolution.
The film asks us to believe that a true revolutionary is guided by love, love for the people of his country, love for his fellow man, and love for his country. We watch as Che takes in all around him, his eyes never missing a moment of suffering he witnesses, or the easy joy within these people of abject poverty. His idealism and innocence fades, replaced by an intelligent anger at the state of the people in his country.
Salles is no stranger to success having had his film Central Station (1998) nominated for foreign language film in '98 and its star nominated for best actress. He is an outstanding filmmaker, capable of creating an intimate character study without ever losing sight of what he is trying to do, which is humanize a cultural icon most people know as a T-shirt or poster. He succeeds on every level.
In a sensitive performance, Bernal captures the heart of a poet as young Che, allowing the audience to see the dawning on him as to what is happening in his country. His eyes are windows to his very soul, and they absorb everything he sees, every face, every happening. Tortured and wracked by bouts of asthma, he seems delicate to the world, certainly too soft to be a revolutionary, yet the performance displays to us inner steel.
n a lesser performance, one of comic relief from time to time Serna is very warm as Granado, a man who wants only to find his next meal and woman, failing to see the world as Che sees it. He does know however, that the trip will change their lives in every way and can see the changes in his young friend.
Based on Guevara's diary, the film is powerful and haunting. I have thought of the images in the picture for weeks after seeing the movie, in particular the sequences at the leper colony, where Che treats the lepers with kindness and respect, allowing such a small thing as wearing no gloves to shake the hands of the diseased make it clear to the ill that he, and perhaps her alone, see them not as lepers but as citizens. Another sequence at the mine paints a picture of the agonizing poverty some of these people were in (and remain in), yet Che does not see that instead seeing them as people in need of something. At the beginning of the journey, the last thing he expected to be when it was over was a revolutionary, but after seeing what he sees, and seeing it in the manner he does, how could he be anything else?
Beautifully filmed in the very locations traveled by the two young men in 1952, the film paints a glorious picture of the South American continent. A land of great beauty, teeming with hardship and pain, which impacts greatly on this na´ve young medical student who will become one of the most influential personalities of the century.
One of the years best films.