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Weekend Watch: Motorcycle Diaries

September 30, 2005 16:38 IST

Che Guevara. Marxist revolutionary. Guerrilla leader. Movie star. Diarios de Motocicleta -- or The Motorcycle Diaries as the rest of the world knows it -- is solid proof. If Che were alive, this is a film he would have liked to play a part in.

Based on Guevara's letters, The Motorcycle Diaries is a Spanish film that follows the revolutionary in his pre-revolutionary days, when he was just a 23-year-old planning a road trip with his best friend. The mail he sent home documented his path across South America in the 1950s, on motorcycle and foot. It would change his life, influencing a large chunk of modern history in the process.

If you need a quick lesson before you pick up the DVD, here's one: Ernesto Rafael Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967), commonly known as Che, was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary who, in 1959, played an important role in Fidel Castro's movement to seize power in Cuba. Castro overthrew the Basta regime, creating America's first and only communist state. Che left a few years later, hoping to provoke similar revolutions in other countries, but was captured by the CIA in Bolivia and executed. His death was controversial, making him an icon for Communist revolutionary movements worldwide.

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He continues to adorn a great many T-shirts.

As a viewer, what you know about the life of Che is a matter of some importance. Even though you can watch The Motorcycle Diaries in blissful ignorance of who he was (and it still passes muster as good cinema), knowing what he went on to do colours much of what you see. Rather than the myth, it helps you understand the man a little better.

The film opens with Che (Gael Garcia Bernal) about to set off with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). They are both students in search of one last adventure before graduating as doctors, and look upon a rusty, broken-down motorcycle as their ticket. They hope -- in the course of travels through Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Peru -- to find excitement, fun and maybe even a few women. What they get, however, are answers to how each must live his life.

On their roundabout route to a leper colony, Che and Granado finish off their money, have innumerable problems with their bike, get into tussles with locals, flirt a little, walk a good way on foot, and even get around by raft. In the hands of Brazilian director Walter Salles -- set to direct On the Road, based on Jack Kerouac's book, in 2007 -- what starts off as a buddy trip evolves into a social commentary documenting the development of Che's consciousness.

Anyone who has seen Gael Garcia Bernal in action before (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Amores Perros) will expect a terrific performance. And yes, he delivers one. Even De la Serna, who is forced to work in Bernal's shadow, holds his own effortlessly. Interestingly, South America deserves as much credit. It shines, thanks in part to Eric Gautier's faultless cinematography.

To be fair, The Motorcycle Diaries portrays Che as a kind of saintly figure in the habit of exuding benevolence. He was -- much as guerrilla fighters worldwide tend to be -- far from perfect. Then again, this view stems only when one critiques it from a biographical perspective. It is obviously no reflection on quality, considering the film won an Oscar, a Silver Condor and a BAFTA award, apart from garnering 22 other wins and 33 nominations.

The DVD, which was released a mere two months ago, offers subtitles (obviously) in English and French, along with some deleted scenes (watch the delightful one of Che stealing a few bottles of wine only to lose them to thieves), interviews with the real Alberto Granado, the film's music composer, and Gael Garcia Bernal, and a little 'Making-Of' feature.

As a rough introduction to the life of Che, The Motorcycle Diaries is superb. As something to watch over the weekend, you would be hard pressed to come up with something as engaging.  Here's the tagline for a taste of what to expect: 'Let the world change you... and you can change the world.'

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Lindsay Pereira