‘Based on a true story…’

The Motorcycle Diaries re-enacts the journey that transformed Ernesto Guevara into Che, Latin America’s greatest revolutionary


The Motorcycle Diaries
Walter Salles
2005 (Spanish, English subtitles), FilmFour
126 minutes

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

LATAMROB rating: ****

YOU HEAR the words “based on a true story” and groan. Yet another exaggerated and unrealistically scripted Hollywood blockbuster about alien invasions, a story that shocked the world or a geological phenomenon.

But not this one. The Motorcycle Diaries follows two real-life characters on their trip of a lifetime. Forget the fact that one of them would later become known the world over as Che Guevara, one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century, the film captures all of their flaws, joys and new experiences. With subtle hints of future events ‘A revolution without guns, no that would never work…’, it focuses on the men rather than their motives.

Gael García Bernal’s truthful portrayal of the guerrilla-to-be accentuates Guevara’s flaws as well as his passions, and Rodrigo De la Serna charms the audience with his cheeky, childlike Alberto “gordito” Granado. The Motorcycle Diaries captures the thoughts and feelings of Guevara the individual, making the audience, for a fleeting second, consider his journey towards communism. It reveals Guevara’s trajectory into radicalism through a transition from the comfort of middle-class life to scrounging for food from the locals wherever he happened to be. In a way, the views of the audience are shaped along with this character’s as we are forced to confront the hardship faced by so many.

Strong bond

The dialogue is warm and rich, conveying the strong bond that has developed between the two friends alongside subtle hints within the scripting that reveal Guevara as a work in progress. At times, one could say that a little less conversation and a little more action is needed, but this slow pace confirms the sheer difficulty of getting around South America on a motorcycle and on foot. It also demonstrates that the sleepy, jaded lives of the indigenous people are a lot more complex and difficult than we think.

Directed by Walter Salles, this film is also a small masterpiece of cinematography, depicting the epic Latin American landscape as the crucible of a romantic time-bomb about to go off. The wide shots and use of contrast captures accurately the dust and desperation of a continent whose hopes had for so long gone unfulfilled.

The denouement is moving. Guevara and Granado, aspiring physicians, dedicate their medical skills to those suffering from leprosy in a leper colony. He heals those that others fear to touch. If he cannot help them physically, he encourages them, foretelling how charisma became this revolutionary’s greatest weapon. This is a truly remarkable story and it is told through Guevara’s beautiful honesty and integrity. As it was based on his personal journal, the story follows one man’s troubles and aspirations. Ending with a distant shot of the real Granado, it tearfully remembers Guevara as a man, friend and doctor and reflects his immortal phrase: “You can kill the revolutionary, but not the revolution.”

This is one “based on true story” that you should not miss. Without clichés or block characters, The Motorcycle Diaries shares the journey of two young men into maturity. It tells the story of the man before the legend, the experiences before the views. It awakens the passion and zest for life that is such a worthy tribute to Guevara’s memory.

Isabel O’Toole is a high school student