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Friday, October 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Movie Review
Before he was Che: just a lad with wanderlust

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Rodrigo de la Serna, left, and Gael García Bernal in "The Motorcycle Diaries," about a road trip taken by two friends, one of whom would become the revolutionary Che Guevara.
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Like all good road movies, the landscape becomes a character in "The Motorcycle Diaries," Walter Salles' beautifully filmed tale of two young men, a motorcycle and a vast continent awaiting discovery. That one of the two men is the young Che Guevara, the revolutionary who would later alter the world's history, seems almost beside the point for much of the film: This eager duo could be any or all young men, dazzled by the romance of the road, eager to experience worlds they haven't yet seen.

Played quietly and soulfully by Gael García Bernal, Ernesto Guevara (the nickname would come later) was a medical student in his early 20s in 1952, the time of his real-life journey with Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). Both wrote about the experience in their journals, which were later published and became the basis for this film. As the two pile on to Alberto's aging cycle, which sags under the weight of their bags, and wave goodbye to their families, the movie is all irresistible possibility — what will they find, how will they change?

Salles, with screenwriter José Rivera, lets the story gently unwind as a series of anecdotes from the road — each punctuated, helpfully, by an onscreen tally of days and kilometers traveled.

Alberto and Ernesto visit the elegant resort where Ernesto's wealthy girlfriend (Mía Maestro) lives with her family ("Where are we, Switzerland?" Alberto mutters); sleep in barns and sheds in less varnished towns; ditch the increasingly unreliable cycle somewhere in Chile; travel dry-baked roads and swift rivers; and meet an ever-changing parade of locals — all in the course of a journey that took eight months and 8,000 miles, curving around the south, west and north regions of South America. They are exposed to poverty and injustice, but this is no idealistic journey — for most of the trip, they're equally interested in meeting girls.

Movie review***½

"The Motorcycle Diaries," with Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mía Maestro. Directed by Walter Salles, from a screenplay by José Rivera, based on the books "The Motorcycle Diaries" by Ernesto Che Guevara and "Travelling with Che Guevara" by Alberto Granado. 128 minutes. Rated R for language. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Meridian, Guild 45th.

Filmed with jittery lushness by director of photography Eric Gautier, "Motorcycle Diaries" is often ravishingly beautiful, blooming with sunsets and mist-shrouded waterways. And Salles achieves something rather unexpected: You get so caught up in the beauty of the images, and lost in the weathered faces found along the way, you quite forget that you're traveling with Che Guevara — which is, of course, exactly what the original experience would be. Occasionally Bernal lets us see a flash of righteous anger, and by the end, as the men settle in a leper colony reached by boat, young Ernesto is clearly changed. But there's never one moment that jolts him — just a gradual acquiring of awareness, as travel opens his mind and his conscience.

The film could perhaps be fairly accused of idealizing or softening its hero, who was hardly gentle in his later revolutionary actions. (The real Granado — whom we see in a brief, touching moment at the end of the film — took a quieter path toward changing the world; he later founded a medical school in Cuba.) But except for a few explanatory notes at the end, the warmhearted "Motorcycle Diaries" is less interested in Che than in Ernesto, and in that time of our lives when the world seems full of endless possibility.

Moira Macdonald:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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