Stripped of context, The Motorcycle Diaries would have no more dramatic responsibilities than the average road picture. In 1952, Argentinean friends Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael Garc'a Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) set out to see South America by bike. Ernesto, 23, is an idealistic med student interested in treating lepers, while Alberto, 29, is a biochemist with an earthy approach to life and love. Determined to experience as much of the continent as they can, the pair climb aboard a motorcycle they've christened "The Mighty One" and make off for points south. It'll be a trip they can look back on fondly for the rest of their days if they can keep their not-so-mighty vehicle from falling to pieces and avoid hitting any of the obstacles they encounter along the countryside. (Watch out for cows!)
What complicates matters is that Ernesto is destined to become famed revolutionary Ché Guevara; this formative bike tour is the journey of self-discovery recounted in Guevara's memoir The Motorcycle Diaries and Granado's With Ché Through Latin America. The challenge for director Walter Salles (Central Station, Behind the Sun), then, is to keep the jaunt interesting for audiences who don't know Ché Guevara from Shea Stadium, yet refrain from overtly exploiting the sympathies of rubbernecking liberals who have the commie icon's visage screen-printed on their T-shirts.
The movie is better at the latter than the former. As Ernesto and Alberto take in locales they've never before visited including Chile and Peru they gain invaluable insight into the economic and social inequities that afflict all of Latin America. Little by little, Ernesto is acquiring the populist philosophy that will determine his career as a rebel. This could be seriously sanctimonious stuff imagine what Tim Robbins might do with it but Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera keep the character's transformation subtle, relieving him from mouthing any especially grandiose epiphanies. Credit goes as well to Bernal (Y tu mamá también, Amores perros), who refuses to overplay the role: When his Ernesto discovers the sorry lot of Chilean mine workers, for instance, he reacts with a righteous but accessible fury that's devoid of actorly ostentation. This film trusts its audience to determine which moments are important, and how much.
There's substantial humor to the two friends' adventures they're not above padding their résumés to procure free food, drink and lodging. In terms of dramatic build, however, the movie is sometimes lacking. Knowing that the events depicted are grounded in reality doesn't prevent them from tending toward the disconnected and the anticlimactic. In one segment, Ernesto engages in a dangerous flirtation with the wife of a man who's passed out on a bar a few feet away. The cuckold comes to, a bottle is broken in anger, Ernesto gets chased out into the night and so the episode ends, abruptly and never to be revisited.
At times like these, we're put in the strange and sad position of wishing that filmmakers Salles and Rivera had more greatly fictionalized a set of true-life occurrences for our viewing pleasure. It's enough to make us feel downright proletarian. But as Ché himself might have said, film is a people's medium.