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Motorcycle Diaries, The  (2004)


Rating: R

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Video

Release Date: February 15, 2005
Review posted: February 23, 2005


Reviewed by Greg Malmborg




The Motorcycle Diaries is a mesmerizing and intimate adventure and character study based on the true-life story of two friends who set off on a road trip where they will discover their country and their true selves.  It is a film about social awareness, compassion for others, and, most importantly, friendship.


Two young friends, one a medical student and one a biochemist, from an upper class area of Buenos Aires decide to take a trip through South America in 1952 on their beat up motorcycle that they have nicknamed The Mighty One.  The medical student is 23 year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) before he found fame and martyrdom as the Cuban revolutionary.  He is a young, honorable man looking for one last great time to be free to soak up life, meet some girls, and travel to unseen areas before his inevitable transition into a doctor and into adulthood.  Guevara is a withdrawn, internal type who exudes intelligence and yet maintains a youthful awkwardness.  His friend, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna), is just along for the ride hoping to get drunk and get laid.  He is the polar opposite of Ernesto; he is loud, obnoxious, and wild.  But they share a passion for medicine and helping others, and both have a youthful exuberance.


They set off on a road trip that will take them through most of the country and take up most of the year.  When they first set off, the film focuses on their hilarious problems with their testy motorcycle and their search for women and good times.  The motorcycle ends up being a third character through the beginning of the film.  As the film progresses, their misadventures get much more serious, they end up almost freezing to death and almost dying of starvation (because they set off without much money and not knowing exactly where they are going).  Their journey takes them through many different towns and villages where they meet (and, on occasion, scam) the locals and begin to see how most of the country lives and thinks.  They see the injustices and social problems running rampant through the country.  Their journey’s last stop is a leper colony in Peru where they are to work as doctors and where they both develop an intense compassion for those who can’t help themselves.  This journey is what transforms Guevara into the man he will become, the revolutionary immortalized in the famous T-shirt.  And yet with all of these self-discoveries and social issues at the heart of it, the film is really about the joys of youthful friendship and the people, places, and ideas that aide in the transition into adulthood.        




The Motorcycle Diaries is a beautifully made film with two tremendous performances and a captivating story (that is a bit too slow at times).  The film is mesmerizing through the first half as you are introduced to these two fascinating characters as they begin their misadventures.  The tone is light and funny, and it draws you in quickly to these characters and this adventure.  The motorcycle is a constant comic gem and you truly feel sadness when the bike breaks down for good halfway through.  The later stages of the film are its weakest because the focus shifts from this engaging, fun and riveting adventure between two friends that you grow to care for to social injustice, political commentary and this making of a revolutionary.  It’s a true story so there is the added weight of understanding who this character will become which keeps your interest through these weaker sections.


The two performances at the core of the film are just astounding.  Gael Garcia Bernal beautifully underplays the character with subtle grace, strength and care.  He is at his best in the scenes where he must use charm and charisma to help the journey continue.  The later, more reflective scenes do not make use of his raw energy and personality.  This was one of the best performances of the year and he is an emerging star, not just of Latin cinema.  Rodrigo De La Serna is just as great as the hilariously obnoxious Alberto.  He is the perfect comic anecdote to the film’s heavy themes (and later tone).  Serna and Bernal work amazingly well together, their scenes throughout the first section of the film show a perfect comic pairing that bounce off each other like comic veterans.  And their palpable chemistry builds up emotionally throughout which provides for a powerful impact at the climax of the film.


The Motorcycle Diaries is beautifully directed by Walter Salles, who delicately balances the film’s weighty themes with this lighthearted buddy road trip.  He also captures the raw beauty of South America; the film is blanketed in beautiful imagery and landscapes.  The screenplay by Jose Rivera is also quite good, especially the first half of the film.  The dialogue is fresh, funny, and true to the characters.  The script does feel a bit forced and preachy towards the latter part of the film though.        


The film is really about this friendship, it’s a buddy film, and how the transition into adulthood can change friendships.  In that respect, the film is a success.  Where the film struggles is in its latter stages where the focus dramatically changes and it focuses on social issues and the drivers behind Guevara becoming what he is destined to.  The tone changes and the plot slows, although not to the point where it’s unbearable or of poor quality.  Its just that most of the film is spent on this fun filled, interesting adventure between these two riveting characters and once they arrive at the last destination and the friendship takes a back seat to other issues it feels like a let down. 




The quality of the video transfer is terrific, the magnificent beauty of South America is vibrantly displayed with crisp and clear picture quality. 




The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and it is outstandingly clear and crisp; the balances sound great.  The dialogue is clear and the outstanding score sounds brilliant.




A Moment with Alberto Granado – This is a feature interview with the real life Alberto Granado reflecting on his real trip with Guevara that is told in the film.  He discusses how this trip motivated and formed who Guevara became and he also talks about South America, the places they went and the beauty of the country.  This is an interesting and riveting interview; I love it when filmmakers who make films about real life characters include extras like these with the real people being portrayed.  And Granado seems to be a very charming and intelligent guy.


Deleted Scenes – These are three solid deleted scenes (not just extensions of other scenes) showing Granado and Guevara trying to score some wine, running into a very bad driver, and more at the leper colony.  These are actually three great scenes which I was surprised they were cut, although the running time was probably just getting too long and Salles had to make this difficult decision. 


The Making of The Motorcycle Diaries – This is a making of documentary with interviews from the two stars, the director, executive producer Robert Redford (a welcome surprise), and others involved in the film.  They discuss the difficulties of getting this film financed, produced, and filmed.  They talk about the themes of the film and about Guevara’s transformation.  The documentary is excellent, it includes these riveting and informative interviews mixed with behind the scenes footage and it even includes interviews with Guevara’s daughter and Alberto Granado.  Just a perfectly well rounded making of documentary, one of the best ones I’ve seen in a while.


A Moment with Gael Garcia Bernal – This is a Telemundo interview with Bernal speaking about his acting career, his influences and his struggles and successes so far in his very young career.  Bernal is a very charming and engaging actor and this is a very interesting interview.  


‘Toma Uno’ Take One with Gael Garcia Bernal – This is another interview with Bernal speaking about his dream role and the difficulties and successes he had in portraying this icon.  This interview is mostly focused on the film, as the other is more about his career in general.


Music of the Road: An Interview with Composer Gustavo Santaolalla – Santaolalla discusses the score of the film and how he was influenced in making it.  The score is terrific and this is a short but interesting interview.




The Motorcycle Diaries is a riveting cross-country adventure about two great friends and their struggles to find themselves and understand their country and its people.  The film is at its best when its focus is on the friendship and their interesting adventure; it loses steam when the focus shifts to social issues.  The two lead performances are brilliant and the direction is first rate.




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