Sunday, March 06, 2005

I just finished watching Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries, the story of Ernesto Che Guevara's life-changing motorcycle trip across South America with his friend Alberto Grande. I don't know much about Che except that you saw his face everywhere in the late 1960s, when he became a holy martyred figure, and this reasonably interesting movie is made from the same point of view.

Che (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), who call each other Feder and Chubby, take their trip on a beat-up old cycle in the early 1950s. They have a relationship much like a comedy team: Alberto is the funny, lively, horny, mischievous one; Che is the serious, soulful, thoroughly straight man. Alberto is a biochemist and Che is a medical student; one knows medicine, and one feels deeply responsible for saving people's lives. Alberto will lie or stretch the truth to get them out of a tough spot (such as when he praises the debut novel of a benefactor) while Che is as honest as George Washington (and tells the benefactor his work is lousy.)

As they take their 10,000 mile trip over several months, Alberto sees the whole thing as a huge romantic adventure (which it is) while Che becomes more and more aware of the plight of poor. He also knows what suffering is, as he's an asthmatic who occasionally finds himself at death's door.

The trip, particularly a visit to a leper colony -- where he refuses to wear rubber gloves in dealing with the diseased and disfigured -- radicalizes Che, who will, following the events of the movie, hook up with Castro and turn Cuba into a Communist stronghold.

When the movie came out last fall, Paul Berman gave every reason to watch it with a skeptical eye, which I more or less did.

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