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Che Has His Day

Walter Salles' 'Motorcycle Diaries' takes a ride with the young revolutionary

By Richard von Busack

THEY STILL wear the Che T-shirts some 37 years after he was executed by a drunken Bolivian military officer. The familiar face—as attractively sullen as Jim Morrison's or Tupac's—must mean something different to every wearer. Most must know something of the basics of the life of Dr. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a Communist martyr who died in the field. Che miscalculated a final gamble, lured by reckless adventure rather than the careful military calculation that allowed Ho and Mao (and, some day, Fidel) to outlive their guerrilla days and die in bed.

But that's the point of Che's appeal. He didn't live long enough to become a double-chinned party hack, drowsing over a May Day parade. And yet his end was far from glorious. A once-popular book among radicals is The Diary of Che Guevara, and it's a depressing read today—a gloomy account of camping in the rain for a year in the Bolivian mountains, eating monkeys and parrots, surrounded by distrustful peasants and aided by unreliable guerrillas. Moreover, this book's Che is an officer who can't face the facts or realize that he's in an unwinnable situation.

Perhaps Guevara saw even more frightening days as an assistant to Castro when he was one of the seasick soldiers who packed into the yacht Granma on a hopeless yet successful gamble to take Cuba. After some years as a subordinate to Castro, Guevara became an undercover agent of revolution. He traveled to Africa and South America in hopes of exporting rebellion. His ill-fated guerrilla war in the highlands of Bolivia was the last of Che's life as a man and the beginning of him as a symbol.

A radical-chic version of Che's life flopped in 1969 (starring Jack Palance as Fidel Castro); that was a warning. There's no way to glamorize or tiptoe around Che's dogmatism or to represent the end as anything but a resounding defeat. However, director Walter Salles gets almost everything right in The Motorcycle Diaries. The new movie triumphs by starting at the beginning, presenting Che in his youth. The Motorcycle Diaries is both a buddy movie and a glorious road picture, set in (with the exception of Antarctica) the least-photographed of the world's continents.

In the film, a young Ernesto Guevara (as played by the devilishly handsome Gael García Bernal of Y tu mamá también) goes on a long ramble around the length of South America. With him is his traveling companion Alberto Granada (Rodrigo De la Serna).

In 1952, Ernesto is a medical student, honestly blunt to a fault. He is 23, a dedicated rugby player nicknamed "Fuser" (Shooter), who plays despite a fierce case of asthma. His older buddy Alberto is plumper, more earthy, less aesthetic. He's more interested in women as women, rather than women as a romantic ideal. Without stretching the point, Salles (director of the Brazilian hit Central Station) relies on the ever-popular dynamics of Don Quixote to lay out the story.

Together, this modern Quixote and Sancho Panza leave their comfortable lives in Peron's Argentina on the back of a 13-year-old Norton 500 they call "La Poderosa" (The Powerful One). They aim to make an 8,000-mile U-shaped trip to Patagonia, up through Chile, across the lakes in the north, ending up in the Amazon, where both plan to intern as paramedics at a leper colony.

On the way, Ernesto runs up against the reality of how brutally the haves and have-nots are divided in South America. They meet grave and angry cattlemen in the south; they travel with disposed Indians in the north, with a middle sequence in the Chilean Altiplano, a hostile desert.

The Motorcycle Diaries could not have been an easy film to make, requiring three separate units for Peru, Chile and Argentina. South America's beauty isn't gentle. There's nothing tediously pretty about the landscapes here, either the overcast skies in the far south or the chilly-looking alpine lakes in the north. Some of these locations are pristine, but you're always conscious of the remoteness, the hard work it would take to make a living here. The cities, whether Buenos Aires or the rusty port city of Valparaiso, look tough and hard to crack.

What Salles brings to the story of young Che isn't a radical new filmmaking style. Rather, he's made an intimate epic, in the sturdy John Ford style. The most The Grapes of Wrath-like scenes unfold in mining country. Che and Alberto meet poor Indians—"homeless in their own land," Che notes—on their way to the Anaconda mine. One asks Alberto and Che, "If you're not looking for work, why are you traveling?"

Jose Rivera's screenplay, based on separate memoirs by Che and Granado, ought to be an object for film-student study. There are four courtship scenes, and they are all gems. The makeout session between Che and his rich country cousin (Marina Glezer) is littered with soon-to-be-broken promises. This naive romance is the opposite of a frank chat between Alberto and a Peruvian riverboat prostitute named Luz (Jackelyn Vasquez). With its rapid building of trust and exchanged confidences, the dialogue between Luz and Alberto seems as well-crafted as a passage from a first-rate comedy of the 1930s.

During a dance at a small-town city hall, Che gets picked up by a married woman, with a quickness that may exceed the current speed-record—Dorothy Malone hitting up Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Later on, Alberto and Che work together like a polished vaudeville comedy team, extracting a free feast from a pair of handsome, flirtatious sisters lounging at a cafe.

Salles fits in an enormous amount of South America on the screen, from Amazonia to Patagonia. Yet even the touristy landmarks, like Cuzco, seem brief but to the point—vividly illustrated with hard humor. An Indian boy gestures at the cathedral and says, "There's Jesus Christ Incorporated."

The historian A.J.P. Taylor suggested that if you shaved the fierce whiskers of off Karl Marx you would see the face of a romantic poet. We watch Bernal's Che take in the ancient walls of Machu Picchu. The sight affects him in the same way those desolate castles on the Rhine moved German revolutionaries. At the stage Salles presents him, Che Guevara is a pure reformer.

Some young doctors see poverty in the simplest terms: as a disease, as a public health problem. As I recall it, the Che we see here doesn't even mention Lenin or Jesus. His great revelation comes at a remote hospital, at a dinner dance of the nurses and doctors in a clinic on the banks of the Amazon—it is the one moment of real speechmaking. He tells of how one great mestizo raza stretches from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande (and beyond, of course). Petty political feuds between the nations of the south kept it weak and colonized.

The only time The Motorcycle Diaries gets too saintly is in the ending, when Che is lounging at the leper colony. Salles repeats his points he's made one too many times; and it's a tribute to Bernal's charisma that the leper-hugging never seems emetic.

This movie is for everyone with an emotional investment in reform, even if it is at heart about as politically complex as a Robin Hood movie. In fact, that's essential to its immense populist charm. The Motorcycle Diaries doesn't preach, it persuades. And in the epilogue, we learn that the real-life Alberto was just the first of many changed forever by the idealistic side of Che Guevara.

The Motorcycle Diaries (R; 128 min.), directed by Walter Salles, written by Jose Rivera, based on the writings of Alberto Granado and Che Guevara, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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