Friday, October 20, 2006

The Motorcycle Diaries * * * *

I thought I'd break out of my usual routine of watching movies no one has ever seen or will see. The Motorcycle Diaries is adapted from a book of the same name written by Ernesto Guevara (Che) about an 8-month and 12,000km trip he took with a friend across South America in 1952. He was a 23 year-old medical student in Buenas Aires at the time, and this trip marked a turning point for him, after which he resolved to devote himself to the plight of the poor and oppressed. As most know, he became a Marxist revolutionary and fought with Fidel Castro in the 1958 Cuban revolution. In the mid 1960s, he left Cuba to foment revolutions in the Congo and Bolivia, where he was eventually captured and excecuted. One would imagine that a movie about Che Guevara would be infused with righteous grandstanding and a heavy political bias. I despise movies like that (I cannot watch Michael Moore movies, for example), and I have avoided this movie for the last two years, for this reason. But there it was on the rack at the library last week, so I thought "What the heck". I put it on while doing an AM workout, thinking I'd check out the first 20 minutes and then return it if it annoyed me. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is not a self-righteous soap-box kind of movie.

The Motorcycle Diaries has the plot of a road movie. Plain and simple. They travel 12,000km and meet people along the way, and the men who finish the journey are not the same as the men that started. Our two companions on this virtual road trip, a 29-year old biochemist and a 23-year old medical student both from Buenas Aires, are charismatic and fun. The acting from the two main actors is superb. In particular, the actor who plays Ernesto is perfect, and he's so pretty and sensitive, that I wonder if this isn't really a chick-flick. The journey itself is stunningly beautiful -- across Argentina, up the spine of the Andes to Peru and then down the Amazon. But of course there is more to this movie than simple road tripping, because it is the true story of a man who afterwards devoted his life to helping the poor and was completely willing to die for that. You might disagree with his methods (I do, very much so), but this was a person who devoted his life to a cause bigger than himself. I imagine that many people who decide to completely devote their entire lives to an idealistic cause have an event like this in their lives -- an event that changes these people from youthful idealists who are not precisely sure of what to do, to people who have a very clear vision of their calling and have this incredible resolve and dedication to that. This movie captures that journey for one young man and is very compelling in that way.

This movie has gotten a lot of 5 star reviews. I find this curious. Is there some Norte Americano liberal PC-ness going on here?? It's good, sure, but it's got a lot of rough spots that many reviewers don't mention -- except those reviewers that have serious problems with Ernesto Guevara's politics. On on the required "Cons" section, many reviewers write "none". Ok, that's b.s. First off, the editting and transitions were very rough. Snip, they're pushing the bike through snow up a pass. Snip, they're pushing it through dirt in a valley. Huh? Second, the cinematography is highly variable. Sometimes we get these beautiful shots and soft lighting, later it's grainy, later it's like a PBS documentary. Speaking of which, the scenes with the Inca villagers feel like they are from photographing the actors as they toured the village. It's almost like they have come out of character, and the cinematography and feel is just like some PBS travel documentary to the Andes. Lastly, as mentioned in the beginning, I didn't want to see a movie that glorified Ernesto Guevara, nonetheless this is a movie about a real person and that person became a Marxist guerilla fighter who was known for his ruthlessness and ideological rigidity (and also uncommon courage under fire). The post-revolution period in Cuba from what I've read was marked by hundreds of mock trials headed by Guevara that executed people with no legal defense. Under Guevara's brand of Marxist communism, disagreeing was a capital crime. You do not see the seeds of this ruthlessness and rigidity in this movie. It's a shock to imagine the main character in this movie as a violent revolutionary. He seems more like a person who becomes a famous activist fighting for the rights of the poor. So, it's a really good movie, but not a masterpiece.

In summary: This is a movie I would add to my Friday night movie series to watch with friends. This is a foreign film that almost all will enjoy. And there are some who would probably want to make a special point of renting this: If you liked, Y Tu Mama Tambien, then you should see this as it has the same actor. If you have a thing for South America, you should see this because the scenery is superb.