The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

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There is a moment towards the end of The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) where our two protagonists get on a boat and sail down a river. In front of them, on the island they just departed, stand dozens of lepers, all waving towards these two men. It is single-handedly the most heartbreakingly emotional moment in a film I’ve seen in a very long time. This scene is near the end of one of the most strangely unique biopics of one of the most extraordinary political figures of the twenty-first century, and it perfectly encapsulates the beautiful nature of The Motorcycle Diaries and its fascinating subject matter.

The most brilliant part about The Motorcycle Diaries is that it is about such a recognizable historical figure, yet someone going in completely blind, and not quite in tune with all the small details of history, will only realize who it is about in the last few minutes of the film. The Motorcycle Diaries tells the story of Ernesto Guevara, also known as the infamous and iconic revolutionary Che Guevara, and shows him in a way we are not used to seeing – rather than as a militant and violent revolutionary, he is a naive and good-natured medical student that sets off on a journey throughout the whole of South America with his friend Alberto Granado. The journey does not go as planned, and rather than just being a road trip for leisure, it turns into a spiritual journey where both men realize their own privileged situation does not extend to many other people, and through their interactions with various people across the continent, they come to a spiritual awakening, and their ways of thinking are forever changed.

I will be very honest – there are two reasons I was interested in watching The Motorcycle Diaries. The first is because I have an incredible fascination with South America – to me, there doesn’t exist a greater adventure than the one that these two individuals undertook, travelling throughout the continent. The culture of the South American countries are rich and diverse, yet so sadly under-represented in mainstream media. The beauty of the countries and the people and their culture have always interested me, and to be perfectly frank, on my most depressed days, I always fantasize about the idea of living amongst the people of South America, learning about their culture and exploring their vast histories that we don’t have many clear representations of. This is exactly why I loved The Motorcycle Diaries so much – it is a film that satisfied my desire to explore the continent, if only partially. Ernesto and Alberto undertake, on the physical level, a beautiful and revealing journey through some of the most beautiful locations on Earth – and even if The Motorcycle Diaries can sometimes feel like a slightly more dramatic Travel Channel documentary, it is still absolutely riveting, if only on the level of showing the cultures and locations of the continent that many of us have longed to see.

The other reason I chose to seek out The Motorcycle Diaries is because of its charismatic and brilliant leading actor, Gael García Bernal. Bernal is an actor who I have decided that I will watch in absolutely anything – I have yet to see him give a bad performance, and he brings something new to every role. His performances are always so rich and complex, and beautifully crafted, and his star continues to rise, in both smaller foreign films and in slightly bigger American productions (such as the utterly brilliant Mozart in the Jungle). The Motorcycle Diaries saw Bernal take on perhaps his most complicated role yet, that of Che Guevara (which Bernal had previously portrayed in another project). However, this is not a biopic about Guevara, the revolutionary that we know – it is about the Guevara that we didn’t know. There have been so many representations of the infamous years of the revolutionary’s life, yet only now are we able to see Guevara in his younger days – and if anything, I’d classify The Motorcycle Diaries as a pre-biopic, as we see the roots of Guevara’s activism and beliefs. I am surprised Bernal didn’t follow up The Motorcycle Diaries with a straightforward biopic of Guevara in his revolutionary years, because that seemed to be the natural progression for the film. However, I don’t think it really matters, because The Motorcycle Diaries tells an untold story about one of the most iconic characters in world history.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a sprawling epic – it is somehow unlike anything I have ever seen. It may not be revolutionary (no pun intended), but it is certainly truly special. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel like it is just filled with heart and soul that many similar projects lack – it may not be at the forefront in terms of cinematography or production design, nor with acting (Bernal gives a fantastic performance, as does Rodrigo de la Serna, but the rest of the cast is merely passable – perhaps that was the point, as I suspect the majority of the performances in this film were by non-actors). It just strikes an emotional blow, from beginning to end. It is true to the idea of a journey, because just like the characters, the audience goes on a revealing journey, albeit an internal one, as we see a side of history and the world that is rarely ever shown. If you don’t believe me how emotional this film is, I dare you to watch the final sequence and not be reduced to tears. The pre-credits scene is one of the most beautiful moments in cinema history in my opinion.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a beautiful film that I am surprised more people have not seen. It is absolutely sublime – and it is as informative as it is moving. I highly suggest anyone with any interest in history or politics (or even travel) gives The Motorcycle Diaries a try – it is absolutely brilliant and I think it was a wonderful surprise. It is humble, sweet and absolutely heartbreaking. Whether you agree with Che Guevara’s ideologies or not, The Motorcycle Diaries presents him in a very different light – and if every historical leader was given this kind of cinematic treatment, I think we’d have a very different perception as to how these individuals are presented. A truly wonderful little film, and one I cannot recommend enough. If you don’t want to travel through South America on a motorcycle after seeing this film, then you need to do some introspection.

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