Walter Salles' curiously nostalgic The Motorcycle Diaries is a tough film to decipher. Perhaps you've heard some buzz about this film, about its fun-lovin' road-trip cheerfulness or about the chummy camaraderie of its central characters as they motor their way through 50s-era South America, having life-changing adventures and generally finding their personalities shaped. Or perhaps you know a little more about this film, that its central character is a teenaged Ernesto Guevara, who would much later take on the moniker Che and become a spectacularly controversial Communist leader who some call a folk hero and others call a murderous coward. Either way, you're in for an interesting story—one that either compels with its surface gloss or confounds you with its startling historical disconnect.
You've probably seen the image of Che Guevara on a tee-shirt or poster somewhere, at some point. It's almost inevitable, particularly on college campuses and south of the border. A zealous Cuban revolutionary under Fidel Castro in the 60s, Guevara seemed to live a life of violent contradictions. He was a supposed champion of the poor and oppressed, and yet he routinely advocated the use of labor camps and firing squads in his effort to arouse revolutionary fervor in the people. He was heralded as an empathetic visionary, standing tall against American imperialism and capitalism, and yet he preached violence and hatred among his followers. Which is why it's so disconcerting to see that the man is, to this day, still idolized in many forms, the most recent of which is Walter Salles' feel-good "biopic."
I use quotes because if you know the history of Che Guevara and what became of him—he was assassinated in 1967 by the Bolivian army, and his death was celebrated—The Motorcycle Diaries comes across as something of a shock. There's a chasm-wide disconnect between the real-world Che Guevara and the gentle, compassionate soul displayed in the film, and this disconnect is almost impossible to overcome. The Motorcycle Diaries might as well contain fictional characters, and I surmise that many viewers will approach the film that way, enjoying the admittedly gorgeous South American vistas, the easy buddy chemistry between its two male leads, and the generous humor of the film's situations. And that's fine. But anyone approaching The Motorcycle Diaries with any historical knowledge of Guevara will probably have no choice but to smirk and go, "You're kidding, right?"
A nostalgic gloss settles over the film's opening scenes, lulling you into a warm-hearted mood right away. The year is 1952, the place is Buenos Aires. We meet Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal), a wide-eyed early-20s medical student with an obviously bright future. We also meet Ernesto's best buddy, the cheerfully chubby, poor-postured Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna). Soon, the two men have concocted an elaborate plan to hop aboard an on-its-last-legs 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle (nicknamed The Mighty One) and motor across pretty much the entirety of South America. The film is obsessed with this cross-country odyssey, following our boys as they meander into humorous little adventures, chase women, and find themselves involved in minor skirmishes with locals. But soon, you see, Ernesto begins to have an awareness of the poverty surrounding him on his journey. Surging inside him is an empathy for the oppressed, weak, and down-trodden. Late in the film, Ernesto and Alberto come to a leper colony, and it's here where the movie finally shows us the grown-up side of the boys who have gone through so much together and who are finally on the precipice of a portentous future.
At least, you might choose to read something like that into this film's conclusion. But The Motorcycle Diaries really has no interest in Guevara's politics, let alone in foreshadowing the dark specter of his future. There are moments that seem engineered to make you nod sagely as you witness the burgeoning ideological landscape that will ultimately lead to revolutionary fire. But those moments are fleeting and lack resonance. All that's left is a gentle look at two young men on a road trip—one of whom just happens to be a glorified idolization of a political enigma. Ernesto in this film is not much more than a mere nice guy. Versed in any degree of recent political history, you might find yourself wondering, Where's the spark? There's gotta be more than a few meaningful glances toward those poor people on the side of the road, more than a few empathetic moments with some lepers. Why is Ernesto so gentle and moist-eyed throughout The Motorcycle Diaries? Couldn't we have had one scene of righteous anger and or even a hint of a violent nature?
Maybe then I could have bridged that chasm. Although this film is based on Guevara's own diaries, you get the sense that either the filmmakers have neutered the story of any real psychological insight and instead provided us with surface glaze, or Guevara himself was looking at his past through some seriously rose-colored glasses. Still, taken on its own terms, the film offers minor pleasures. And if you're in the frame of mind that Salles intends, perhaps you can view his characters' journey across borders to understand and empathize with their neighbors as a criticism of Bush-era isolationism. Or perhaps the film's nostalgic, even romantic look at the man before he became a monster is, for you, a way to bring your own conclusions to the table. Or maybe you just want to have mindless fun with these rambling, rambunctious boys. Well, hope on board. There's room for one more on The Mighty One.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Universal presents The Motorcycle Diaries in a pretty good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. It's an easy transfer to get lost in, but if you take a close look at it, you'll notice some problems. At first, it impresses you with a fine level of detail, reaching into mid-backgrounds, and especially a splendid color palette that seems very accurate to the filmmakers' intentions to get all nostalgic about the film's many South American locales. Flesh tones and environmental colors are both balanced and saturated, adding up to a scrumptious display of hues.
I noticed that grain is heavy throughout, but it seems intentional, a part of the look of the film. That being said, it does affect fine detail throughout and affects overall clarity. It's most noticeable in darker scenes. The print itself is moderately clean, with minor dust specks evident.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Spanish-language Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is perfectly serviceable. Dialog is clear and clean, which is important for this film. I noticed several instances of excellent, smooth panning across the front, leading me to compliment the front soundstage in particular. I also noticed some nice use of the surrounds for motorcycle noises, as our two boys navigate the endless roads. Mostly, however, the surround field is fairly quiet. Gustavo Santaolalla's score sounds terrific and full, though.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The supplements on this DVD seem at first glance to be plentiful, but look more closely: There's really not a lot here—much to my frustration. This is one film that really motivated me to learn about its subject matter. Unfortunately, all of the following extras are pretty fluffy and only barely touch on the history behind the film.
First up is an 8-minute selection of Deleted Scenes, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. These snippets are definitely worth watching—they're surprisingly funny, and one of them even illuminates something that happens late in the film.
The 3-minute A Moment with Alberto Granado is a subtitled interview piece with Granado, in which he reflects too briefly on his memories of Guevara.
The 22-minute Making of The Motorcycle Diaries is a disappointingly fluffy and marketing-heavy EPK piece, but it does contain some choice bits. Although it's stuffed with too many longish clips from the film, it also boasts some insightful (though brief) interview segments with key cast and crew. The best part of this featurette is its focus on the historical realities behind the men at its core. In general, this DVD is short on biographical details—I really wanted to learn more about Guevara in these supplements—so I appreciated hearing from these filmmakers about how important Guevara is to their own lives.
The 3-minute A Moment with Gael Garcia Bernal is a subtitled interview with Bernal, in which he talks about the experience of acting.
The 2-minute "Toma Uno"("Take One") with Gael Garcia Bernal is an annoyingly shot/edited interview with Bernal in which he talks very briefly about making The Motorcycle Diaries.
The 3-minute Music of the Road: An Interview with Composer Gustavo Santaolalla is an interview piece with Santaolalla. He talks about his inspirations and experience of scoring the film.
You also get a generous, text-based Cast and Filmmakers section.
One final note: The disc assaults you with a Focus Films preview montage, which is populated by clips from new-to-theaters films and new-to-DVD movies. Then, you get peeks at Vanity Fair and Ray.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A beautiful, nostalgic film about a controversial subject, The Motorcycle Diaries often feels like a lie. But dig deeper. You might find an approach to this film that works for you. The film's DVD audio/video presentation is pretty good, but supplements are frustratingly bereft historical background.