"On the Road" with Che Guevara
Robert Moore | Chicago, IL USA | 10/03/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"As most potential viewers know, this film is based on diaries and letters to home written by Ernesto "Che" Guevara during a motorcycle and foot tour of a significant portion of South America during the early 1950s, years before Guevara achieved international renown as a Communist and Latino revolutionary. Thus, the film functions as an attempt to get at the heart of the person who preceded the myth. The film is therefore difficult to judge as pure cinema. Is this, on its own merits, a great film? Or is it a great film about Che Guevara? Interestingly, the person I saw this film with knew absolutely nothing about the subject of the film before it started, and did not connect Ernesto Guevara with Che Guevara until very late in the film. Her reaction was interesting. Until she realized that it was about Che, she says that she considered it a decent but only slightly above average "road" picture, but it gained considerably in her estimation once she realized who the film was about. I think she was correct, and I would agree with those who feel that what merits the film has depends to some degree on who the film is about. If Ernesto hadn't become Che, it would be a good film but of considerably less interest than it is.
The film does a good job of rooting Che's eventual concern with the liberation of the oppressed by depicting his broad and constant encounters with everyday people throughout the continent. Camus wrote that it was important to side with the victims and not the executioners, and in his travels Ernesto spends most of his time with the victims. His near-epic exposure to the continent clearly condition his sympathies and inform his vision. At the end of the film it is easy to understand why Che chose a life dedicated to aiding the oppressed in Cuba and elsewhere. The great question left unanswered, and the one reason one can find Che's life morally troubling, is why he felt that the causes he espoused demanded a violent, military response. Why follow in the steps of Trotsky and Lenin rather than Gandhi? Apart from a single line which merely hints that Che felt violence might be necessary, the film doesn't come anywhere close to answering this question.
In many ways, the star of the film is the South American continent. I have seen many films over the years set in one corner of the continent or another, but none provided a panoramic view. This film, however, by swinging through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia, and Venezuela provides a graphic impression of the continent's immense geographical diversity, expanse, and enormous beautiful. I don't think it would be possible to see this film without a deep urge to visit the land. The scene shot in Machu Picchu reveals the incredible beauty of the site better than anything else I have ever seen.
Gael Garcia Bernal is a remarkably handsome, talented young actor, formerly best known for one of the two young men in Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, and is outstanding in portraying the young Che Guevara. One suspects that his days as an actor in primarily Latin productions is close to an end, his next several projects originating in Hollywood. Rodrigo De la Serna does not have the enormous charisma of Bernal, but he more than holds his own in the film. The cast is rounded out by a large roster of professional and amateur performers.
Che Guevara is such a controversial figure that this film could elicit a host of differing responses. How one will respond to this film will be deeply conditioned by how one views him. But I do think that it is a film that virtually every viewer will respond to with great interest, and I defy anyone not to find the remarkable landscapes anything short of stunning."
A YOUTHFUL, ROMANTIC VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY. TAKE IT AS SUCH
Shashank Tripathi | Gadabout | 10/27/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I don't get some of the ranting reviews here that claim this movie has communist contours; there's as much radicalism in this film as there is Oriental Buddhism in Jackie Chan kungfu capers.
I never felt that the movie couches any fiery or didactic political message, or that it even ought to.
It's a romantic ode to the youthful Guevara, and truly captures the adventurism and empathy of his formative years that may have affected him in later life. The director is wise not to weigh his narrative down with too many explicit allusions to his eventual activist zeal.
Whatever it's political underpinnings, at least it's a gorgeous looking picture, a trekker's fantasy that catalogs the ramshackle journey of a couple of young men who hailed from good stock, but gave all that up to set off on a rinkydink motorcycle to see places they'd only read about and meet people they'd never imagined.
It is difficult not to fall in love with the stunning imagery that pervades the film, as we watch a neorealistic camera cut a vast Latin American skein from the snow-covered Andes, to the mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu, to a sprawling Chilean desert and a Peruvian river that the young Guevara swims across in the film's climax -- all physical destinations to be reached and crossed as well as stages in our protagonist's spiritual and psychological growth.
Some traces of ham-handedness may be evident in the latter half, when Guevara speaks with a homeless person or a coarse day labor manager or an ostracized leper. But Bernal does a fabulous job of maintaining a perfect dose of traveler's passivity coupled with boyish inquisitiveness.
Thinking back, the movie could also have thrown in some measure of a conclusive message into the fray, but the guitar strumming that serves as a backdrop to the closing credits simply overtakes that thought in my mind. I'm off to buy the soundtrack as soon as I am done with this review.
I highly recommend it for the discerning viewer. Won't be surprised if this gets in line for those nude male statuettes."
Buddy Picture Reaches Far Deeper Into the Heart
Ed Uyeshima | San Francisco, CA USA | 10/06/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"When I visited South America on my own extended trip a couple of years ago, I was amazed how many times I saw pictures of Che Guevara everywhere I went....cafes, outdoor bulletin boards, art galleries, even department stores. Now I understand why. Having just read his diary, I was greatly anticipating this film, and my interest only heightened when I started seeing the travelogue shots in the previews. I am happy to report the film surpasses my expectations on almost every level. It is exquisite - perceptively directed, beautifully photographed and wondrously acted by a cast headed by two charismatic actors who tap deep into the hearts and souls of their characters. Whereas the book is more observational, the movie provides a more involving feeling in its portrait of a young man on the brink of his political awakening. It starts out somewhat deceptively as a comic buddy picture with the young Ernesto Guevara (pre-Che), a medical student, leaving his family and accompanying his seemingly more worldly pal Alberto Granado, a biochemist, on a dilapidated 1939 Norton motorbike traversing South America from their native Buenos Aires to Caracas. It is obvious what Alberto's hormonally charged intentions are on this months-long journey, but at 23, Ernesto is at a more sensitive juncture in his life where his encounters and observations have a deeper impact on his ideology.
What I really like about the film is how it changes in tone and texture as the boys' hunt for adventure evolves into life-changing experiences for both of them. The motorbike acts as a metaphor for this change, as it unsurprisingly breaks down forcing them to open their eyes to the poverty and quiet struggle of the local people in each of the countries they visit. The story winds through wintry Patagonia, the blistering Atacama Desert, the awe-inspiring Machu Picchu and several towns in between. But the most touching passage takes place at the San Pablo leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon basin, where Ernesto bonds deeply with the lepers to the chagrin of the local nuns. His night swim across the Amazon, struggling for air through his asthma, is a powerful scene among many in this subtly potent film.
As he proved with his wonderful "Central Station", director Walter Salles has an acute ability to connect his characters to their settings in deeply emotional ways. He is the ideal choice to guide this road movie. As Guevara, Gael Garcia Bernal transcends his Tiger Beat, teen heartthrob looks and delivers a deeply touching performance, as he grows from a big city innocent to a haunted young man ready to take on a greater cause than his medical career. He does an especially strong job in conveying his character's unblinking honesty and displaying unexpected acts of rage and compassion. Just as good is Rodrigo de la Serna in his feature film debut as Granado, effortlessly showing his character's bravado and humor while finding his own bumpy way in the world. His reactions to his buddy's political declaration at the birthday party, and to his own feelings during their goodbye at the end, are among the most poignant moments in the movie. In fact, much of the film's power comes from their palpable chemistry and unforced rapport. They are instantly and completely believable as best friends. And much more than the book, the film builds a solid emotional bridge between the young innocent and the Communist revolutionary Guevara was to become. If you are not aware of his fate, it is briefly summarized in subtitles at the end, and the coda with the real Granado is moving. While this may be the most glowing portrayal of a Communist-in-the-making since Warren Beatty's film about John Reed, "Reds", don't let that stop you from seeing this mesmerizing work. This is a wonderfully heartfelt film.
**ADDENDUM ABOUT THE DVD RELEASE POSTED ON FEBRUARY 18, 2005**
There are three extended deleted scenes included in the DVD package, none indispensable but still valuable for the additional context they provide to an essentially episodic movie. I particularly liked the sequence with the blind truck driver risking the lives of the two vagabonds as he swerves perilously on a treacherous mountain road. The obligatory making-of documentary is helpful, and includes comments from Salles, screenwriter Jose Rivera and executive producer Robert Redford. There are also a couple of brief Spanish-language TV interviews with Bernal and a quick interview with the film's composer, Gustavo Santaolalla."
Simplified, but touching and entertaining nonetheless
M. Burns | Columbus, Ohio | 10/26/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Lately, it seems that Gael Garcia Bernal has become the Mexican Gerard Depardieu...all the movies from his country seem to have him in it. Of course, when a movie like Y Tu Mama Tambien or the deeply moving Motorcycle Diaries comes along, you realize he's a star even in the U.S. for good reason. In Diaries, Bernal portrays a young pre-revolutionary Che Guevara on a life-changing roadtrip around South America with the restrained ease of a pro. Accompanied by his med school buddy, Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna, charming in his first big role), they experience the poverty and injustice in their continent that later sows the seeds for the actions that made Che famous. Yeah, all the 'road-trip-movie' ingredients are here, but director Walter Salles manages to layer the story with a deeper theme that makes it all cohesive: a road trip of grandiose notions and goals is reduced to the need to help humanity in its most direct form. Yes, both main characters (Che, especially) suffer from a biopic-typical tidying up of personality (i.e. - these guys are about as flawed as Mother Teresa), but with Gustava Santaolalla's atmospheric guitar music and Eric Gautier's warm cinematography, Diaries and all its flaws become a satisfying cinematic experience that swells to a rewarding, if somewhat trite, finale. The message of Diaries is powerful, though, no matter how schmaltzy it may be. As the tagline goes, "Let the world change you...and you can change the world." Sounds good to me. B+