Walter Salles on “Motorcycle Diaries” by Erica Abeel, September 23, 2004

“Motorcycle Diaries” has made Walter Salles the current golden boy of Latin American cinema. The Brazilian’s director’s biopic about the young Che Guevara’s formative journey through South America was rapturously greeted in Sundance, earned a fifteen minute standing O in Cannes, and drew applause at the press screening in Toronto. Yes, a few naysayers tax the film with moist-eyed liberalism and populist pandering, but “Motorcycle” looks destined for a worldwide commercial life and success beyond the artclub, because its themes and spirit resonate in these vexed times. The film makes political engagement sexy (partly by casting Gael Garcia Bernal as Che); and its infectious idealism and revolutionary fervor offer hope for the human project.

Drawing on memoirs by Guevara and co-traveler Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), Salles reenacts the exact route of their Latin odyssey — and reinvents the road movie as a primer in social awakening, or what he calls the “re-baptizing” of Ernesto Guevara before he became the iconic “El Che.” The year is 1952 and Ernesto, a twenty-three year-old med student from a comfortable Argentinian family, and Alberto, a biochemist, hit the road on a spluttering Norton 500 motorbike. In their travels through the Andes, Chile, and Peru, they encounter homeless miners exploited by foreign-owned companies and Indian farmers evicted from their cultivated lands; and view ugly urban sprawls that have replaced the continent’s Incan heritage. The journey culminates in a three-week stay at a leper colony in the Amazon that marks Ernesto’s transformation from introverted child of privilege to doctor of the people.

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