by Susan Starr and Kevin Kocur
“The Motorcycle Diaries” is the story of a road trip through South America taken by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera and his friend Alberto Granado in the early 1950’s. The scenery of South American is beautiful and there is some nice chemistry between the two leads. Those are really the only positive things I can say about the movie. The pace is very slow. For the first half of the movie they ride their bike to a town, meet the locals, try to con food and shelter out of the people they meet and then take off for the next town. About halfway through the movie, the bike dies. They take to walking and hitchhiking, running into the poor and downtrodden along the way.
I have to confess that I don’t know much about Che Guevera beyond the fact that he was involved in the Cuban revolution. I guess that this trip served as a political awakening for Guevera where he discovered how much injustice there was in the various South American governments. The movie’s attempt to show this makes Guevera look like a simpleton. He seeems to have never realized that poor people had it rough and that the idigenous people were mistreated until he took this trip.
Ernesto’s anger at injustice is further inflamed when he and Alberto spend some time volunteering with the medical staff at a leper colony. (Ernesto is a medical student and Alberto is a biochemist.) The medical staff lives on one side of the river and the lepers live on the other. At his birthday party he gets mad enough about it that he swims across the river. I guess there were no piranhas in the water because he makes it across okay.
At first this film appears to be a Buddy Roadtrip flick about two adventurous lads off to see South America on a ratty, but cool, 1939 Norton 500 single. One of them wants to see the land and the other wants to get laid. They take off in a cloud of smoke with the bike loaded down, looking like the Joads on their way to California. There are plenty of scenes of them riding in the countryside, the Norton’s pipe singing the sweet song of Freedom. “Loud Motocicletas Save Lives!”
Along the way, the poor thumper continues to deteriorate after they lay ‘er down. Several times. About 50 minutes into the movie the thing finally dies, leaving them to hoof it through the rest of the film. The remaining 78 minutes are more about them interacting with the various people they come in contact with and it becomes obvious the film is more about Ernesto’s awakening to the plights of the poor and less fortunate.
Some of the more interesting parts of the film include the various cons they try on locals throughout South America. One of these involves them rolling into a city and telling the local newspaper that they are doctors traveling around helping people. This actually works when they arrive at a mechanic with the Norton badly on life support. Having no money to pay for repairs, they show the article to the mechanic who is more than happy to repair the bike for free. All is going well until later that night when Ernesto hits on the mechanic’s wife and the locals chase them out of town.
Like all good Buddy Roadtrip movies, this one has to come to an end. While the trip may have started off with the two guys looking for fun and good times, in the end they both realize they are going in different directions.
While at a copper mine, watching migrant workers practically pleading for jobs, the foreman notices them and yells at them “Hey, this isn’t a tourist attraction.” Ironically that very mine is now a tourist attraction. The ending credits are shown over actual photos taken on the trip. The real Alberto Granado makes a brief cameo appearance.