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Ernesto “Che” Guevara: revolutionary, communist, liberator of Cuba, connoisseur of fine cigars. Child of privilege and wealth? Severe asthmatic? One semester away from a doctor’s license? Oh, the things I didn’t know about the Commandante could fill a book - several in fact. Several that I swear I’ll get to reading some day. Honest. My well of knowledge when it comes to one of my personal heroes is painfully dry. Fortunately for me, Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries has seen a DVD release. Now I can put off reading those books a little bit longer.

Motorcycle Diaries
Movie
In the year 1952, Ernesto ‘Fuser’ Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado leave their sheltered, upper class homes on a rickety motorcycle. Their goal is to travel across South America, a continent they lived on, but don’t know nearly as well as others that are an ocean away. They want to meet new people, explore new environments, and above all, have a good time doing it. Both are mere semesters away from graduation (Ernesto in medicine, Alberto in biochemistry) and they leave with a need to find themselves before their inevitable lapses into responsible, adult lives. So far, their journey is not very memorable. Every year, around the world, young men take road trips in order to ‘find themselves’, in preparation for inevitable descents into banality. It is where these men found themselves at the end of their journey that made it one worthy of note.

Their first stop is the aristocratic school of Fuser’s ‘girlfriend’. The food is plentiful, the people elegant and educated. Against Alberto’s wishes they stay for six days, falling quickly behind schedule. Alberto eventually pulls Fuser away and their journey is re-invigorated. As time and kilometers pass they find themselves literally and figuratively further and further away from their privileged lives. The people around them become progressively poorer and earthier. Fuser and Alberto remain largely ignorant to this, and instead (rightfully) concern themselves with their own newfound hunger and poverty. They learn to rough it, to sleep where they can and eat what they can. In effect they themselves begin to become poorer and earthier.

They continue using con artists’ techniques to score free shelter, food, and services. Life is getting tougher but there’s still time for fun, dancing, and sex. When they finally reach Chile, Fuser begins actually talking to people with the intention of understanding them as human beings. He gets to know workers, labourers, and technicians. When they enter the mountains outside of the cities and meet the indigenous peoples of Chile, Fuser begins to show signs of a true change. He begins to see the atrocities beseeching the common people. When they finally arrive at a leper colony they’d intended on visiting for educational purposes, ‘Fuser’ Guevara is a new man, and well on his way to becoming the legendary ‘Che’ Guevara. He begins to break the rules, question the answers and seems to understand his calling in life.

Motorcycle Diaries
Motorcycle Diariesis a film that comes with a lot of heavy baggage. It’s the story of a controversial man, and thus will be a controversial film in some circles. Fortunately, the film is more concerned with the “hows” than the “whys”. Though its obvious political message remains a constant undercurrent, non-complacent viewers can still enjoy themselves. It’s not until the halfway point that the word ‘communist’ is even mentioned, and it’s not until after that that Fuser can be seen as truly giving himself over to Che. His guilty thoughts are represented poignantly by black and white images of the poor and neglected staring blankly at him. His humanity and ideas overtake him, and he is slowly molded from a boy into a man before our eyes. When Alberto makes a joke about breeding out the current regime, Fuser looks at him and states with a straight face; “A revolution without guns? It wouldn’t work.”

Humour is surprisingly prevalent as well, mostly stemming from a handful of running gags. Alberto is a consummate artist when it comes to stretched truths. His stories get the pair into the local paper in one Chilean town, which in turn gets them more free goods and services. In contrast to this, Fuser is all but incapable of dishonesty, and usually has to let Alberto do the talking. When asked for truthful opinion, Fuser gives it, sometimes most unfortunately.

The direction, acting, and cinematography are all spectacular. The events unfolding seem genuine without being made with the coldness of a documentarian. The two leads, Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo De La Serna, give Oscar-worthy performances, especially De La Serna, whose Alberto Granado is at all times humourous and warm. The only problems with the film are its tendency to dwell a little too long on a few given subjects (like Fuser’s asthma problems, which come into play too often and stop the narrative flow) and its tendency to be a bit heavy handed. In defense, the film is based entirely in historical fact, but when Fuser swims across the Amazon River that unfairly separates the lepers from the doctors, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by the obviousness of the metaphor.

Motorcycle Diaries
Video
For this release we are given a widescreen 1.85:1 transfer which varies in quality. Motorcycle Diaries is a road movie, and thus looks rough around its edges. The colours are very vibrant, especially in shots pertaining to beauties of nature. The Andes Mountains practically leap out of the clouds at the viewer, and the jungles around the Amazon River look astonishing. The high society houses and brightly lit dance halls also impress with their colourful decors. Unfortunately, film grain is very prevalent in darker and wider shots. Sharpness levels are about perfect, with little to no edge enhancement and artifacts are at a minimum. This is a nice transfer at times, but the varying quality is distracting.

Audio
Music plays an important role in the journey, and the Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack serves the music well. There are few, if any, surround effects, and with the exception of the music, most of the film would have worked fine in a stereo presentation. The dialogue is clear (though I couldn’t understand it sans subtitles anyway), the sound effects are realistic, and the bass track is prevalent when necessary. There is also a French dubbed track included that mirrors the Spanish one.

Extras
Unfortunately, the special features on the disc can be summed up with one word: fluff. Basically it consists of elongated ads for the film. These include a brief making-of featurette, which offers no insight and is paced just like a long trailer. There are also two very short interviews with actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Both were recorded for Mexican television and come off like Spanish language E! Channel between show infomercials. They consist of lame editing and sub-1990s MTV video effects (like ‘film grain’ and sudden contrast shifts). Both also happen to contain almost identical footage, though Bernal is wearing different clothing in each. Our fluff is rounded off with an interview with composer Gustavo Santaolalla that plays like an ad for the soundtrack.

The only worthwhile features are deleted scenes and a quick chat with the real Alberto Granado. The deleted scenes consist of mostly funny stuff, which was most likely deleted for both tonal and time reasons. There are three in total, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and they run a total of about eight minutes and thirty seconds. The ‘Moment with Alberto Granado’ is nice to see and makes me long for a real documentary about the film’s subject. Granado is quite lucid and pleasant, and we are treated to several more of the actual pictures taken during the journey (other pictures can be seen in the closing credits).

Motorcycle Diaries
Overall
Motorcycle Diaries is, without question, a great film. It deserves all the praise and awards nominations that have been showered upon it. In a perfect world Rodrigo De La Serna and David Carradine would be the front runners for the best supporting actor Oscar. The publicity would have you believe Motorcycle Diaries is a life-changing film, but I’d be a little more conservative and simply refer to it as inspiring experience, and a  life affirming motion picture.


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