Thursday, November 29, 2007

Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

The day after Thanksgiving, with nothing to do and no where to go in the bitter cold, I snuck into my friend's apartment (I have the keys to feed the cat when he goes away, and he had indeed gone away for the holiday weekend) to watch DVDs on his giant plasma television all day. I had to choose from his collection (which includes the bootlegged 8 Mile I had brought over to Thanksgiving dinner, i.e. it's not the best collection), and amongst the not that interesting (Da Ali G Show), the empty cases (Cool Hand Luke), and the utter crap (Hot Chick), I found something promising: an as-yet unwrapped copy of The Motorcycle Diaries, featuring the illustrious Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal (on whose brilliance I have expounded in the past). After fighting with the technology for ten minutes or so (three remotes, and not one of them turned on the television, which had no buttons on it either, for aesthetic effect, I suppose; I finally found them tucked away on the inch-wide side of the screen), the movie started, in Spanish, to my surprise.

That was the first of many great things about the film. I expected another Hollywood biopic in which everyone speaks English, maybe with a Hispanic accent, even though they live in countries where no one speaks English (like Frieda), but instead, saw something so exuberantly well-crafted that it really knocked my socks off. The casting of actors for bit parts, and even extras, each of whose faces were rich with expressive details to evoke a time and place even more strongly than the scenery, architecture, vehicles, or other place markers around them, is spot-on, and even if Bernal is perhaps too handsome for the part, his ever-present infectious sweetness hit the perfect mark to describe his character's humanitarian epiphany. Rodrigo De la Serna, finally, who plays Granado—Guevara's sidekick, a Sancho Panza to Guevara's taller Quixote (Granado describes their broken-down cycle as Rocinante toward the film's beginning, probably unconscious that he is the Panza rather than the star).

The film tells the story of the famous Che Guevara's less-famed political coming of age: a road trip on a broken-down motorcycle from his native Argentina through Chile and Peru to eventually work a stint at a leper's colony (Guevara and Granado are medical students). Along the way, they have adventures and trials; they lose their tent and have nothing to protect them from the weather; their cycle finally becomes irreparable and they continue the journey on foot. Along the way, they meet generous women, angry men, and a number of Peruvian peasants who can't find work and can barely afford to live. Once at the leper colony, Guevara stuns the patients, doctors, and nuns alike by refusing (rather Christ-like) to isolate himself from the patients, touching them with his bare hands, playing soccer with them, and, in one climactic scene, swimming across the freezing river in the middle of the night in order to celebrate his birthday with them (the patients and the staff live on separate sides of a river, demarcating the segregation against which Guevara feels so strongly). By the film's end, Guevara is primed for a life of work toward social justice; he's forgotten about the wealthy girlfriend he left behind, and might not return to Argentina to finish his medical degree.

Better than most films of the "road trip" genre, though perhaps inaptly named (the motorcycle is kaput by the middle of the movie, and Guevara doesn't keep a diary so much as write detailed letters home to his family), the film's greatest achievement is to partially-aestheticize the poverty, sickness, and suffering the Guevara found so inspiring, such that it remains dismal and real without turning the audience away in disgust or horror. The art direction mimics Guevara's embrace of the people—his tenderness—in showing their beauty and ugliness simultaneously, the way the best Dutch painters were once able to do. We don't see that very often in art of any kind today; instead we are offered the black/white dichotomy of airbrushed supermodels and scarred villains—characters lack poignancy and depth.

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