Director Walter Salles has produced some amazing films in his time in the business. City of God and Lion’s Den are two of my hands down faves. Salles is a strong director too, focusing on what’s matters most to him, which in many cases seems to be the trajectories of his very human characters. In The Motorcycle Diaries he take an opportunity to focus that love for character on two real-life historical figures, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado. The film is 3/4 travelogue but still near perfect despite its inability to concentrate on one blossoming storyline at a time. I have complete faith in Salles directing Jack Kerouac’s here-to-now unfilmable On The Road which is currently set to release sometime in 2011.
The Motorcycle Diaries is full with the feelings of “being there,” every scene seems to take you deep into the social and political culture of the cities and towns Ernesto and Alberto pass through. Instead of hundreds of cut-a-ways to B-roll footage of the vivid beauty and splendor of the countries of South America, Salles makes the decision to leave most of that out and any gorgeous imagery is always punctuated with the likes of our two travel guides. As an audience member, there’s no time to look away or become fixated on something outside of the cultures which are sampled.
The most meaningful portion of the film for me, was the last 1/4 during which “Che” becomes Che and he and Alberto spend a few weeks living and working in a leper colony that has been segregated from the “normal” community by the vast girth of the tumultuous and silty Amazon. On his last night there, Che celebrates his birthday with the community across the river from the lepers, but finds himself longing to spend the night with the colony he’s become close to across the way. With no boat available, and in the pitch black of night, the young and terribly asthmatic Che treads through the rough current of the Amazon, swimming to reach the shore of the leper colony. He makes it, and there’s really nothing left to say after that. Che is a good person and the title cards sum up the future of his existence and ultimately his demise in the closing minutes of the film.
Not without it’s weaknesses, the film is important in that it seeks to uncover what the catalyst may have been (if there was one) for “Che” becoming Che, and it does so with great care and a fair amount of interest in the life of his best friend and fellow traveler Alberto. Alberto is the opposite of Che in many ways, he’s got all the makings of a politician and seems a sharp contrast in many scenes to that of Che. But Salles appears to have a soft spot for Alberto’s story just as much as the film is really notable because it follows the infamous Che Guevara. In the final shots, Salles cuts from young Alberto watching as his friend and fellow traveler Che flies off in a chartered plane, to the real life Alberto in his old age watching as a plane flies across the sky. It seems inasmuch as the two characters were undeniably individual, they were also inextricably connected.