Director Walter Salles (Central Station, Behind the Sun) regularly focuses on the inextricable, inscrutable relationship shared by man and his environment, and the result is that his films' hardscrabble Latin American settings are transformed into active participants in his intimate, humanistic dramas. This fascination with the natural world is most forcefully realized in The Motorcycle Diaries, which recounts the life-altering 1952 journey through South America undertaken by a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado. Imbued with the spirit of the dusty, arid open road and the continent's unassuming beauty and variety, this lovely-looking film nominally tracks the young Che's political and philosophical awakening as he comes into direct contact with the generous, friendly working-class men and women whom he would later champion as a communist revolutionary. Yet this mildly stirring, dramatically loosy-goosy tale of idealism being born is less effective as a Che Guevara back-story than as a gorgeous examination of the way our surroundings help shape us into who we are.

Adapted from both Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries and Granado's Traveling with Che Guevara by Jose Rivera, Salles' episodic film follows the intrepid travelers as they leave family and friends behind in Buenos Aires and head for the rural countryside riding their beat-up metallic steed dubbed, ironically, "The Mighty One." Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna), a 29-year-old biochemist, and Guevara (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal), a 23-year-old student one semester away from getting his medical degree, had planned on being gone for four months, but their eventual odyssey would last twice as long, cover 8,000 miles, and forever change Guevara's way of looking at his homeland's social and economic inequity. As portrayed by Bernal and De la Serna, Che and Alberto are yin and yang, with Guevara's candid, charitable demeanor standing in sharp contrast to the more gregarious, hedonistic Alberto, and Salles' film makes great use of their complementary personalities during the duo's humorous antics to procure room, board, and booty from local businessmen and comely beauties. Salles' focus on the duo's push-and-pull chemistry gives the early stages of their trip a lighthearted joyousness, and Eric Gautier's expressive, ethereal cinematography of the Peruvian Andes and Chilean desert makes Che and Alberto's somewhat uneventful story - not a whole lot happens during the film's first two-thirds - sparsely lyrical.

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