The Argentina born Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (1928-67) was a revolutionary and a guerilla warrior for Castro, helping to sever Cuba's economic ties with the U.S. and to direct trade to the Communist bloc. In recent years, he has become a symbol for rebellion and an icon decorating numerous T-shirts, stickers and posters.

While in his 20s, Guevara, then known as Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, linked up with a pal, Alberto Granado, and embarked on an 8000-km trip across South America.

"The Motorcycle Diaries" visits this early part of Guevara's life. It could have been a brutal, intense, probing story of a fascinating personality, but unfortunately the film was directed by Oscar-winning soft-pedal Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. This is the equivalent of getting Mike Nichols or Ron Howard to direct a biopic of Sid Vicious.

Watered down and concentrating mostly on pretty pictures, Salles guts Guevara's story, turning it into a Hallmark card.

For the film's first half, med student Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) joins the slightly older doctor Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) on a beat-up, run-down motorcycle dubbed The Mighty One. Salles photographs The Mighty One scooting across picturesque frames, alternating with scenes of spectacular wipeouts. The friends meet beautiful girls, dance, smile and generally have a good time. The Motorcycle Diaries could be a road/buddy comedy.

In the second half, Guevara suddenly finds himself in a strange new world filled with injustice, and his fun-loving personality turns on a dime. The friends meet a traveling couple who were kicked out of their home and now hope to find work in a dangerous mine. Guevara listens intently and soberly to their problems, as he does with many other unfortunate people along the road.

When Guevara and Alberto reach their destination, a leper colony in Peru, Guevara makes his boldest move yet: he decides not to wear protective gloves while meeting the patients.

For good measure, Salles throws in a couple of Oscar-clip scenes, involving Guevara suffering a serious asthma attack, or Guevara swimming the width of the Amazon to spend his birthday with the leprosy patients, or a shot of the real-life Granado as seen today, gazing at something distant on the horizon.

I haven't seen Salles' 1998 Oscar-winner "Central Station," but I did suffer through the wretched 2001 film "Behind the Sun," complete with its airy, pretentious title. His modus operandi seems to be making pretty pictures while appearing to be serious and dedicated, but never truly exploring anything of substance.

The Che Guevara story desperately needed someone like the late Nicholas Ray, who could have delved into the man's psyche, or Gus Van Sant, who would at least have given us a more potent portrait of two beautiful young men on the road. Alfonso Cuaron's "Y tu mamá también" -- which also starred Garcia -- certainly managed a more thorough exploration of time and place during a similar journey.

Fortunately, "The Motorcycle Diaries" does have an ace up its sleeve with Garcia, a strikingly handsome young man with a jagged, winning smile and intense eyes. Garcia appears to be prepared to go all the way with his performance, bringing an intensity and magnetism to the screen, but Salles fights him on it and mostly wins.

One final complaint: The Mighty One gives up the ghost about halfway through the film, so the title The Motorcycle Diaries proves to be fairly inaccurate. Just one more detail overlooked by a director with Oscars in his eyes.



" Grim "

Rating: R, NY/LA: Friday, September 24, 2004<br> LIMITED: Friday, October 1, 2004


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