The Motorcycle Diaries is both a book and a movie; the book was written by Ernesto Guevara Lynch De La Serna, a young Argentine medical student who later became known as Che, the charismatic, iconic revolutionary. The movie was based on the book, and also on Travels With Che Guevara, a parallel novel written by Alberto Granado, the young Ernesto's travelling companion.
The Motorcycle Diaries was directed by Walter Salles (producer of controversial 2002 film City Of God), and the screenplay was written by Jose Rivera. The movie's main parts were played by Gael Garcia Bernal (as Ernesto - he had previously played the revolutionary's part in the 2002 mini-series Fidel) and Rodrigo De La Serna (as Granado - De La Serna is a cousin of Che's in real life). The movie is filmed in Spanish, but I found the subtitles very easy to follow.
The film starts off in Buenos Aires, with the two young college students planning a road trip in January of 1952. The 23 year old Ernesto, known to his friends as "Fuser" (short for "furibondo", or wildman, Serna - a nickname he gained playing rugby), defers his final year of medical school to make the trip with his older friend, Alberto Granado (29), a graduate in biochemistry. They plan to travel, on Granado's beat-up Norton 500 motorcycle ("The Mighty One") across Argentina, up the west coast of South America, through Chile to a leper colony in Peru, where the boys have volunteered to work for a couple of weeks, and then to Venezuela, to celebrate Granado's thirtieth birthday.
As their journey progresses, it becomes clear that neither the motorbike nor their resources will stand up to the full strain of the journey, so Fuser and Alberto pose as famous Argentinian doctors, making a journey through South America to rid the world of disease in order to bum food and board, as well as repair work on their bike - but this doesn't stop them from being run out of town at one point, when the local mechanic's wife takes a shine to Fuser at a dance!
Eventually, The Mighty One breaks down irreperably, and Fuser and Alberto are forced to hitchhike the rest of the way - and this gives them first hand experience of the poverty of the people of Chile and Peru. Hiking across the Atacama desert, they meet a destitute couple who lost their home and livelihood because the husband was a communist, and are now hoping to find work in the mines of the Anaconda mining corporation. The four camp together for the night, Fuser and Alberto sharing their meagre supplies with the couple.
Next, they reach Machu Picchu, where they stop for a while, and ponder the Spanish invasion of South America. "How can one feel nostalgic for a time one has never experienced?", Fuser asks himself, wondering how such an advanced civilisation could have been so completely wiped out. In Cuzco, they meet some of the descendants of the Incas, living barely above the poverty line, scraping a living from handcrafts.
Finally, the pair reach Lima, where they meet the doctor who has organised their trip to the San Pablo leper colony. The doctor very generously provides food, clothing, board and reading material for the pair while they wait for the ferry to San Pablo; they spend their time recuperating from their journey reading the revolutionary material from the leftist doctor's library.
Fuser and Alberto find the leper colony divided, in more ways than one - on the south bank of the Amazon, the doctors, nurses and nuns live, while the patients are situated on the north side. Fuser and Alberto throw themselves enthusiatically into the work, befriending the patients and disregarding the rules the nuns set out - such as their prohibition from touching the patients without wearing gloves, and the rule that food won't be served to those who haven't attended mass. Fuser and Alberto's enthusiasm endear them to both the staff and the patients, and on their last night in San Pablo, which coincides with Fuser's 24th birthday, they staff throw a party for them - where Fuser makes a speech thanking them, but with socialist overtones. (It's interesting to note that in extolling the brotherhood of South American nations, Fuser lists only the Spanish-speaking countries, completely forgetting to mention the continent's largest and most populous country - the Portuguese-speaking Brazil.) He receives a standing ovation. Afterwards, he decides that he wants to spend his last night with the patients he helped - both as a doctor and as a friend - and despite the warnings of the doctors and Alberto, he swims across the Amazon.
The next morning, the two are presented with a raft, to help them on the last leg of their journey, to Caracas in Venezuela, where Alberto has taken a job in a hospital lab, offered on the recommendation of the leper colony's head doctor. From there, Fuser flies home to Buenos Aires, an older and wiser man.
A postscript narrated by Alberto tells us that he didn't see his friend again, until 1960; when he was summoned to Havana by the triumphant Guevara. Alberto still lives in Havana now, where he founded the Santiago medical school. The credits roll over black and white shots from Granado and Guevara's original journey.
While a lot of the film is quite serious in tone, showing the state of the poor of South America, there are still comedic touches - mainly provided by Granado, who bullshits a lot of the way through the movie in an effort to earn a crust, and who cleans up at the blackjack table on the ferry between Lima and San Pablo, so that he can afford a night with the ship's prostitute. The cinematography is also quite remarkable; Machu Picchu looks astonishing, as well as the Andes and the forbidding Atacama. The film presents its two main characters in a good light, Guevara especially - but then again, it is based on books by the two in question. I was reminded an awful lot of George Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London and Homage To Catalonia in the observation and commentary on poverty and politics.
To sum up, I enjoyed this film an awful lot. It may not be everybody's cup of tea, and it might be slightly one-sided, but it still looks wonderful, and contains excellent performances by both Bernal and De La Serna.
The Guardian newspaper's review of the film
Yeah, it's a long URL. A Google-cached copy of an interview with Alberto Granado about the movie.