How do you become a legend? Some would argue that you need to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse, Ã la James Dean. Others would argue that you need to change the world in some way, make it a better place. But Ernesto "Che' Guevara de la Serna wasn't taking any chances. Yes, he lived fast, searching the globe for a revolutionary cause with ideals as pure as his own. Yes, he died young, hunted down and executed in the Bolivian jungle. And yes, he left a good-looking corpse, one that, through a photograph taken by his captors, became seared in the minds of an entire generation of activists. But he also changed the world, helped transform Cuba from a Mob-controlled gambling casino into a workers' paradise, however briefly. With the United States and the Soviet Union breathing down his neck, Fidel Castro has had his work cut out for him over the years. Without Che, he might still be holed up in the Sierra Maestra.
So, a legend, behind which there must be a man, right? Since his death in 1967, Che's image ' the one with the beard and the beret and the heroically resolute stare ' has wallpapered the world. No dorm room is complete without a Che poster. And Che T-shirts can often be seen marching by. Like it or not, Che has become the graphic symbol of "revolution" ' a Nike logo for the far left. Even in Cuba, you can buy Swatch watches with Che's image on them. But who was Che before he was Che? How did an Argentinean med student who suffered from asthma become what Jean-Paul Sartre called 'the most complete human being of our age"? Brazilian director Walter Salles attempts to answer those questions in The Motorcycle Diaries, which is based on Che's own account of a trip he took across the grassy plains and snow-capped mountains of South America in 1952. Along for the ride was Alberto Granado, a friend of Che's, who played Sancho Panza to Che's Don Quixote, Falstaff to Che's Prince Hal.
Or is it Huckleberry Finn to Che's Tom Sawyer? When these two set out on their 8,000-kilometer journey through Argentina, Chile and Peru, their goal isn't to conquer the world, just see it. And although one of their destinations is a leper colony, where they intend to volunteer their services for a few weeks, they'd also like to volunteer their services to any seÃoritas they might encounter along the way. Working from a script by JosÃ Rivera, Salles turns the first half of The Motorcycle Diaries into a Latin American Road Trip, a series of comic misadventures punctuated by the explosive backfires of the titular motorbike, which seems to spend more time in the ditch than on the road. To their credit, Gael GarcÃa Bernal, who plays Che, and Rodrigo de la Serna, who plays Alberto, don't run with the comedy, just let the chuckles fall where they may. And their 'fight scenes," of which there are several, have the seriocomic delight of two guys who are really quite good friends but have been spending way too much time together.
Mexico's Bernal, who starred in Amores Perros and Y Tu MamÃ TambiÃn, is a curious choice for the young Che. Darkly handsome, with burning eyes, he's in danger of becoming Hollywood's next flavor-of-the-month. But he's also a committed actor whose shy demeanor suggests hidden depths. By most accounts, the young Che was unsure of himself, socially awkward. But Bernal's Che doesn't seem unsure of himself, just reserved, which the movie likes to play for laughs whenever he's dragged onto a dance floor. Beyond reserved, Bernal's Che seems rather serious and perhaps too honest for his own good. When a German expatriate inquires about the walnut-sized lump on his neck, Che dispassionately diagnoses a tumor, not even trying to soften the blow. Likewise, when a Peruvian doctor asks for feedback on a novel he's written, Che pulls no punches, despite the hospitality he's been shown by the doctor. Compare that to Alberto, who's more than willing to lie, if only to keep the hospitality coming.
One's a realist, the other's an idealist. One's human, the other's superhuman. Or so it seems as our boys, though still straddling the same motorcycle, begin to follow their own separate stars. Then the motorcycle itself, never very reliable, sputters to a halt, and the journey, once a joyride, darkens and deepens. Che, in particular, starts to notice the indigenous population ' the peasants kicked off their land, the migrants exploited by the Anaconda Mining Co., which inspires Che's first act of political violence when he throws a rock at a passing truck. Salles doesn't take us, step by step, through the creation of a guerrilla warrior. That's all in the future. But he does show us how exposure to poverty and injustice can heighten parts of our character, subtly change who we are. By the time they arrive at the leper colony, Alberto and Che are ready to make waves. The colony, which is run by nuns, has a policy of wearing rubber gloves, even when the patient is no longer contagious. That policy's about to change.
The laying on of hands may remind us of another legend, one whose own martyrdom occurred some 2,000 years ago. And by this point in the movie, we may be asking ourselves whether Salles isn't indulging in hagiography, preparing the young Che for a hero's welcome in the revolutionary pantheon. But can Bernal's Che, so meek and mild, turn into the Che we've all read about? Where's the ego that flows through the journals, like a mighty river? Where's the machismo? Where's a sign of the man who, in the next few years, would cultivate an almost religious devotion to the shedding of blood, both his own and that of others? Where, in short, is Che, whose very name ' roughly translated as 'dude" or 'man" ' would suggest his solidarity with the people of Latin America? Without the beard and the beret and the combat fatigues, it's easy to forget that this is Che. He just seems like some middle-class kid who, bored with his life, takes off on a motorcycle, as so many other middle-class kids have done.
And that, paradoxically enough, works in the movie's favor, allows us to identify with the first leg of Che's political journey. The Motorcycle Diaries isn't a portrait of the martyr as a young man, it's a portrait of a young man who will become a martyr. But he doesn't know that yet, and to the extent that we're involved in Salles' movie, neither do we. He's fashioned a coming-of-age story that would work just as well if the main character wasn't going to transform himself into a revolutionary icon. 'This isn't a tale about heroic feats," Bernal's Che tells us in voice-over narration. And he's right. All the heroic feats and heroic defeats will come later, as will the Warholian distribution of Che's likeness to the far corners of the planet. For now, Che is just a kid from Argentina whose youthful idealism could take him any number of directions. As the dirt roads curl their way across the Andes and along the Amazon, it's enough to have the wind at his back and his future, whatever it brings, around the next bend.