Romantic Rebel Ché Guevera On the Road in Motorcycle Diaries

Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, from a screenplay by Jose Rivera, is based on the books The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto (Ché) Guevara and Traveling with Ché Guevara by Alberto Granado. This review can only speculate on the prodigious research and reconstruction efforts required to bring this politically charged buddy-buddy road movie to the screen, providing an account of a physical and spiritual journey that took place more than 50 years ago. As it happens, this reviewer was in Argentina briefly in 1964 for a film festival in Mar del Plata. At the time, the Peronistas and the anti-Peronistas were locked in mortal combat, and Argentina seemed to have rediscovered the tango as a dance reflecting its bygone glory and prosperity. And that’s about all this reviewer knows about South America and its travails firsthand; about Ché Guevara and the mythology surrounding him, this reviewer knows even less.

Hence, I’m not as privileged as some of my colleagues in ascertaining the accuracy of casting Gael García Bernal as the 23-year-old Ché and Rodrigo De la Serna as the 29-year-old Alberto Granado. I was nonetheless moved by their initial easygoing camaraderie and their subsequent immersion in the sufferings of those they encountered while exploring the continent. Ché, particularly, has been described by some as more macho and muscular than the delicately featured and slightly built Mr. Bernal, who gained our attention in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000), Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and Carlos Carrera’s The Crime of Father Amaro (2002). He’ll be seen later this year in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education, a highlight of this year’s New York Film Festival. By any standard, he is a hot talent in Latin-American cinema. The criticism of Mr. De la Serna as Alberto Granado—still active in his 80’s as the health minister in Fidel Castro’s Cuba—has less to do with Mr. De la Serna’s physical appearance than with his portrayal of Mr. Granado as a comically relentless skirt-chaser. This is presumably no way to treat a revered icon of the Cuban Revolution.

The fact that Mr. Salles and Mr. Rivera have taken these liberties with such a politically sacred subject makes The Motorcycle Diaries all the more emotionally complex and universally accessible (especially in the United Sates, where the shifting winds of Cuban exile opinion in Florida may help decide the choice of our next President). However, I must confess somewhat mixed feelings towards this very skillful resurrection of the Ché Guevara legend.

On the one hand, I have never believed that the lying slut Chiquita Banana should shape our policy toward Cuba. (I say “lying slut” because for years she persuaded me never to put a banana in the refrigerator; the avoidable spoilage that inevitably occurred put more money in the pockets of the United Fruit Company, her corporate pimp). But on the other hand, my memory of the late, great gay cinematographer Néstor Almendros flashes before me as a reminder of the repression of civil liberties and political freedoms in Castro’s Cuba. Even so, the horrors of an earlier Marxist experiment gone awry in Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union were well on the way to being exposed before Ché launched his quixotic crusade to unify Latin America into one indivisible People’s Socialist Republic.

What then is the answer to this political quandary? Must we replace the economic exploitation and injustice of global capitalism with the seemingly inevitable totalitarianism of global Marxism—or is there a third way? A wishy-washy centrism with a little less exploitation and injustice seems to be one of the few remaining options for the Kerry campaign, and I’m afraid that this is where this reviewer is ideologically stranded. Unwilling to surrender my bourgeois lifestyle, which permits me to express myself with comparative freedom, can I really look into the eyes of the oppressed farmers and workers that Mr. Bernal and Mr. Serna encounter at every turn in The Motorcycle Diaries, more than half a century after the real-life Guevera and Granado went on their journey? Nothing much has changed in all that time—and, as things are going, will anything change in the next half-century?

There’s an aesthetic danger rife with pathetic fallacies in this particular territory. Cinema magnifies every facial signifier of abject misery into a howling accusation, leaving the inescapably voyeuristic viewer guilty of callous indifference at the very least. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, indeed!

Fortunately, Mr. Salles and Mr. Rivera have rescued the viewer from compassion fatigue with long interludes of hedonistic high spirits fueled by youthful energy. Several of these interludes are entertaining group-dance spectacles in which communal feelings of solidarity transcend the lechery of macho ego-trips. On one occasion, the high spirits get out of hand and our two youthful protagonists have to run for their lives from a jealous husband and his Chilean friends, none of whom like Argentineans. In another episode, Ché is teased good-naturedly for mistakenly dancing the tango in Brazilian rumba territory.

On a more serious note, Ché persuades a morbidly depressed young woman to have an operation to save her arm by talking about his own depression over having been born with asthma. Even here, Mr. Salles and Mr. Rivera avoid the tedium of those obligatory scenes when turning points are achieved. Hence, when Ché receives a letter from his girlfriend, we have only to look at the expression on his face to know that he’s been jilted; there is no need to read the letter to himself, his friend or the audience.

Some of the scenic wonders of South America are paraded before us with a fitting sense of existential irony as our youthful protagonists take the so-called Western route through Argentina, Chile, Peru and the Amazon Basin and across mountains, deserts and rivers; for part of that way, they travel on an oil-guzzling wreck of a motorcycle that eventually breaks down completely, and for the rest of the journey via a tiring combination of walking and hitchhiking.

The point is that if I was moved despite my ingrained skepticism about Ché Guevara and Castro’s Cuba, you probably will be too. Mr. Salles expresses his thoughts on making the film thus: “If there’s one thing I can tell you about this experience that we shared—‘we’ being the group of people who went on the road together for two years to do this project—it’s that, like Ernesto and Alberto, we were very different when we got to the end of our journey in comparison to where we were when we started.”

In the final analysis, The Motorcycle Diaries is the kind of movie that can change us all for the better, and I can think of no higher praise.

Anyone for Tennis?

Richard Loncraine’s Wimbledon, from a screenplay by Adam Brooks, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, is a pleasant enough entertainment at a time when movies either pleasant or entertaining are in short supply. Yet by the time the farfetched but utterly predictable plot reaches its preordained climax (with a particularly silly coda at the end), I am reminded of why I am a sports fan, but not a sports-movie fan. This is to say that the suspense and excitement generated by the greatest of the Connor-Borg, Connors-McEnroe, McEnroe-Borg, Sampras-Agassi and Agassi-Federer matches can never be fabricated in a mere movie. For one thing, there is no moral to any of these titanic real-life contests: On a given day, one superlative player simply is superior to another superlative player. That’s all, folks. Yet in Wimbledon, we are asked to believe that a 119th-ranked British player would win Wimbledon over a hot-shot, bullying American player who has rolled over obstacles like Messrs. Federer and Hewitt (just in the movie, of course) without losing a set. As the answer to Britain’s long famine in men’s tennis at Wimbledon, Paul Bettany’s Peter Colt cuts a more romantic figure than poor Tim Henman, the real-life, gallant Brit overachiever with limited talent who fails, year after year, to get to the finals at Wimbledon despite much hype.

Fortunately, Mr. Loncraine, the sophisticated British director of such films as Brimstone and Treacle (1982) and a politically updated Richard III (1995), has a light enough touch to take the sting out of tweaking the Yanks, represented by Kirsten Dunst’s Lizzie Bradbury, a win-at-all-costs tennis champion incongruously drawn to a sweetly self-doubting Brit loser type like Peter. Also in the Yank contingent invading the hallowed, grassy playing fields of Wimbledon are Dennis Bradbury (Sam Neill), a mildly overbearing member of that fierce kamikaze tribe of women’s-tennis fathers; Ron Roth (Jon Favreau), a terminally cynical player’s agent clutching the Union Jack in one hand and the Stars and Stripes in the other; and finally—and most egregiously—the smirking, sneering American tennis champ, Jake Hammond (Austin Nichol). Boo! Hiss!

Peter is blessed, or cursed, with a feisty family consisting of his mother, flaky Augusta Colt (Eleanor Bron); her often estranged, in-the-treehouse husband, Edward (Bernard Hill); and Peter’s singularly disloyal brother, Carl (James McAvoy), who regularly bets against his sibling. Still, all’s well that ends well when Peter wins Wimbledon and retires with Lizzie, who (we’re told in Peter’s voice-over) has gone on to win two Wimbledon championships of her own. So everybody’s happy; Ms. Dunst and Mr. Bettany have the right chemistry; and the tennis action is speeded up to provide the equivalent of an entertaining video game. What more do you want for your 10 bucks—popcorn with a pickle?

Pulp Sci-Fi

Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is such an interestingly silly movie that I found myself idly wondering what particular audience was being targeted with its peculiar conceits and infinitude of special effects. Its A-list cast has been reduced to cartoonish stooges who may as well have been animated to fit more snugly into the wildly conceived backgrounds of far-flung places like New York City and Nepal, as well as the oceans and mountains in between. Just as curiously, this is not exactly a futuristic sci-fi film: All the action takes place in 1939, and “the world of tomorrow” refers not to the future, but to some crazy scheme of a pre–World War I German scientist ghoulishly “played” through stills and old movie images by the late Laurence Olivier. (The idea sounds more offensive before you see the movie than it actually turns out to be—except in its anticlimactic feebleness as a publicity-seeking device.)

The movie begins with a zeppelin flying over Manhattan and docking atop the Empire State Building, and a German scientist descending from the dirigible with two vials in his hand. I was 11 years old in 1939, and I remember the Graf Zeppelin burning up at its New Jersey landing site a year or two earlier. Later, when I saw newsreels, I noticed that the zeppelin sported a conspicuous swastika. Of course, 1939 was the year in which Europe was plunged into World War II. What, then, were all those clambering mechanical giants stomping through the streets of Manhattan in a direct steal from George Lucas’ Star Wars series (the single most anti-Bazinian step in sending movies away from their realistic roots and into the fantasy factories)? Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie and Giovanni Ribisi do their best with the self-consciously pulpy and campy material, but all the parts are written at what used to be known as the “B-picture” level.