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The Motorcycle Diaries

South America on a shoestring

Stories about traveling are one of many things that fall into the category of "had to be there," and anyone who's ever had a friend return from traveling abroad knows exactly why. Upon that first meeting, one can't help but wonder how much time will be wasted looking over photographs from the trip. Occasionally, the pictures surprise you and the stories that go along with them will leave you captivated for hours. But, that's the exception.

It's also the danger that surrounds movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, for just a few missteps can quickly transform something good into the infinite boredom that accompanies the watching of two people drive across a seemingly endless stretch of continent. The film chronicles the travels across South America of Che Guevara, long before he ascended to legendary status as a guerilla leader in the Cuban Communist Revolution. And while the movie only scratches the surface of Guevara's politics, it is sure to include the sights that nudge him toward his ultimate calling.

The rest of the time focuses on his relationship with travel partner and best friend Alberto Granado. With a cash reserve that would barely cover two Big Macs at McDonald's and their only transportation a charcoal-smoke sputtering motorcycle, the adventure seems destined to fail almost before it starts. And much of the screen time -- a bit too much -- focuses on the difficulties of their travel. The first time their motorcycle crashes toward the ground, the viewer winces while simultaneously admiring their pioneering spirit for embarking on such a torturous journey improperly equipped. Their second crash comes as a bit less of a surprise while the third either confirms what I've long suspected as ESP or is simply very predictable.

For a good portion of their road time, they seem to be stuck on dingy dirt roads. And while using nature to bridge the lulls in the telling of a story is cinematically questionable, it's a sunnier alternative to what we are given. If anything, the film fails to do the scenery of South America justice -- at least until the two journeyers reach the storied ruins of Machu Picchu.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Granado provides the entertainment on the long stretches between their stops. He constantly tries to talk his way into shelter for the evening or a free meal from the unsuspecting townspeople. For his part, Bernal plays Guevara in a less than lyrical way, leaving most of the dialogue to his talkative travel partner. Instead, he often opts for the brooding look, ostensibly to be interpreted as the formidable cerebral muscles of the future revolutionary churning. While these will be of considerable glee for scores of females who find the boyish good looks of Bernal palatable, it sometimes leave the less fawning among us at times disappointed.

Fortunately, De la Serna and Bernal maintain an easy rapport that lends credence to the relationship and witty banter between the two travelers keeps things interesting. It should be mentioned that the viewer has to utilize some imagination to appreciate some of the one-liners though. Repeatedly, Guevara pokes fun at Granado's weight problem, yet I found myself having to constantly remind myself of Granado's purported obesity. Apparently, actor Rodrigo De la Serna added fifteen pounds for shooting, but he still doesn't exactly impress with his corpulence.

Until the end, the trip itself is one that seems more informative than inspiring, and there's a sneaking suspicion that the trip only seems of importance since we know the historical events that Guevara eventually becomes involved in. It's a worrisome situation because movie endings almost invariably introduce problems rather than solve them. No such problem exists here though. Their final adventure proves to be more poignant and inspiring than all the rest combined, and the parting moment manages to be touching without being melodramatic.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5