A confused and adventurous 23-year-old medical student yields to his thirst for life, grabs a friend, climbs onto a motorcycle and zooms across the continent in hope of answering life's big questions (or at least finding some kicks along the way).
It's not Jack Kerouac, or even the cast of "Road Trip"; it's revolutionary theorist Ernesto "Che" Guevara De la Serna, long before he helped to lead the guerrilla war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and long before he became an enduring revolutionary icon. That is the Guevara that filmmakers hoped to capture in "The Motorcycle Diaries": a young man waking up to the world, and to himself.
Capturing this side of Guevara is a daunting task, and while Gael García Bernal — the man who stepped into the role — has already received critical acclaim, the actor still has reservations. "There was never a point where I felt ... that I really had it," Bernal admitted about his portrayal of the revolutionary Latin American icon.
He may be the only one. The film received standing ovations at both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. "The Motorcycle Diaries" finds Che in 1952 about to embark on an eight-month road trip (covering more than 8,000 miles) throughout South America with his friend, 29-year old Alberto Granado (played by Rodrigo De la Serna). The film's title, "The Motorcycle Diaries" comes from both their method of transportation — a 1939 Norton 500 — and the book that served as the script's source material: Each of the men kept a diary about their travels.
Director Walter Salles ("Central Station") was already a fan of the published diaries, and his first mission was to stay true to Guevara's South American roots and make this an entirely Argentine production, selecting only local actors for each country visited. He did make one big exception in casting Che himself, since Bernal is Mexican. But according to Salles, Bernal was the only choice. "Gael is the real thing. He's not only the most visceral actor of his generation, he may be one of the very brightest guys I've ever met."
"It's really hard to play someone like Che Guevara — it's a big responsibility and no one else could have done it," De la Serna added.
De la Serna — a successful Argentine actor — makes his international film debut in "Diaries," and fully committed himself to playing Granado, the lesser-known half of the duo. "I read the diary he wrote during the trip, it was like a bible for me," the actor said.
"[De la Serna is] fantastic, a fantastic actor," Salles gushed. "He also understood Alberto's body language and little by little he started to transform himself in and out of the set. [Granado] has an extraordinary appetite for life." An appetite that Rodrigo found himself sharing — literally. "I gained 25 pounds," De la Serna groaned. Coincidentally, it was only after he was cast as Alberto Granado that Salles found out De la Serna is Che's real-life second cousin.
Once the duo was cast, preparations began and the actors and crew soon threw themselves into the political and social climates of that time. "I learned to dance tango, mambo, studied a lot about Latin America from the '50s, learned about the Incan empire — we studied a lot," De la Serna recalled.
"And [we were] preparing physically with the motorcycles," Bernal added. "[We were] reading what they were reading at the time, from Faulkner to Camus to Sartre, and then listening to music that they were listening to. [We met] Alberto Granado, speaking endless hours with him and a bottle of rum in front."
Once they felt sufficiently well-versed, filming began. Salles had an ambitious — and slightly grueling — schedule planned: 30 locations in South America, including Argentina, Chile and Peru, in just under three months. Miraculously, they were able to do it, shooting not only in the chronological order of the original journey, but also the actual locations.
"We covered the literal ground," Salles laughed, "from the beginning to the end. South America is pretty much the last frontier still, thus allowing you to place the camera in places like Patagonia or the Atacama desert and still have the impression that no one has been there before you arrived."
Fortunately, they managed to find time during their accelerated shooting schedule to bring a very special guest to the set. "We had the opportunity to have Alberto Granado himself. Now he's an 83-year-young man with a fantastic memory," Salles said. "The whole last part on the Amazon, he was the first one to arrive on the set. We had a one-hour boat journey. He was the first to get on the boat, and the last one to come back, singing tangos on the way back. He knows approximately 500 tangos, so we never ran out of new songs."
"I was lucky to meet him, that's when I realized the magnitude of this man," De la Serna said. "He was incredible to know. He was always there to relax me, to calm me down, but it was also hard because this man is going to watch the movie. I'm playing him during the most important period of his life."
Bernal also had his share of quality time with Granado, and was able to get valuable advice on playing not only Che the icon — but more importantly, the Che who was Granado's best friend. "In one scene, [Granado] came over and said, 'Don't try to copy him, don't try to imitate him ... use your own voice. Trust your own voice because he was only a 23-year-old Latin American, and that's what you are. That's all that you are, as well — so trust that you have the same truth, in a way.' And it sounds romantic, but there is a very rational and very practical truth behind it, which is that as young adults we are all in the search for identity."
Obviously, the filmmakers are hoping that the universality of Che's journey – both his internal and external explorations – resonates with audiences and that they will come to embrace him not as a political icon but rather as a young man making sense of himself and his world. "This movie humanizes the figure of Che Guevara, brings him back to earth," De la Serna explained. "It brings him back to the people. It's not a movie with a political line or political dogmas. It's simply a journey that two young men took in search of their identity. It's a journey that every person has to take to see where their place is."
"Instead of finding the answer inside, instead of finding your identity inside, you go outside and you get lost and therefore you find yourself," Bernal summarized. "I mean, it's kind of a cliché, but it works."
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