Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries could almost be considered part of that mini-genre of films about legends before they were famous - eg Young Sherlock Holmes and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. The legend here is the Argentinian medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna - young Che to you. Partly based on Guevara's account of his youthful bike tour through South America in 1952, Salles's film is the story of a field-trip education in political realities, that explains how Che began to become Che.
Yet The Motorcycle Diaries is not a hagiography of the political saint as young biker dude, nor is it even really about Che Guevara (and even less about the motorcycle, which falls apart halfway through the journey). It's just as much about Guevara's travelling companion Alberto Granado, a biochemist a few years older, more confident and bullish. Given that the film is executive produced by Robert Redford, you might add Butch and Sundance: The Early Days to the above list, for this is very much the story of a double act, showing Granado as far more than an obscure sidekick (indeed, the film is also based on his own account of the trip).
Heading off on a 1939 Norton 500 lovingly dubbed "El Poderoso" ("the Mighty One"), the pair boost themselves with heroic, crypto-Kerouac rhetoric. They fancy themselves as outlaws, two-wheeled gauchos, but are outrun by the real thing when they've barely left Buenos Aires. It soon turns out that the great guerilla-to-be, soppy thing that he is, has smuggled a puppy aboard for his upper-crust girlfriend (Mia Maestro), who lives on a country estate so swanky that Alberto thinks they must have landed in Switzerland.
Here then is Che - played by Mexican heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal, from Amores Perros and Bad Education - as gauche lover, coyly snogging in the back of a car, earnestly guarding $15 to buy a swimsuit for his beloved Chichina. Without over-milking it, the film makes touching use of this callow Che, a wallflower mocked at a dance - by a roomful of nuns, at that! - for not knowing the difference between mambo and tango.
Ernesto gets his first lessons in guerilla survival tactics just by virtue of knowing so little about the road that he's challenged by every eventuality. The two companions, endlessly surprised by bad terrain, sudden snows, fevers and fatigues, struggle to keep up their pace: one lovely shot shows them outpaced uphill by a determined, poker-faced campesino.
Early on, they learn to put their wits to good use: Alberto, a born conman, talks up their credentials to hit on people's goodwill. But it's Ernesto who wins a meal ticket by getting their picture in a local paper as two eminent travelling medics. It's once they lose the bike and travel on foot that the real education begins. One night, they meet a couple forced to travel in search of work because speculators threw them off their land; the next day, as they watch itinerant workers waiting for quarry jobs, Ernesto's righteous rage flares up for the first time. Perhaps the film tells us too much at this point, by giving us his voice-over: "It was one of the coldest nights of my life, but that made me feel closer to the human race." Yet if this is a direct quotation from the diaries, then we truly get the sense of a young man having his eyes opened for the first time and instantly romanticising the experience.
If there is any sense of travelogue romanticism here, it's not in any postcard imagery, but only in the sweep of the story, in our sense of seeing not just a road but an entire continent unfold under our heroes' wheels. Shooting in 16mm, Eric Gautier provides exhilarating vistas of mountains in deep snow, or a cold grey morning on a Chilean lake, as the travellers thrill at their first steps outside Argentina. But for the most part, the film adopts a quasi-documentary tone, and is above all fascinated by people. The film's coda, a series of posed still shots of people encountered previously, is virtually a little photo-essay illustrating Guevara's vision of Latin America as one people, regardless of national boundaries.
The only point at which the film is too overt about its subject is in the final section, where the duo sign on as medics in a leper colony. Here Che's instinct to snub protocol and embrace humanity becomes more politically and symbolically charged than the film can easily carry off: it suddenly has to deal with him being at once a no-bullshit rebel and a figure of Christ-like compassion.
Affecting and self-deprecating as his performance is, Bernal's boyish earnestness here makes him somewhat less magnetic than Rodrigo de la Serna's Alberto Granado. It's Granado whom the Brazilian director Salles really seems to love, perhaps because he can't get too close (out of respect or awe) to even a humanised Che, but also because de la Serna barrels through the film with indefatigably brazen charisma. He certainly gets the best scene, in his genially flirtatious encounter with a riverboat whore (Jackelyn Vasquez).
You have to admire Salles's restraint: instead of appealing too obviously to our knowledge of what Ernesto did after his holidays, he leaves us with a Guevara still only just setting out on the path to becoming Che. The film ends with its heroes heading off towards separate destinies, of which until now we knew only one. Their paths did join again, a caption tells us, with Granado too signing up for Cuba. Salles even leaves us with the real Granado, now in his rheumy-eyed eighties: it could have been an awkward moment, bringing on the venerable eyewitness to history, yet it isn't because we feel we know him so well. In the end, we have learned a lot about the education of an icon, but it's a measure of the film's humanity that his buddy is the one you'd like to buy a beer.