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Two Men and a Motorbike: An Epic Adventure Across Latin America

Hit the road with Che Guevara, in The Motorcycle Diaries, appearing as part of our Road Movies season…

The sixth feature from Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles saw a return to the road movie genre after his international hit Central Station (1998), with both films winning numerous prestigious awards around the world. Motorcycle Diaries is about Ernesto Guevara before he became Che, a 23-year-old medical student on an epic adventure across the Latin American continent with his friend Alberto Granado. The plot remains as faithful as possible, in letter and spirit, to the first hand accounts of the journey: Guevara’s Notas de Viaje and Granado’s Con El Che por Latinoamérica. In fact the late Granado, already then in his 80s, accompanied the crew for part of the trip. However, there was also space for improvisation during the shoot, and Salles has described the film as docu-fiction due to the crew’s own journey of discovery that ran in parallel to the original odyssey. With the extreme unpredictability of weather systems from the Andes to the Amazon, and unexpected encounters with local people along the route, the ability of the film crew to react and adapt was paramount.

Arguably the film actually has three main characters – Guevara, known as “Fuser”, Granado, known as “Mial”, and the 1939 Norton 500cc motorbike that he nicknamed La Poderosa (“The Mighty One”). This leaky old bike is their vehicle for liberation, and dearly loved by Granado, but it’s also the source of many a near miss. The crew actually used five motorbikes during the filming, three refurbished originals and two modified from modern bikes for the stunts. Navigating the bike along the gravelled tracks of Latin America’s plains and mountains certainly added an extra challenge to the lead roles, but thankfully this never dissuaded Mexican Gael García Bernal and Argentinian Rodrigo de la Serna from taking on the parts of Guevara and Granado, respectively, roles for which they were perfectly cast.

The original aim to ride across the continent from Buenos Aires to Caracas goes slightly awry, with the bike reluctantly abandoned in favour of walking, hitching and sailing their way north. But ultimately they do complete their voyage, and Guevara in particular comes out as a changed man. The road movie genre has always been about internal and external discovery, with the new experiences and uncertainties thrown up by the journey acting as a catalyst for personal change. The two young men set off looking for fun and adventure, but this rite of passage also deepens their personal identity and forges a sense of Latin American identity.

The change in Guevara is especially acute, as he transforms from the more introverted of the pair into the leader of the expedition, with a greater understanding of the socio-political suffering of the continent. There is undeniable misery and deprivation to be seen along the route, but there is also the breath-taking geography, the amusing youthful escapades, and the wonderful on-screen chemistry between Bernal and de la Serna, which all make this film a joy to watch. Knowing the subsequent development of Che Guevara into an international icon adds gravity to the story, but even as a stand-alone tale of adventure and transformation it’s a fabulous cinematic experience. Whether you’re new to the film or not, don’t miss this chance to see it on the big screen in all its majesty.

Words by Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator

The Motorcycle Diaries returns to screens on Sun 06 Aug. Book tickets here.

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