In the spring of 1952, two young men set out by motorcycle on an ambitious, footloose journey that they hoped would carry them from Buenos Aires up the spine of Chile, across the Andes and into the Peruvian Amazon. (They made it, a little behind schedule, though the unfortunate motorcycle did not.) Their road trip, however inspired and audacious it might have been, could have faded into personal memory and family lore, even though both travelers produced written accounts of their adventures. The older, a 29-year-old biochemist named Alberto Granado, is still alive and appears at the very end of "The Motorcycle Diaries," Walter Salles's stirring and warm-hearted reconstruction of that long-ago voyage. Granado's companion was a 23-year-old medical student named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, whose subsequent career as a political idol, revolutionary martyr and T-shirt icon — Che! — reflects a charismatic, mysterious glow onto his early life. (...)
But the film, written by José Rivera, is really a love story in the form of a travelogue. The love it chronicles is no less profound — and no less stirring to the senses — for taking place not between two people but between a person and a continent. Mr. Bernal's soulful, magnetic performance notwithstanding, the real star of the film is South America itself, revealed in the cinematographer Eric Gautier's misty green images as a land of jarring and enigmatic beauty.
At the end of the film, after his sojourn at the leper colony has confirmed his nascent egalitarian, anti-authority impulses, Ernesto makes a birthday toast, which is also his first political speech. In it he evokes a pan-Latin American identity that transcends the arbitrary boundaries of nation and race. "The Motorcycle Diaries," combining the talents of a Brazilian director and leading actors from Mexico (Mr. Bernal) and Argentina (Mr. de la Serna), pays heartfelt tribute to this idea. In an age of mass tourism, it also unabashedly revives the venerable, romantic notion that travel can enlarge the soul, and even change the world.
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