Most people would recognize the face of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara even if they didn't know his name or any details of his life. Guevara's picture—with longish hair, wearing a beret and looking wistfully skyward, generally rendered in stark, minimalist black-and-white, a little like an Andy Warhol portrait—adorns posters and T-shirts of pseudo-rebellious teens and college students everywhere. Che is a symbol far more than he is a person, and a trite and misused one at that. Walter Salles' Guevera biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries, is the cinematic equivalent of a Che T-shirt: stylish and nice to look at, sure, but completely simplistic and misguided.
Salles and screenwriter José Rivera get away with not addressing Che's brutal policies as a revolutionary in Cuba and other Latin American countries by focusing on a few months of his life in 1952, when Che (Gael Garcia Bernal), then simply known as Ernesto, was 23 and traveling the South American countryside with his friend, Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna). Ernesto, a medical student in Buenos Aires, and Alberto, a biochemist, want to see the world before settling down in the professions that their upper-class upbringings demand. The trip, begun on a beat-up motorcycle dubbed "The Mighty One," starts out lighthearted, with a visit to Ernesto's girlfriend and jokes about the two buddies getting laid in every country.
But the farther they get from the comfort of city life in Buenos Aires, the more harsh and eye-opening the surrounding conditions become. They witness nomadic workers struggling for life-threatening jobs in a mine, indigenous people displaced from their ancestral homes, and most importantly, the segregation of the sick (read: poor) and the well (read: rich) in the Peruvian leper colony where they volunteer for several weeks near the end of their journey.
The film's goal is clearly to show how Ernesto evolved into Che, from where he got his revolutionary ideas, and what stirred him to ultimate action. The problem is that the person portrayed in the film is a too-perfect martyr, a noble, self-sacrificing man who always does the right thing and is never wrong or conflicted. You half expect Ernesto to spontaneously heal all the lepers at the colony, just because he's that wonderful. Even ignoring the disconnect between the Ernesto of the film and the tyrannical Che of history, the person Salles and Rivera portray is completely unrealistic and uninteresting.
The scenery as shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier is beautiful, and Bernal and de la Serna embody their idealistic young men with charm, but the film needs more than beauty and charm. That you can get from a T-shirt.