Films that take as their inspiration the lives of famous political figures constitute a bafflingly disparate genre. On the one hand, we have the portentous heavyweight seriousness of political biopics such as Oliver Stone's Nixon, in which Anthony Hopkins essayed a surprisingly convincing portrait of Tricky Dick, all shrugged shoulders and furtively furrowed brows. At the other end of the spectrum there is Evita, a romping West End musical transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing cinematic spectacle by our own British treasure Alan Parker, in which the pop diva Madonna delivered her best screen performance as a decadently glamorous Eva Peron. And somewhere in between, there is Max, last year's overlooked oddity in which Noah Taylor played the young Adolf as a tortured artist whose thoughts turned to fascist world domination after he was told that his paintings were, frankly, a bit rubbish. As John Cusack memorably declares, "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler! Come on, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade!"
Oddly, it is the last of these offerings with which The Motorcycle Diaries has most in common, being an affectionate account of the early travels of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the years prior to his becoming a legend of the international left. Based on the published accounts of Guevara and his companion Alberto Granado recounting their 1952 road trip through Latin America, Walter Salles's vibrantly human film is an absolute treat, and provides substantial entertainment of the highest order. Heading off on a rickety Norton ironically nicknamed "the Mighty One", from whose chugging seat they are regularly ejected, these two well-to-do twentysomethings (one is a medical student, the other a biochemist) leave Buenos Aires with the aim of hitting Venezuela in time for Alberto's 30th-birthday knees-up - and they hope to get drunk, laid and educated en route. But as their journey takes them to the peaks of Machu Picchu, with its remnants of a ruined Inca civilisation, and the San Pablo leper colony of the Peruvian Amazon, what began as a carefree escapade mutates into something altogether more grown-up. By the time Guevara celebrates his own 24th birthday, he will have put away childhood things and fixed his attention firmly upon the future.
Accurately described by Salles as "a film about the emotional and political elections we have to make in life", The Motorcycle Diaries presents a note-perfect blend of the personal and the political, compassionately capturing the moments of human interaction that will ultimately forge its hero's public persona. As Che Guevara (a role previously attempted by such hefty legends as Omar Sharif), Gael GarcIa Bernal is an utterly winning presence, seemingly lugging none of the cultural baggage that so often encumbers actors stepping into such legendary shoes. Far from bearing the revolutionary weight of the world on his shoulders, this charismatic actor instead reminds us of the youthful exuberance displayed in Y Tu Mama Tambien, in which two young men similarly headed off on a voyage of personal discovery.
As for Salles, whose previous works include the thematically comparable Central Station, he negotiates the twists and turns of this rocky path with con-siderably better road-holding than "La Poderosa". After the playful enthusiasm of the early scenes, we hardly notice Salles shifting gear as Alberto and Ernesto arrive at the leper colony, where Guevara braves treacherous waters to embrace the outcast population in the film's powerfully symbolic climax. After a string of beautifully low-key encounters with migrant workers and mistreated miners, with whom Che senses a growing affinity, this "big finish" could easily have smacked of overstated hokum. Yet Salles seems instinctively to know just how far he can push the melodrama without suffocating the movie's realistic life-breath. The result is an emotionally satisfying ride that never abandons either intellectual rigour or its aesthetic judgement - a rarity indeed.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of The Motorcycle Diaries is that one could easily watch and enjoy the film without ever acknowledging its role as a strange form of historical prequel. With excellent support from Rodrigo de la Serna as Alberto, this could play just as effectively as a simple "coming-of-age" drama, unencumbered by the significance of Ernesto's future. And considering the labyrinthine twists of its production history (as one of the executive producers, Robert Redford was instrumental in finally navigating this story's meandering journey towards a happy ending), it is all the more remarkable just how cohesive the finished film remains.
The Motorcycle Diaries is one of the most rewarding and engaging movies of the year, capturing the heart as well as the head, and reconfirming Gael GarcIa Bernal as one of contemporary cinema's most consistently enthralling presences.