I walked into The Motorcycle Diaries with nary a clue as to what the movie was about. Then the movie started, and I managed to completely phase out during the initial introductions of all the characters. Undaunted, I was nonetheless quickly engrossed in the story of two anonymous (to me) medical school friends who embark on a motorcycle ride across Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Peru.
I love road trip sagas enough that I wasn't bothered by my gap in knowledge; images of the open road are more than enough to keep me gripped for hours. And Diaries has lovely images to spare. Argentinean movies all seem to use this rich, dark film that looks both vibrant and aged--the look is perfect for Diaries, which takes place in the early 1950s and gives a beautiful and haunting portrayal of rural South American life. The duo (played by Rodrigo de la Serna and the endearing Gael Garcia Bernal) ride, push, and carry their motorcycle through every weather condition imaginable, encounter booze and women around every turn, and generally achieve the kind of good times/bad times adventure balance that all great road trip stories thrive on. The bad times mostly involve impoverished people and mistreated workers--things which seem to especially trouble Bernal's character.
Finally, after traveling thousands of miles, the friends arrive at a leper colony in Peru to engage in residencies as part of their medical training. Here, Bernal's character finally had an opportunity to introduce himself by his full name again: Ernesto Guevara. This is when I realized everything I had been watching was not just a fun buddy road trip flick, but a loving exploration of Guevara's experiences with his land and the people that led a young, budding revolutionary down the path of epic social change. That realization made all that had happened before in this wonderful film much more powerful. And lucky you--you won't be as clueless as I was. You're going to have that power and impact from The Motorcycle Diaries' outset.