In “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a film about a physical and spiritual journey taken by the young Che Guevara premiering in Geneva at the Smith Opera House on Jan. 6, encounters with the unknown alter and affirm a life.
“The Motorcycle Diaries” revisits Guevara's 8,000-mile tour of South America — and the origins of his personal revolution — with humor, compassion and visual grace. Working from writings by Guevara and his traveling companion Alberto Granado, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera present Guevara as a 23-year-old kid not far removed from the college students of today who sport his image on their T-shirts. The famous figure from the Cuban Revolution was also, at one time, a privileged Argentinean youth with wanderlust.
Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), then known by his given name Ernesto, and Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) conceived their ambitious 1952 journey not as a fact-finding mission but as a fun way to mark Granado's 30th birthday. Guevara was a medical student when he set out from Buenos Aires with Granado, a biochemist, on a decrepit 1939 Norton motorcycle nicknamed “The Mighty.”
Traveling the length of South America is quite a struggle for a bike that can barely handle flat farmland roads. But these guys are willing to go the distance for the prospect of foreign women. Ernesto jokes that his friend wants a conquest in every country they visit, but Alberto corrects him: It's actually every town in every country.
As the young Guevara, Mexican actor Bernal (“Y Tu Mama Tambien”; “Amores Perros”) controls his vivid features to play a young man more intent on soaking up than affecting his surroundings. But his Ernesto is also quietly passionate, even if that passion is only romantic at first. He can barely tear himself away from the heiress girlfriend (an alluring Mia Maestro) he visits early in the journey.
The girlfriend gives Ernesto 15 American dollars to buy her a bathing suit, in case he makes it to the United States. Alberto tries to wheedle the cash for, variously, food, motorcycle repairs and the rental of a hooker. Ernesto guards the money vigorously for most of the trip, and when he does spend it, it's for a cause far nobler than any suggested by his friend.
De la Serna, mustachioed and slightly pudgy, makes a comic foil for the chiseled Bernal. Granado's commitment to his friend certainly outlasted the trip. He followed Guevara to Cuba, and remained there long after his friend was killed for guerrilla activities in Bolivia in 1967. He remains in Cuba today, at age 82.
The Smith screens “The Motorcycle Diaries” at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Jan. 6, 7 p.m. Jan. 7 and 8, at 2 p.m. Jan. 9 and at 7 p.m. Jan. 10 and 11. Rated R for language, this film is in Spanish with subtitles. It has a running time of two hours, 6 minutes.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students and senior citizens. All seats are $3 on Thursday and $2 on Tuesday. Call 781-5483 or toll-free (866) 355-5483 for details or to reserve tickets.
The Smith Opera House is located at 82 Seneca Street in Geneva. The Smith is supported, in part, with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the City of Geneva, the Town of Geneva and by contributions from individual supporters.