Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by:Jose Rivera
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mia Maestro, Mercedes Moran, Jean Pierre Noher
Released: December 16, 2004
Grade: A

Each December, I love putting together my top 10 list for the year.  By seeing some 200 films in 365 days, I feel I’ve deserved my right to single out the 10 movies I consider the best of 2004.  There’s a sense of satisfaction too.  Hours and hours and hours of viewing summed up by 10 film titles.

When I look back at 2004, I’m surprised to find 4 documentaries making the exclusive list.  Looking for a reason as to why this is the case, I come back to a quality in filmmaking that has current appeal to me – realism.  The standard comedies, thrillers and romances emanating from Hollywood this year have not won me over.  Instead of letting the story dictate the ending, it seems as if the screenwriters are letting the ending (in most cases a far-fetched one) dictate the story.

Let me say straight out that The Motorcycle Diaries will feature in my top 10 of 2004.  It’s a magnificently uplifting film and I can remember walking away from the theatre with a real sense of pleasure.

In 1952, a 23-year-old named Ernesto Guevara de la Serna travelled with his best friend Alberto across Southern America.  For both, it was a journey they had long planned – the first time that either had left their home country.  Alberto left behind his job as a biochemist and Ernesto took leave from university where studying to become a doctor.  With a rusty motorbike and little cash, they set off.

The trip begins as one of adventure.  Ernesto and Alberto are out to meet people, see the sights and get laid.   As the journey continues though, their eyes are opened to troubles they knew nothing of.  Lowly farmers were being kicked off their own land by corrupt officials who were bribed by the rich.  Medical help was not available to those desperately in need.  Discrimination against native folk was rife.

Ernesto kept a journal throughout their expedition and it is from this which The Motorcycle Diaries is based.  The attraction of this story is perhaps the ultimate outcome.  Ernesto, soon to be known as “Che”, would become a leader in the Cuban Revolution.  The film does not at all look at this later part of his life.  It rightly focuses on the simple journey of two guys learning the lessons of life.  I couldn’t think of a more perfect tagline to describe Ernesto’s journey – “before he changed the world, the world changed him.”

The film has a grainy 50s style to it which is a deliberate decision of director Walter Salles.  It helps set the scene and you sense this isn’t a story which has been glossed up or Hollywood-ised.  Particularly striking was his finale – an array of black and white capturing some of the people Ernesto and Alberto meet along the way.  It all reminded me of another great foreign film Salles recently had a hand in.  Salles helped produce 2002’s City Of God which was nominated for four Academy Awards.

Great performances are delivered by Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto and by newcomer Rodrigo De la Serna as Alberto.  Having broken out with his role in the terrific road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien (see my top 10 of 2002) and the soon to be released Bad Education (from acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar), Bernal is a star to watch.

As the pick of this year’s Christmas releases, The Motorcycle Diaries is an inspiring exploration that you should not miss.