The Motorcycle Diaries: A Focus Features’ 20th Anniversary Film For Hispanic Heritage Month

Walter Salles maps out the unforgettable, complex route that changed Latin American history

Walter SallesThe Motorcycle Diaries brings history to life in chronicling the epic journey taken by Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna). In 1952, the two Argentinean students took off on a sputtering Norton 500 motorcycle to discover their magnificent continent. Traveling northward through Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and finally ending in Venezuela, the two discover not only the complex cultures and diverse people of South America, but their own destinies. Before Ernesto became the revolutionary Che Guevara, his early travels provided the sentimental education that transformed him by showing him the reality of South America. The film “unabashedly revives the venerable, romantic notion that travel can enlarge the soul, and even change the world,” notes The New York Times. To celebrate Focus Features' 20th year anniversary, we’re highlighting this October Focus films like The Motorcycle Diaries that celebrate the values of Hispanic Heritage Month.

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The official trailer for The Motorcycle Diaries

Gael Garcia Bernal and Walter Salles on the set of The Motorcycle Diaries

Producer Michael Nozik recalls how the film, which had film crews travel across South America to recreate a journey that changed history, began inauspiciously in a shop in Southern California. “I saw the paperback in a Santa Monica bookstore,” Nozik recalls. “It had a really cool cover with Che Guevara on it, and I picked it up and started flipping through it.” Before long, the Nuyorican playwright José Rivera was busy adapting Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey into a screenplay and Brazilian director, Walter Salles, who gained international attention with his debut feature, Central Station, was set to direct.

Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) and Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) in The Motorcycle Diaries

To tell the story of the two men’s 8-month, 8,700 mile trek, Salles made the journey itself a central character. Shooting as best he could their tale in the sequence that it occurred, Salles had the production literally follow in Guevara and Granado’s footsteps. It became crucial that the film's cast and crew came to understand how the two young men were changed both emotionally and ideologically. “They would go on to try to change the world, according to what they had come to understand on this journey,” explains Salles. Indeed, the production at times felt nearly like a documentary because, as Salles notes, “the political and social realities of the Latin American culture have not changed all that much from the 1950s to today.” For Empire, “the Latin America he [Guevara] saw with his own eyes (and which we see on screen, some 50 years later) contains a people united beyond geographical or political borders.”

When the film was released, it was greeted with international acclaim. It went on to win an Academy Award® for Best Original Song and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. It also garnered ten nominations from the Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards, winning in three categories. In the end, the film tells both the story of a man and a place. For The New York Post, The Motorcycle Diaries is not “only the definitive road movie—but what may be the first great South American epic.” Using a mostly South American crew and casting actors from their respective countries, Salles provides viewers a real sense how this journey molded one of the 20th century’s most influential political figures. As USA Today highlights, “The film's ultimate power lies in the gentle poignancy of Guevara's gradual awareness of his fellow man's sorrows and the multiplicity of injustices visited upon his countrymen.”

Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De la Serna) in The Motorcycle Diaries

Salles’ chronicle of that journey also pays homage to South America and the power of travel. Listed as #7 in Latino Life’s “Films to Watch Before You Die” and as one of the “Ten road movies that will inflame your wanderlust,” The Motorcycle Diaries speaks to the power of embracing the world at large. The film’s screenwriter explains that “each generation needs a story about what it is to be transformed by geography, what it is to be transformed by encounters with cultures and people that are alien from yourself.” From witnessing the present plight of oppressed copper miners to wandering among the past wonders of Machu Picchu, The Motorcycle Diaries captures not only what is and was, but also imagines what might be. Indeed, according to The New York Times, the film has even inspired others to follow Che’s route, including various companies who offer fellow travelers guided tours.