Before becoming a Communist hero in Latin America, Che Guevara was just a kid on a dilapidated motorcycle looking for fun — and the only revolution going on was in his heart.
In 1952, long before he was nicknamed "El Che," Ernesto Guevara and a friend rambled through South America on an 8,000-mile adventure across the Amazon and over the rugged, snow-covered Andes, to bond with poor farmers and share some laughs with riverboat prostitutes.
The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Guevara's book of the same name, might be like a lot of other coming-of-age road trip movies, except it's told through the 23-year-old eyes of one of the 20th century's most controversial figures.
"Guevara's book had had a real impact on me because it is about a journey to discover not only one's identity and one's place in the world, but also about the search for what I think we could call a Latin American identity," says director Walter Salles, whose film opens Friday.
Guevara, who had been studying medicine in Buenos Aires, had already seen much of his native Argentina by bicycle when he joined Alberto Granado, a 29-year-old friend, on a 1939 Norton 400 motorcycle, which they nicknamed "La Poderosa," or "The Mighty One."
Just three years later, Guevara met Fidel Castro and would join him as a comrade-in-arms in Cuba's Communist revolution, becoming a hero to leftists in Latin America and Africa. He died in 1967, shot by soldiers in Bolivia.
"When you finish reading this book, you have the impression that you can actually change things in the world, by understanding them and taking part," Salles says. "I wanted the film to convey that same sense of hope and exploration."
Salles, however, presents the rebel before his political philosophy had jelled, when the young student had no choice but to motorcycle on ragged dirt roads and scrounge for meals in Incan villages if he wanted to see a bit of the world.
"We used the original locations that Ernesto and Alberto traveled through as much as we could," says Salles, who shot in more than 30 locations, spanning Argentina, Chile and Peru. "We endured temperatures that were well below zero in the Andes and more than 45 degrees Celsius [113 degrees Fahrenheit] in the Amazon."
Gael Garcia Bernal, best known for his role as Julio Zapata in Y Tu Mamá También takes on the role of Guevara, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to follow in his character's path — even swimming with lepers in the Amazon River.
"Several people who played lepers in the film had been patients at the actual leper colony," says Salles.
In their journey, Guevara and Granado spent three weeks at Peru's San Pablo Leprosarium, and Guevara once again demonstrated an uncanny ability to connect with the downtrodden.
"It was the most rewarding and fascinating part of the journey," says Salles.