In 1950s Argentina, Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) and Ernesto Che Guevara (Gael García Bernal) buy a rickety British motorcycle, which they name "the mighty one", and start touring, aiming to hit Venezuela in time for Alberto's 30th birthday. They begin in Chile, posing as eminent scientists and achieving a degree of notoriety which culminates in them fleeing a lynch mob that they barely escape.
Then the bike breaks down, forcing the pair to hitch-hike. They end up in the Atacama Desert, mixing with the workers of a copper mine, then move on to Peru, where they encounter a familiar sight: the exploitation of local workers by privileged businessmen. Fuelled by raging injustice, Guevera begins to radicalise, and Alberto follows...
If 1998's Central Station showed director Walter Salles to be a great humanist storyteller, The Motorcycle Diaries, released six years later, shows that the director has not stood still. Both films have epiphanies sparked by the working classes, and both blend the personal with the political.
The casting is strong. Gael García Bernal is superb as Guevara, his growing sense of rage seeming wholly natural, underwriting the film's central message - that idealism will surface. Arguably, De la Serna had the more difficult role in that his character, Granado, is still alive.
The film, like its theme, was an epic undertaking. Five years of planning saw it change from an Italian documentary to an Argentinian feature before ending up with Robert Redford. He installed Salles as director, while FilmFour provided sufficient financing. Salles recreated the travellers' journey three times during research and principal photography. Many of those he met en route were cast (in the end, 90 per cent of the cast are non-actors), giving an extraordinary range of faces and emotions, and making Che's passionate avowal - "We're the same people from Mexico down to Patagonia" - undeniably true.