IN "The Motorcycle Diaries," a good-hearted young Argentine from Cordoba named Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal) decides it is time to put aside his medical school education, get on a motorbike with his pal Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) and hit the road. He wants to discover South America, taking a route west from Buenos Aires to Chile, then north through the Peruvian Amazon and all the way to the tip of Venezuela.
This 8,000-mile journey, which he and Alberto plan to complete on a 1939 Norton 500 bike held together with only wire and will, is rigged with incident -- catastrophe, misery, triumph and ultimately destiny. They'll see Patagonia, cross the Andes and the Atacama Desert. They'll journey through the Peruvian Amazon. They'll meet the displaced, the rootless and the poor in this big wide continent: migrant workers in Chile, Incan descendants in Machu Picchu, a colony of lepers near Iquitos, Peru.
The experience will affect Ernesto more than he can imagine. He will grow up to be Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary in the Cuban revolution. Alberto Granado will also follow him to Cuba. But their fate is not the point of the story. It's the youthful journey that led to it. Walter Salles's movie, adapted from Guevara's memoir, "The Motorcycle Diaries," and Granados's "Traveling With Che Guevara," is unlikely to change the hearts and minds of those for whom Guevara and revolutionary Cuba are beyond sentimental treatment. And it could be accused, legitimately, of furthering Che's ubiquitous T-shirtification.
But Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera aren't interested in Guevara's later political life. (It should be said, however, the end credits make barbed reference to CIA involvement in Guevara's ultimate capture and death.) "Motorcycle Diaries" is about two young men trying to traverse a daunting mass of land with suspect wheels, no money and only their resourcefulness to help them. They're looking for wine, women and song, to be sure, but also purpose.
De la Serna is a roguish delight as Alberto, whose interest in the next female conquest becomes an amusing motif. But Bernal, the star of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," is the movie's guiding star. He beams brightly, charming men and women, rich and poor, healthy and leprous, wherever he goes. And his humanity is evolving to a higher realm as he becomes aware of the vastness of this world, the general injustice and suffering that mark the lives of so many, and the arbitrariness of national borders. Yet the movie's not heavyhanded about this coming of moral age; the revelations unfurl in subtle ways. What Bernal and this well-wrought movie convey so well is the charisma that would soon become a part of human history and, yes, T-shirts. When the asthmatic Ernesto impulsively decides to swim across a dangerous river to celebrate his birthday with the members of the leper colony, his courageous attempt makes an invigorating metaphor for the tough task he will later set himself: changing perceptions and the world.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (DIARIOS DE MOTOCICLETA ) (R, 126 minutes) -- Contains obscenity. In Spanish with subtitles. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.