Che Guevara before the beret

How a revolutionary found his conscience on the road

Ernesto "Che" Guevara gained international fame - or notoriety - by fighting alongside Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro before moving on to battle in Bolivia, where he died violently.

In an unusual twist, "The Motorcycle Diaries" paints Guevara as an amiable guy who doesn't appear to have an aggressive bone in his body. This is the young Guevara of the early 1950s - still an Argentine medical student from a middle-class background, and still assuming he'll become a physician.

The movie was enthusiastically received at its Toronto Film Festival première, where director Walter Salles said he wanted to find "the person behind the icon."

Based on fact but clearly fictionalized in many ways, the movie chronicles a journey Guevara took with a slightly older biochemist friend. Their plan is to jounce across Latin America on a rickety motorcycle - which soon falls apart, leaving them on foot - covering thousands of miles over several months.

Among their few scheduled stops is a leper colony where Guevara hopes to learn more about the people he wants to help. He does. But it's the unscheduled stops that prove far more important, introducing the naïve 20-something to the realities of poverty, inequality, and injustice that trap countless peasants in perpetual poverty. A light begins to dawn, and while he has no idea how bright - even blinding - this light will become, he gets an inkling that his future may be very different than he imagined.

Some viewers may consider "The Motorcycle Diaries" a whitewash, portraying a virtual terrorist as a harmless, even likable man. The movie recalls films such as "The Childhood of Maxim Gorky" that show the early stages of an important figure's life, pointing to social and psychological forces while allowing our own imaginations to project these onto what we know of the person's future.

One thing few will disagree on is the quality of the film's acting, especially by Gael García Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as his friend. Both effortlessly embody the footloose, sometimes feckless quality of this "On the Road"-style adventure.

Rated R; contains vulgarity.

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