Medics in the Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

Posted on December 4, 2010. Filed under: Movies to see before you die, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In a word: Wow

Up next in my cinematic journey through the world of medicine is Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, yet another movie that has been sitting on my “to-watch” list for years.  This one is definitely one not to miss.

The Motorcycle Diaries is the story of Che Guevara before he was “Che.”  Back then, he was simply Ernesto, a young medical student embarking on an epic journey across South America with his friend Alberto.  On their travels, the pair encounter the terrible hardship of some of the poorer communities, as well as spending time working at a leper colony on the banks of the Amazon.  Through his interactions with the people and patients he meets, we see how Ernesto goes on to become the iconic political figure Che.

I know less than nothing about South American history or Che Guevara, but I found this film fascinating.  Rather than shoving his political ideals down our throats Salles takes the audience on the same journey as Ernesto, so we naturally form the same conclusions.  There is some clever use of black and white, showing the people who have most affected Ernesto, which are then repeated at the end in juxtaposition with photos of the real Ernesto and Alberto.  The shots are still, but not stills, appearing as memories for Ernesto as a kind of living photograph, made more poignant by the fact they are all looking directly to camera, as if looking to him for help.

The cinematography in this film is magical.  There are some beautiful sweeping landscape shots which emphasise how small Ernesto and Alberto are and how difficult the early part of their journey is.  It reminded me a lot of Brokeback Mountain, even more so thanks to composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who worked on both, using a very traditional and simple score to punctuate key moments.  Showing the tiny bike picking across arid landscapes gives a wonderful sense of scale to the movie, really emphasising the grandeur of their journey across the continent as well as how insignificant they are in terms of the their problems compared to the communities they meet.

The relationship between Ernesto and Alberto is very well played, with the older and more experienced Alberto taking a less serious view of life and providing some nice comedy, while  Ernesto’s diary voiceover gives us an insight into how he is changing as a person.  Although only Ernesto is a medical student, there are moments when Alberto has to take charge, highlighting how Ernesto has not yet qualified and still has a lot to learn, both about medicine and life.

There is a wonderful moment in the film, as the pair meet a couple looking for work in the Atacama Desert, where we switch from focussing on the troubles of our two travellers, to realising that there are a lot of people far worse off in the country.  It is subtly played, but marks the beginning of Ernesto’s desire to do something about the inequalities he is discovering.  There are many clever moments like this, for which credit must be given both to Salles and editor Daniel Rezende.  The ending is particularly effective, book-ending nicely with the opening of the film, and bringing the audience back up to date with an account of what happened to the real Che.  The use of original photos and the final shot (which I wont spoil) is a particularly nice touch.

Seeing the photos at the end of the real Alberto and Ernesto highlighted just how well this film is cast.  Not only do both protagonists give impeccable performances, but they both look remarkably similar to their real life counterparts.  Gael Garcia Bernal (Ernesto) and Rodrigo De La Serna (Alberto) have a great chemistry on screen, making their close friendship entirely believable.

What I haven’t mentioned, of course, is that this is a foreign language film-Spanish with subtitles.  As an ex-Spanish speaker (I’ve forgotten more than I ever knew) I was able to pick up the odd phrase without looking at the titles, but in no way was reading the dialogue distracting.  In fact, if this movie ever was made in English I think it would have lost a lot of its power, as the whole point is the discovery of a country and the uniting of it’s cultures.

Again, I’m looking at this film through the eyes of a medical student, so I could find a lot to relate to in Ernesto.  It’s not unusual for medical students to go off on epic journeys of discovery before they settle down and commit to their careers, and Ernesto clearly would have made a great doctor.  Although at first he is somewhat brash and unsympathetic with a patient, he becomes a very caring doctor, taking a personal interest with his patients and mixing with them as equals.  Unlike A Matter of Life and Death which portrays the traditional God-like infallible Doctor, here we have a far more modern view.  Although in the most part honest and loyal, Ernesto has his faults and is shown to be a very human character.  He is more what we would expect from our doctors today, professional when it counts, but also an accessible human being who is not automatically put on a pedestal.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film that I instantly wanted to turn over and start again, but I had that feeling with Motorcycle Diaries.  Seeing as it’s a pretty long film, that’s saying something.  It’s both an engaging and intense story, elegantly shot, which (excuse the cheesiness) really does take you on a journey with the characters, to help you understand how a young medical student went on to become one of the world’s most famous revolutionaries.

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Top 5 Original Movie Scores

Posted on September 16, 2010. Filed under: Ramblings, Top 5 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Way back when this blog was just a baby I wrote a post about the importance of movie music and how I thought we should hold the film composers up against the classical masters.

Continuing on that idea I thought I’d write a post about my 5 all time  favourite pieces of movie music.  I’m restricting myself to individual movements rather than whole scores, all of these being instrumental pieces that I think are simply fantastic.  Narrowing down to just five was very tricky, so I’ve tried to pick a variety of music and composers.  I doubt any of my choices will shock you, but I’m interested to read your comments and find out which bits of movie music do it for you.

The best way I could think of to get the music onto the blog was to provide links to the Spotify tracks, since that shouldn’t upset any copyright laws as the music is freely available.  So hit the links to have the music playing while you read.

**I’m trying not to put spoilers in this, but it’s hard, so if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know then maybe skip that section.**

5. Father Kolbe’s Preaching-Burkhard Dallwitz-The Truman Show


I’ll forgive you for not having heard of this guy, ‘cos even I hadn’t.  This particular piece of music plays right at the end of the film and is a perfect fit to what is happening on screen.  The simple piano and strings are tragic but at the same time seem to have a kind of optimism and the slow processing rhythm is a great match for the semi-biblical dialogue going on between Truman and Kolbe.

4. Star Wars theme-John Williams-Star Wars


This man is the God of movie music.  I have no idea how he does it. Everything he writes is an iconic masterpiece, but I think if I had to pick just one track to sum up the genius that is John Williams it would have to be the Star Wars theme.  Every time that first brass note leaps from the screen I jump, even though I’ve seen Star Wars more times than I can count.  It’s such a triumphant march, giving way to the more fluid strings of Han and Leia’s theme, which take on a fantastically ethereal quality as the flutes echo the main theme in the background.  There are so many layers in that one piece of music it’s incredible.  And I dare you to find me a single person on the planet who can’t hum it.

3. He’s a Pirate-Klaus Badelt-Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.


I’ve never wanted to stand up and cheer at the end of a movie more, (in fact, me and my friends did the second time) and a big part of that is this awesome piece of music.  It just has pirate stamped all over it.  It works better when played through from the previous piece (One Last Shot) as the sudden drums and pace are an impressive contrast to the sweeping strings from before.  It’s a great example of a piece of music being custom-made to fit a scene.  In my head, the music always starts with the words, “Drink up me hearties Yo HO!”

2. Freedom/The Execution/Bannockburn-James Horner-Braveheart


I know I’ve been on about this piece of music a lot recently but it really is magical.  The deep drum beat is symbolistic of death, and the strings are quintessentially tragic, but interweaved with the celtic pipes (I think it’s a chanter, it’s definitely not full bagpipes) we have a score which is both moving and able to transport you to a time and place in order to make the film seem more real.  The fact that one movement takes us through three key moments in the films finale shows how each event influenced the next, and the tone of the music adapts accordingly.  I particularly love the solo flute towards the end, and how it dissolves into what is essentially a roaring cheer in instrumental form.

One of only two pieces of music that will make me stop what I’m doing and just listen if it happens to come up on shuffle.  The other is my next choice.

1. The Breaking of The Fellowship-Howard Shore-The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Infuriatingly the real version of this isn’t on Spotify so I’m forced to use a YouTube link.

I know nobody is shocked by this choice but this was the moment I fell in love with LOTR.  I absolutely love this score.  Howard Shore has this amazing ability to tell a story with music, which in a film like this is so important.  You can listen to the score and know what’s going on without needing to see the images that go with.

For me, this is the perfect orchestral capturing of Hope.  James Galway’s flute (I am a sucker for those things) is gorgeous and the understated horns are a great backdrop for the sadness after the loss of Boromir, but at the same time support the dialogue between the remaining Fellowhip members as they promise to stay true to eachother.

The piece moves from an achingly beautiful solo string to the dramatic revival of the Fellowship theme and then back to the restrained strings and flute as we watch the two hobbits picking their way across Emyn Muil.  Ben Del Maestro’s vocal kicks in just as the credits begin to roll, using lyrics from Tolkien’s own hand.  It’s both an ending and a beginning as we know that there is a whole lot more to come for the characters we have just been introduced to.

Honorable Mentions:

Here are some of the pieces that didn’t quite make it to the top 5, but I strongly suggest you check out.

Craig Armstrong: Love Actually

Alan Silvestri: Forrest Gump

Hans Zimmer: Gladiator

Gustavo Santaolalla: Brokeback Mountain

Stephen Warbeck: Shakespeare in Love

OK, I’m done with being artsy now. Your turn.

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