In a stirring, layered film, director Walter Salles breathes life into Ernesto 'Che' Guevara before he became the iconic Che on t-shirts. In 1952, Che (Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal) is a 23-year-old medical student and upper-middle-class Argentine, specializing in treating leprosy. Based on Che's diaries and other factual accounts, The Motorcycle Diaries records his journey through South America on a clapped-out Norton 500 motorcycle with friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna.)

Sounds like Jack Kerouac with a Latin beat--but, in fact, this film aims to capture the dawning in Che of a passion for social justice. Salles bypasses the erotic pairing central to most cinema, to celebrate a man's love for his sorrowing countrymen. What could have been mawkish is instead inspirational. And while some have dismissed this portrait as hagiography, others will leave the theatre liking humankind better than when they entered.

The film's first act abounds with spills from the bike, picking up girls, running out of money and cadging meals and lodging, all the while providing spectacular shots of a continent. Master lensman Eric Gautier captures Andean peaks, Atacama desert, the mystical Machu Picchu, and blue and yellow nightscapes in lurid hallucinatory hues. (At the Cannes press conference, Salles said he and crew almost exactly retraced the itinerary taken by Che and Alberto.) There's even a mini-love story involving Che and sweetheart Chichina (Mia Maestro), emblematic of the bourgeois luxuries Che will leave behind. In the film's second half, Che's true vocation takes hold, as he listens to dispossessed Communist farmers forced to work in the mines. Finally, the two travelers end up at a leper colony in the Amazon, where Che, himself afflicted with severe asthma, protests the separation of the well from the sick. In a climactic scene, Che celebrates his birthday by swimming across the river to be with his patients.

The Motorcycle Diaries transcends mere travelogue and puffery by adopting a delicate touch to convey Che's rising consciousness, sparing us any revelatory 'aha' moments. Che's character emerges gradually--through scenes that point up his inability to lie, even when politic, and his empathy with the Latin Americans, well and ill, who cross his path. Somehow Salles convinces the viewer that here's a man who feels more at home among lepers than enjoying wine and roses at Chichina's. One tender and intimate scene (which seems improvised) encapsulates the film's subtle warmth: Che and Alberto sit in a Peruvian village square, shooting the breeze with some Indian craftswomen dressed in native costume. In Bernal's exquisite portrayal, Che lavishes a gentleness and charm on these women that beats any love scene in recent films. It's this veneration of simple folk--and in particular, the mestizos with whom Che makes common cause--that makes The Motorcycle Diaries deeply satisfying. It should be made mandatory viewing in places low and high.

-Erica Abeel