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'The Motorcycle Diaries' is thoughtful and heartfelt

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES — *** 1/2 — Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo de la Serna, Mia Maestro; in Spanish, with English subtitles; rated R (profanity, vulgarity, violence, brief sex).

The movie version of "The Motorcycle Diaries" may not be as life-changing as the real-life experiences that inspired it, but it's still a fine little film, filled with some astonishingly beautiful moments and some insights into the South American way of life.

There would seem to be a kinship with the 2001 art-house hit "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which has a similar story (set in Mexico), but this historically based drama is a little more emotionally and philosophically resonant than that other slightly overrated drama.

"The Motorcycle Diaries" does go a little overboard in portraying Che Guevara, the leader of the Cuban Revolution, as a saint. But it also resists the temptation to ram its clearly leftist politics down the throats of the audiences. And its main sentiment, about respecting the rights of others, is very well-expressed.

The film is based on the memoirs of Guevara and longtime friend Alberto Granado — in particular, their 8,000-mile-plus trek during the early 1950s throughout South America by motorcycle . . . at least at first.

At the time, the twentysomething Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) was a medical student and Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) was a recent graduate in the field of biochemistry. Both men were idealistic and hedonistic, and the trek as at least initially spurred by a desire for sexual adventures.

But as shown by the film, their travels took them in a completely different direction. And they did fulfill part of their goal by performing a brief medical residency at a leper colony.

Obviously, the main concept behind the film — it's a buddy/road movie — is a bit cliched. But this isn't just a simple, silly comedy. It's deeper, more thoughtful and considerably more heartfelt than that.

The actors contribute much to the film's success. Bernal is a star on the rise, thanks to his performance here and in "The Crime of Father Amaro." And as Guevara, he's terrific — though in many ways it's the forceful performance by de la Serna that is the standout.

Director Walter Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier do a terrific job of capturing the gorgeous South American locales, including Machu Pichu in Peru. Kudos also to composer Gustavo Santaolalla, whose acoustic-guitar score is tastefully restrained.)

"The Motorcycle Diaries" is rated R for frequent use of strong sexual profanity, as well as some crude sexual talk (mostly use of slang), violence (a brief riot), and some brief sexual contact. Running time: 128 minutes.