Walter Salles has already made the much-admired movies "Central Station" and "Behind the Sun," and he executive produced "City of God," the movie that should have won Best Foreign Film last year.
Now he's gone and directed "The Motorcycle Diaries," an adaptation of the early writings of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, into a film of such enormous gifts that all the various movie studios represented here are fighting over it. Once the deal is made with Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics or any of the others hoping to get their hands on it "The Motorcycle Diaries" could easily go on to become the first Spanish language nominee for Best Picture.
When "The Motorcycle Diaries" was shown last night at the Eccles Theatre, the place went crazy with standing ovations. After a long, frustrating two days of odd movies that didn't quite make it, seeing the Salles film was like a tonic for the audience.
And this was a group that included executive producer Robert Redford and former Vice President Al Gore, of all people. (Gore, who came in with little fanfare and a few family members, sported longish hair and a red and gray ski parka. He was friendly but spit out the words, "I'm not doing interviews" almost before I could introduce myself.)
But this had to be the response to a sly masterpiece, the kind of film that people will be talking about for a long time to come and will be the toast of Sundance for the remaining six days.
If it's marketed right, "The Motorcycle Diaries" should make rock stars out of its two main actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna. Bernal is already known to American audiences from "Amores Perros" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien," but his portrayal of a young Che Guevara should do for him what "Before Night Falls" did for Javier Bardem. Equally good, and with more comic material, is De la Serna as Guevara's sidekick and youthful buddy Alberto Granado.
Just as a quick aside, Granado, who is very much alive and living in Cuba, was denied a visa to come to the United States and be part of the Sundance Festival. As a footnote to the film, the real Granado pops up during the film's closing credits in which he gives an interview about Guevara and their experiences. Because De la Serna has made him such an endearing figure on screen, it only adds to the film's poignancy.
The film tells the true story of Guevara and Granado's 1953 adventure when the former was 23 and the latter was 29. Together, the medical student and biochemist set out from Buenos Aires for a motorcycle trip north through South America, with Caracas as their destination.
The trip was recounted in a recently republished edition of the "Diaries." Guevara, who came from a wealthy Argentine family, was catalyzed by the poverty he saw along the way, especially in Peru. He eventually joined Fidel Castro and became a Cuban revolutionary. He was executed by the by the Bolivians, while the CIA was present, in 1967.
Salles tells the story very much like "On the Road" (he'd make a perfect director for the Kerouac classic that was published in 1957), concentrating on the young men's youth and naivete about the world. The politics of the era are treated with a light touch. Instead, what could have become a polemic turns into a story of friendship and coming of age with the political part used as a backdrop.
Remarkably, Salles told the Eccles audience that the movie had only been finished a couple of days earlier. But there was nothing about it that seemed rush. Every bit of "The Motorcycle Diaries" shows a real artist at work. The attention to detail of the period, not to mention lovely cinematography and production values, makes the film a kind of instant classic, something much more than a foreign film. I think no one who was at last night's screening can wait to see it again. Bravo!
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering here has begun in earnest, with the distributors trying to lock up films early and the filmmakers attempting to get back some if not all of the money they laid out when making their movies.
Miramax was rumored last night to have offered $4 million for "Garden State," the debut film by writer-director Zach Braff, star of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs." "Garden State" has its charms, most notably Natalie Portman as Braff's quirky girlfriend.
But quirky is the key here, and no one seems to have told Braff that less is more. Here more is less, and there's so much more that at times you want to scream. Braff is a likeable and obviously talented fellow but he's watched "Rushmore," "Igby Goes Down," "Harold and Maude," "The Graduate" and read "The Catcher in the Rye" too many times.
Miramax and other studios would be wise in their bidding to remember "Happy, Texas." 'Nuff said.
Pregnant Friends star Courtney Cox is here with husband David Arquette.
Hoping to duplicate Jennifer Aniston's success here two years ago from "The Good Girl," Cox stars in a short, stylish mystery called "November." Another film with abundant charm, and the always welcome James LeGros, "November" still felt too much like a lot of films stitched together from "Memento" to "Pulp Fiction." It's also only 74 minutes, including credits, which makes it more of a curio than anything else. So far there's no word on which group will pick it up, if at all.
Having stars in films is no guarantee that your film will sell for big bucks.
Already getting mixed reviews and not much buzz are movies with Matt Dillon ("Employee of the Month") and with Billy Bob Thornton ("Chrystal").
But the rumor mill keeps churning. The strangest film I saw yesterday was a very stylized oddity called "The Saddest Music in the World" which a couple of critics loved and some slept through. I couldn't make heads or tales of it, but the estates of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, the writers of the movie's featured musical offering "The Song is You," should reap big bucks if the film finds a distributor.
Other stars who've rolled through the festival so far include Kevin Bacon, Danny DeVito, and Jay Mohr. There are just as many who've cancelled for one reason or another, Christian Bale isn't here because of his father's untimely death, and Matthew Broderick is on Broadway in "The Producers." Julianne Moore, who stars with Broderick in "Marie and Bruce," has also opted not to come.
Finally, a midnight screening last night of more quirk: a teen comedy set in Idaho among dysfunctional high-schoolers called "Napoleon Dynamite." The movie is fashioned from the burning embers of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," Pee Wee Herman, and "Beavis and Butthead."
From 5 p.m. on, the word all over the village was that this was "the one" to see, so of course the Library theatre was packed with critics and distributors. The audience loved it from the opening lines.
The filmmakers are a young couple from Idaho who went to film school at Brigham Young University and obviously had a lot of friends in the audience. "Napoleon" is perfect for MTV and Paramount Pictures. For tired adults, however, it was a bit of a stretch. That usually means "cult classic" and millions of dollars for the filmmakers, who spent $400,000 on their amusing project.
Another "Blair Witch" success story? You never know.