on the actor's trail

Can Gael Garcia Bernal be praised enough?

The actor’s performances in the TV series ‘Mozart in the Jungle’ and the biopic ‘Neruda’ offer the latest evidence of his bottomless talent.

Some films and actors shake things up, challenging the status quo and choosing to tell stories that resonate with the world no matter where they are set. The work of Mexican actor, director and producer Gael Garcia Bernal falls into this space.

The Mexican film industry fell into a lull between the 1970s and the ’90s. But in the early 2000s, things started to change. A wave of revival helped create some of the most important films of our time, and Bernal is inseparably linked to this movement.

The road from this revival to the recent Golden Globe nominations for his role in the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle and Pablo Larrain’s biopic Neruda has been paved by many daring and flawless performances.

Bernal made his feature film debut after appearing in television soaps in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros (2000). Amores Perros has three interconnected stories, all set into motion by a terrible road accident. It remains one of Bernal’s most impressive performances.

Amores Perros (2000).

Amores Perros was followed by one of the most successful Mexican movies of all time. Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) is a story of sexual discovery and self-exploration on a picturesque road trip across Mexico. The movie follows two sexually excited teenagers (Bernal as Julio and Diego Luna as his friend, Tenoch) and their fateful encounter with the older Luisa (Maribel Verdu). The plot is punctuated by a voiceover about racial and economic disparities that afflicts the country. Mexico is a character and the context. It is going through the motions with these eager teenagers, and getting older and wiser with each new bump in the road.

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001).

Growing up in a politically volatile country to politically active actor parents, Bernal was aware of and involved with the world around him. His concern with the social and political situation and history of Latin America is evident in his work.

With Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Bernal acquainted himself with the continent beyond Mexico and explored the depth of his craft. Based on the diaries of Che Guevara, the movie sees Bernal portraying the confusion, disappointment and anger of one of the most iconic images of rebellion in the world.

In an interview with David Frost in 2013, Bernal cited this experience as one of the most rewarding ones in his career.

David Frost interviews Gael Garcia Bernal.

Bernal gave one of his most powerful performances in Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (2004). As the wannabe actor Ignacio/Angel, the charismatic and gorgeous transvestite Zahara, and the manipulative Juan, Bernal channeled three distinct characters in a heartbreaking story about love, loss, abuse and sexuality. The movie is set in Spain, and as with most of his other roles, Bernal fits in perfectly, adjusting the delicate nuances of the accent and mannerisms for the part.

He pulled off the same feat for Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (2014). Bernal flawlessly plays Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who was kept in solitary confinement and tortured for bearing witness to state-sponsored crimes during the 2009 Presidential election in Iran.

Bad Education (2004).

Bernal teamed up with Chilean director Pablo Larrain for the first time in the Oscar-nominated drama No in 2012. Set in 1988, the movie follows a fictional advertising campaign that leads to the defeat of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 referendum. As advertising executive Rene, Bernal sells the idea of happiness to a country fraught with poverty and repression.

No (2012).

In 2016, Bernal and Larrain reunited for an ambitious anti-biopic of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The stylised period drama, set in the late 1940s, finds the Communist poet (played by Luis Gnecco) on the run. Bernal is fictional inspector Oscar Peluchonneau who chases Neruda across the country. The movie is equal parts noir, thriller and fantasy, and bridges the chasm between poetry and politics, history and legend. Bernal treads this tricky path brilliantly, haunted by and obsessed with the elusive poet.

Neruda (2016).

Bernal does whimsical well too. In Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Bernal is Stephane Miroux, a creative illustrator and inventor who has a hard time differentiating reality from his hyper-colourful and eccentric fantasies. His dreams take shape in a production set made of cardboard, with multiple cameras and screens. The character include his parents, colleagues, neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a man-eating electric razor. Bernal is perfectly at home in a pastiche of stop motion, paper-cut animation and over-the-top sets and props, stuck in a space between his dazed dreams and reality.

The Science of Sleep (2006).
The Science of Sleep (2006).

Bernal won his first Golden Globe for the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle in 2016. As the conductor of a fictional New York Symphony Orchestra, Bernal’s Rodrigo de Souza injects energy into the cold and rigid world of classical music. He takes risks with impunity and spurns authority. Bernal has conversations with a young Mozart, his foremost maestro and spiritual guide, and bunks fundraising events to celebrate the birthday of his driver’s sister. The show has spectacular concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, operas in Venice and a massive orchestra, but Bernal is undoubtedly the star.

Mozart in the Jungle (2016).

With movies like Iñárritu’s multi-starrer Babel (2006) and Jonas Cuaron’s thriller Desertio (2016), Bernal is becoming a Hollywood fixture. He is one of the presenters of the Academy Awards in 2017. He will also play the successor to Antonio Banderas’s Zorro in Cuarón’s futuristic reboot of the 1998 movie The Mask of Zorro.

Despite being at home in the world, Bernal prefers to stay rooted in Mexico City, where he runs the production company Canana Films with his friend and long-time collaborator Diego Luna. The company makes and distributes films about social and political issues. Bernal and Luna are trying to make the world a better and more empowered place – one incredible movie at a time.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.