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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.