The political pin-up
Gael García Bernal has no interest in becoming a Hollywood star – he’s on a mission to put Mexican cinema on the map, finds Charlotte Higgins
Tuesday May 22, 2007
It was a brisk day in London, 2005. Gael García Bernal, the doe-eyed Mexican star of Amores Perros, The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel and The Science of Sleep, was walking through Whitechapel in the East End of London with a couple of friends. It was during his run at the Almeida theatre in Lorca’s Blood Wedding.
"We were really hungover. And all of a sudden one of us started to dance," he says. "It was very cold. One of us said, ‘Imagine we were going to Tepoztlán. Imagine if we were going to a swimming pool.’" Tepoztlán is a village outside Mexico City known for its swanky weekend houses, country retreats for the capital’s wealthy. "We imagined this yuppie guy who goes to his parents’ place, and tries to stop his girlfriend getting there," he says.
An idle fancy born from the London chill has now become a film: Déficit, García Bernal’s directorial debut, which premiered in the Critics’ Week (out of the main competition) at Cannes yesterday. One of his pals on that east London walk was Kyzza Terrazas, who ended up writing the film. As well as directing, the 28-year-old García Bernal plays the film’s lead, Cristobal, the pleasant, complacent rich kid who appears to have everything at his fingertips: wealth, a place at Harvard Business School, a girlfriend, popularity. At the Tepoztlán house, Cristobal plays host to a group of friends, one of whom has brought along Dolores, an Argentinian beauty. From his mobile, Cristobal starts deliberately to feed his girlfriend false directions to the house – giving him time, he hopes, to seduce Dolores. In the background to all this runs his unsettling relationship with the gardener, Adan, once a childhood friend, now separated by inexorable class and race barriers. Over the course of one increasingly disastrous day, Cristobal’s cool certainties are utterly dismantled.
The low-budget film is one of the first fruits of Canana, a new production company that García Bernal has founded with friends, including his old pal Diego Luna, who starred opposite him in Y Tu Mamá También. "Doing films in Mexico is pretty difficult; it’s not yet a self-sustaining industry," says García Bernal. "But one thing you can do is manage to make films without very much money. There was an energy developing around the things that we wanted to do, and there came a point when we thought, ‘You know what, why don’t we concentrate all this energy? Why don’t we make it in practical terms and build a company?’ " At the moment, they are working "with the kindness of others", without a profit in sight. They are in Cannes seeking distribution for Déficit, "but what’s nice is that things are happening, films are being finished".
As the idea for Déficit grew, he says, in his careful and occasionally oddly grandiose English, there was a moment when the notion simply stopped being a pitch with which they were idling: "We thought, ‘Let’s just make it, let’s get the financing. Let’s experiment – but let’s have something to show for it at the end. And by that point we knew what story we were trying to tell."
That story, he says, is "about the end of impunity. A person realises that his privileges never existed, or have ceased to have exist". In that sense, the film is a fable about the decline of Mexico’s ruling class: by the end of the narrative, Cristobal’s number is very much up, as it becomes clear that his parents are out of the country "sorting out their accounts" – thinly disguised code that they are evading some kind of corruption charge. The film also provides a commentary on the country’s postcolonial attempts to function as a multi-racial nation. "We are trying to tackle questions you are not really allowed to ask. ‘How are we going to live with each other? Why is our country so divided? Why has marginalisation increased and the clash [between races] increased?’ "
It is no surprise that his directorial debut should contain such a political undertow: its preoccupations are, perhaps, on the same level as those of Y Tu Mamá and The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he played Ernesto "Che" Guevara, yet another character embarking on a trip that would involve both a loss of innocence and an awakening. "Whatever you do in Latin America involves taking a political standpoint," says García Bernal.
"For instance, in my case, the decision to live in Mexico is a personal one. It has nothing to do with a sense of duty or responsibility. But it is, also, inevitably a political decision."
The violent swerves of political and economic fortunes in Latin America make it so, he says. "There have been two huge currency devaluations in my lifetime in Mexico. Something of that digs deep into your cosmic vision; it makes you aware of different values, different ideas. Here in Latin America our countries are also very young. They were born out of political and colonial caprice. Whoever invented the concept of a country called Mexico? These matters confront you in everything you do; that’s the way it is."
García Bernal has no immediate hankerings for a glitzy Hollywood career. He has only made one American film, James Marsh’s 2005 independent release The King. "I doubt there is going to be something offered that I’d like to do," he says. "In the meantime, I am very happy doing Mexican films, which is easier than becoming this huge … thing. Those [Hollywood] actors have difficult lives, expensive lives."
It’s an answer that could be read as either unduly modest or rather arrogant. However, you can readily understand why he is happy working within his established coterie of Mexican and Latin American directors. He hasn’t done too badly out of them, after all: he was a student at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London when Alejandro González Iñárritu tempted him back to his homeland to work on Amores Perros, the 2001 dog-fighting movie that caused a critical sensation and launched Mexico firmly on to the crest of the "buena onda", the Latin American new wave. González Iñárritu grabbed him out of college during term-time for the project, arranging for a medical certificate that claimed the young actor had caught a tropical disease on his previous visit home.
If not strictly speaking an aesthetic movement, the buena onda certainly feeds off a group of actors and directors who are "faithful and loyal to one another, regardless of point of view or tastes", says García Bernal. That group includes people like Carlos Reygadas, director of Japon and Battle in Heaven ("we’ve become friends and colleagues") and particularly Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Y Tu Mamá También. "He is my brother, mentor and father figure."
He does not regret his time in London, though you sense it was a difficult period: "Of course, millions of people live like that – with no money and no family close by. Without that support, it was hard to kick things off. But for me, London sends you down a route of introspection in a way that no other city does. It was an introspection compounded by loneliness. The city confronts you and exploits the most creative side of you. Maybe that’s why there are so many great artists from there." He worked on building sites and in Cuba Libre, an Islington bar, to make his way. He reckons he could still knock out a decent mojito if push should happen to come to shove. Quite clearly, it won’t.