From teenage heartthrob on Mexican telenovelas to cosmopolitan indie star, Gael García Bernal has racked up some impressive — and highly varied — credits over the course of his career. Whether you’ve recently binge-watched Mozart in the Jungle, the Amazon series he currently stars in, or vaguely remember him from a covert viewing of Y Tu Mamá También, there’s never been a better time to get (re)acquainted with the key films in García Bernal’s filmography.
For your delectation, here are five of the best from a career that’s taken our hero from Mexico to France to Hollywood and further into indie territory.
Title: Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000).
Plot: The first entry in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Trilogy of Death,” Amores Perros follows three stories set in modern Mexico City, connected only by the dogs of the title (“amores perros” can be translated as both “dog love” and “love’s a bitch”). The first story follows young Octavio (Gael García Bernal) as he enters his Rottweiler in dog fights to earn enough money to run away with his brother’s girlfriend. In the second story, prominent model Valeria, largely confined to her home after breaking her leg in a car accident, begins to unravel when her beloved lapdog disappears beneath the floorboards of her apartment. And in the final story, a former leftist militant turned hit man, who has turned his back on humanity to live with stray dogs, is challenged as never before when he takes in a fighting dog with a bullet wound. If all of this sounds profoundly unsettling to dog-lovers, they can take some consolation in the movie’s opening onscreen message (these things usually come during the end credits) that assures us that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
Context: Amores Perros didn’t just launch the careers of Gael García Bernal and director Alejandro González Iñárritu, it also played a key role in the revival of Mexican cinema. In the '30s through the '50s, considered the “Golden Age" of Mexican cinema, the nation produced dozens of films a year, and dominated the Latin American film industry. In subsequent decades, however, political stagnation and economic troubles saw a precipitous decline in Mexico’s cinematic output. Although Mexican cinema had been reviving in the '90s (which saw the beginning of Nuevo Cine Mexicano), when Amores Perros came out in 2000, it was one of only six Mexican films to be released that year. The output has increased dramatically since then, as has Mexico’s stature on the international festival circuit. And this was not to be the last of García Bernal’s watershed contributions to Mexican cinema.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: Y Tu Mamá También (Mexico, 2001).
Plot: Meet Julio and Tenoch (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna in their signature roles), two young, well-to-do, libidinous twits (and best buds!) whose girlfriends have just ditched them for the summer. After exhausting all the places in Mexico City where you can masturbate, the bored young men have the good fortune to meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a Spanish expat neglected by her Mexican oligarch husband. For reasons of her own that she keeps secret from Julio and Tenoch, she unexpectedly accepts their invitation to join them on a road trip to a secluded beach that may or may not exist. Along the way, pot will be smoked, friendships tested, and Mexico’s class and racial contradictions explored by a voice-over narrator far more interested in these issues than our heroes seem to be. Also, key questions will be answered, like: Why would a cultured adult woman like Luisa make friends with these randy teen idiots? And: what does the title refer to?
Context: Y Tu Mamá También, which many of our readers are probably already familiar with but which no study of our subject’s career would be complete without, represents the second consecutive effort by García Bernal to singlehandedly revive Mexican cinema. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (who would leverage his success with this film to advance upon an international career which has never brought him back to Mexican movies as a director), Y Tu Mamá También is one of the great cinematic road trips. It’s also one of the great films about sex, its frank depiction of which would have earned it an NC-17 rating in the U.S. had the distributors not boldly decided to release it unrated. On the García Bernal front, it served as a welcome demonstration of the actor’s range, as the raunchy humor on display here represents a sharp divergence from the despair that pervades Amores Perros.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: The Science of Sleep (France, 2006).
Plot: When Stéphane’s (Gael García Bernal) father dies in Mexico, his French mother lures him to Paris with the promise of a “creative” job. Stéphane, after all, is ill-adjusted to adult life, and tends to focus his energies on romantic fantasies and lucid dreaming (at which he professes to be an expert, hence the title). But when the job turns out to be dull and tedious (it was never going to be creative, his mom just wanted him closer) and his relationship with his mother sours, the only thing keeping him in France is a one-sided romance with his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). They both have whimsy in them, they’re both “creative” — hell, they almost have the same name! Surely it's a match made in twee heaven! (Or at least in Stéphane’s vivid dreams.)
Context: The Science of Sleep was French director Michel Gondry’s first film after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), whose female lead (a colorfully coifed Kate Winslet) is perhaps the quintessence of what Nathan Rabin dubbed the “Magic Pixie Dream Girl.” For those of you who haven’t seen one of these movies in a while, the MPDG is quirk personified; with her offbeat sense of style, her own latent personal issues, and a Destroyer cassette blaring from her Walkman, her main purpose in life is to seduce and enchant dull, sullen boys and inject them with a desperately needed dose of joie de vivre. What’s great about The Science of Sleep is that we have an ostensible MPDG (Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Stéphanie) who absolutely refuses to participate, much to the perplexity of our protagonist, who’s probably seen the relevant movies and cannot for the life of him understand why Stéphanie doesn’t want to fix his life. So Gondry, who did so much to build the MPDG archetype in Eternal Sunshine, promptly turns around to destroy it in The Science of Sleep.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Loneliest Planet (USA, 2011).
Plot: Nica and Alex (Hani Furstenberg and Gael García Bernal) have a lot going for them. They’re beautiful, they’re well-educated, they seem to have a lot of money, and they’re in love. What better vacation destination than mountainous Georgia (Georgia in the Caucasus, not Georgia in the Deep South, as one must always clarify). They hire a local (Bidzina Gujabidze) to serve as their guide as they hike through the beautiful Georgian landscape. But life, no matter how well it flits along, no matter how stable it seems, is precarious, and in only a second — faster than you can say “chivalry is dead” — Alex makes a mistake that could permanently destroy his seemingly perfect relationship with Nica.
Context: Like many an actor who’s made it big in another country, Gael García Bernal has been trying for years now to “cross over” into American movies. These crossovers usually find him playing one of two roles: a dreamy (or, you know, a racist caricature of a) Latin lover, which has seen him uncomfortably paired with people like Amanda Seyfried and Kate Hudson, or a would-be indie star in grim movies that nobody has seen, like The King (2005) and Mammoth (2009). What makes Russian-American director Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet so special is its intelligent engagement with "big issues" — gender roles, the ethics of global travel — without devolving in the didacticism and relentless bleakness that sully so many similar efforts.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: No (Chile, 2012).
Plot: The year is 1988, the Cold War is winding down, and America’s favorite Latin American dictator, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, has bowed to pressure and will accept a plebiscite on his rule. There won’t be other candidates, like in a real presidential election: the ballot will merely ask voters, “Should Pinochet continue in power, yes or no?” Our film focuses on the “no” campaign, and the unlikely role played in it by advertising executive René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), who takes the controversial position that the campaign to remove Pinochet should be conducted like a campaign to promote Coca Cola: It should be fun, hip, and punchy. For the old guard of the Chilean left, this is blasphemous: Politics is serious business and there is no place in it for levity. Will Saavedra’s novel approach sink the “no” campaign? Or does his blending of politics and pop culture foretell the future of political campaigns the world over?
Context: The third and final film in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s “Pinochet trilogy” — after Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010), which plumbed the cultural and political depravity of the Pinochet dictatorship — No shows us the light at the end of the tunnel. It also finds the globetrotting García Bernal in fine form, successfully avoiding the political extremes and tonal pitfalls that have undermined some of his other “Latin American social justice films,” like The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), a hagiographic look at the young Che Guevara, before he started killing people and appearing on T-shirts, and Even the Rain (2010), an ostensibly left-wing film about anti-globalization protests in Bolivia that degenerates into a “white savior” movie. No declines to speak in absolutes and García Bernal’s character is neither saint nor villain, but rather a real person contending with very complicated political realities.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.