Gael García Bernal said acting for the likes of Oscar winners Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón helped groom him for the director’s chair and praised cinema as “the only medium” that allows artists to “explore the gray areas” in unparalleled ways.
“The world is so full of certainties now, and cinema is the one that can open up those spaces with poetry and really provoke,” he said.
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The Mexican multi-hyphenate was appearing at the Sarajevo Film Festival after a special screening of his second directorial feature, “Chicuarotes.” Earlier this week, the festival handed an Honorary Heart of Sarajevo Award to Iñárritu, who directed Bernal in his breakout role in “Amores Perros.”
Speaking at a masterclass on Wednesday, Bernal discussed some of his influences as an actor and director, as well as the inspiration behind “Chicuarotes,” which world premiered out of competition in Cannes. Set in San Gregorio Atlapulco, a down-at-the-heels district of Mexico City, the film is the story of two teens who decide that a life of crime is the only way out of the poverty around them.
“I wanted to really investigate where violence comes from,” said Bernal, speaking to a full house at Sarajevo’s Meeting Point Cinema after the screening. “On the other hand, I wanted to see what it does to direct a film where the main character didn’t grow up with love. Because I grew up the opposite way.”
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Bernal began his acting career in Mexican telenovelas before landing a part in the Oscar-nominated “Amores Perros.” He credited Iñárritu and Cuarón as two of the directors who most shaped him as an actor, describing his work on Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” as “one of the best experiences I ever had.”
It was through Cuarón that Bernal also began to envision a different role for himself behind the camera. “Of course I always liked cinema, but I never thought of directing a film,” he said. “Through [Cuarón], I started to feel like, ‘Okay. You can build a dynamic. You can create everything [yourself].’”
He added: “This kind of companionship, and this brotherhood or sorority that he orchestrates is something that I really treasure. I want all films to be like that, to be in that dynamic.”
Bernal made his directorial debut at the age of 24 with “Deficit,” a film that he looked back on with fondness not so much for its quality – “The result was not so good,” he quipped – but for what it taught him as a first-time director. “I learned what to do. Now I wanted to do it properly,” he said.
It would be more than a decade before he directed his second feature, time he spent becoming a father and collaborating with the likes of Iñárritu, Cuarón, Pedro Almodóvar (“Bad Education”), Michel Gondry (“The Science of Sleep”) and Jim Jarmusch (“The Limits of Control”). Acting for such a range of directors deepened his understanding of the relationship between the two roles. “[Actors] are just like a bunch of Frankensteins that are put together,” he said. “It’s the director’s responsibility to make us look like geniuses.”
Bernal praised the current renaissance in Mexican cinema, which has landed Oscar wins for Iñárritu, Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”). “We’re exercising our freedom in a way that we didn’t have before,” he said, drawing a contrast with periods in the past when Mexican artists suffered from censorship. “We have a chance to really exercise our freedom, and this is ultimately our responsibility with the films we make.”
With “Chicuarotes,” Bernal said he was determined to avoid Hollywood tropes that lionized a certain type of swaggering hero. “On a personal level, I’m just really tired of that narrative,” he said. “It has been the grudge of our societies in many ways. ‘Let’s f**k up the place, and let’s escape.’ That’s the common thing. And who does that? Men. And they are the heroes of the films.”
He continued: “The ones that are carrying the message [of hope in the film]…are the little girls. Throughout history, we haven’t listened to them at all.”
Bernal pointed to the case of Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate-change activist from Sweden who is currently sailing across the Atlantic to attend the U.N. climate summits, as an example of a hero who is “pointing out something to do with the future.” “We’re living at a time of new narratives…and of challenging the established point of view,” he said.
While admitting that such sweeping change is “really uncomfortable for [some] people to see,” Bernal seemed invigorated by the possibilities, crediting cinema with fulfilling the dreams of someone who “wanted to do everything” as a young boy.
“I hope reincarnation really exists, because I want to come back as a salsa singer in my next life,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know where all of this will lead me. But the best choice I had was to be an actor, in order to live this many lives.”