February 13, 2013

That wise, postmodern axiom––keep cool but care––seems tailor-made for someone like Gael García Bernal. The thirty-four year old Mexican actor, who couldn’t be uncool if he tried, has also displayed a sixth sense for choosing projects that put their style in the service of relevance and heart. In Y Tu Mamá También and Amorres Perros––the two films that made him the face of new Mexican cinema––Bernal played teenagers caught between the illusory hopes of post-NAFTA Mexico and the bitter realities of everyday life. Since then his range (and the range of his Spanish accents, depending on the country in which he’s working) has been nearly inconceivable. He’s played a lustful villain in Almodovar’s Bad Education; a lonely hipster in Gondry’s The Science of Sleep; and even a young Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s road movie The Motorcycle Diaries.

In all of his roles Bernal projects a charisma pitched at that mysterious sweet spot between seduction and sincerity. Chilean director Pablo Larraín puts this tension to tremendous use in his extraordinary new film No, which opens in theaters tomorrow. Shot entirely on analog-like U-matic (think an ’80s car commercial), No blends archival footage with its own fiction to tell the true-story of the media campaign to unseat Augusto Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite. Bernal plays René, the hip advertising executive recruited by the anti-Pinochet forces to modernize their campaign. The result is a film that’s sure to be a classic of Latin American Cinema––and about as smart, provocative and, yes, cool as anything you’re likely to see this year.

For the past ten years you’ve been involved in the best and most important Latin American films. How have you managed to spot so many successful projects?
They spot me rather. There is no formula, no checklist to fill in. It’s a case-by-case basis. And you never know how they’re going to end up. But I’ve been very lucky to work with so many great directors––many of whom have become great friends. We have a really good time working together and then it’s kind of unbelievable our little homemade movies get the attention they do all over the world.

No is no exception. It’s destined to be a classic of Latin American film. How did your role in this film come about?
Pablo [Larraín] and I tangentially worked together because my production company helped distribute his first two films, Post Mortem and Tony Manero. So we knew of each together but hadn’t met. Then, when he was finishing Post Mortem he approached me because he wanted to make a film about the 1988 referendum in Chile and thought I would be a good fit. He told me about the characters and we spent a lot of time brainstorming together.  After all those inspirational conversations we became good friends––and there was no way I was going to say no.

Your character René is a visionary but also a pragmatist. Do you see yourself in his character?
Well…yes (laughs). I think we all do in a way. He’s a character that’s very human. He isn’t superficially heroic. He’s a complex person who reinvents himself everyday, in every scene. Things are changing for him as well as for the country as a whole. There’s this powerful political awakening for all of Chile––and he’s so close to it, it’s hard for him to see where it’s coming from. But with hindsight we can see it was one of the best campaigns that was ever put in place.

It’s almost like Obama.
Well I’d say even more so. Obama didn’t start from scratch. These guys had nothing, absolutely nothing. And in 1988 there was no internet––there was only television. TV was what made you exist. They had fifteen minutes at 11pm and no resources whatsoever––no access to cameras, no money. It’s really an amazing story. Now it’s more diverse how you can approach people.

The film has these great skateboarding scenes––that’s when your character can be alone and think. Did you grow up skating?
I did skate a lot growing up. From when I was ten until I was fifteen I did it every day.

What was the hardest trick you could do?
I was able to do a 360 spin––I’m not sure what you call it. But when you hold the board from the front. This was on a small half-pipe. I was only able to do it maybe two or three times, though. Otherwise it always ended in failure!

No is a very political film. And if you look at many of your films you’ll find a kind of political critique.
Politics in Latin America is a part of everyone’s life. It’s a day-to-day experience. You can’t disassociate from it and it adds a great complexity to everything. We live under a logic, there’s a confrontation of ideas. That confrontation is both political and dramatic. So even films about two people in an apartment can become very political. But No is different––it’s an overtly politicized movie. It charges like a bull.

You’ve worked in Mexico, Argentina, Spain, France, England, now Chile––where’s home for you?
On one level home is where I live––between Buenos Aires and Mexico. But on a deeper level, cinematically, my home is Latin America. It’s Spanish-language film.

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