Gael Garcia Bernal
Is Gael García Bernal the perfect man? Not your average movie verse player, the Mexican actor and director speaks five languages and boxes. He is also a hands-on father. And there’s more . . . “Politics adds depth to a film just like politics adds depth to a person,” he tells TARA BRADY
The latest feature film from the controversial Chilean director Pablo Larrian, No, arrives here with an Oscar nomination, a major prize from the Cannes Film Festival and the box-office-boosting Mexican superstar Gael García Bernal in the central role. Set in Chile towards the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s military rule, Larrain’s drama mostly plays out in a post-Mad Men milieu of advertising executives, groundbreaking pitches and boy toys.
“Everybody knows how Pinochet came to power,” says Gael García Bernal. “But not many people know how the pure market and materialism that he proposed was ultimately the system that overthrew him.”
No casts García Bernal as Rene Saavedra, a historical composite (in reality the relevant TV spots were fashioned by a committee) and commercials wünderkind, out to convince the Chilean population to vote “no” in a national referendum on whether General Pinochet should stay in power for another eight years. Throughout the film Saavedra remains an enigma: are his efforts against the regime inspired by family ties to the Communist Party or is he just out to surpass his boss who is working for the “Yes” camp?
“He’s complicated,” says García Bernal. “But he has to be. Advertising and democracy are a grey area. They are both about shaping our convictions and turning them into something else. Both are the process of trying to convince ourselves if something is right.”
The campaign at the heart of No, accordingly, called for a vote against Pinochet using the happy, clappy grammar of soft drinks and car commercials. The incongruous style – think “I’d Like to Teach the World to Vote” – would ultimately shape Chilean history.
“It was the first time that kind of very American advertising was used in a political campaign in Chile,” García Bernal tells me. “Nowadays, I don’t think you’d get away with it. TV was such a big part of our lives back then. Now it is for football and news. Back in the day, it was still possible to sell the idea that a dishwasher could change your life. Now nobody would believe that. ‘The country will be much better’. Yeah, right.”
The 34-year-old, who has played Che Guevara twice, has long been synonymous with political material and political causes. At 14, he was teaching Huichol Indians and other indigenous peoples how to read; at 15, he was a demonstrator during the Chiapas uprising; in 2003, he denounced the Iraq War on stage at the Academy Awards.
By most US standards, he’s a left-wing firebrand; he’s currently producing a documentary on the Chicano labour rights activist César Chávez and campaigned for the left-leaning presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO) in Mexico’s 2012 election. Two years ago, García Bernal was awarded the Washington Office on Latin America’s Human Rights Award for his work on the Amnesty International Short Documentary Series Los Invisibles.