In 2018 Gael Garcia Bernal provided powerful cameo roles in Gonzalo Tobal’s “Accused” and Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” and starred in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ drama-thriller “Museo,” about the 1985 looting of 140 priceless Mayan and Meso-American artefacts from Mexico’s National Anthropology Museum. The pic bowed in Berlin, had its North American premiere in Toronto, and has been acquired by YouTube Premium as its first Spanish-language project, expected to be streamed early next year.
Bernal has also been active in Golden Globe-winning TV series “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Here on Earth,” a TV series he co-created.
He has just finished shooting his second feature as director, “Chicuarotes,” produced via his new shingle with partner Diego Luna, La Corriente del Golfo, which also produced “Here on Earth.” The Latin American rights to “Chicuarotes” have been acquired by Cinepolis Distribution.
Speaking to Variety at the Marrakech Film Festival, he talked about these projects and two other projects planned for 2019 – Jonas Cuaron’s “Z” and Olivier Assayas’ spy drama “Wasp Network,” in which he will costar with Penelope Cruz, Wagner Moura and Edgar Ramirez.
What was special about working on “Museo”?
It was a long shoot, 10 weeks, which nowadays is quite a lot for a Mexican film. We learned so much. We went to amazing places like Palenque and Acapulco and the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I had never worked in Acapulco before. I felt like a cross between Belmondo, Cantinflas and Elvis (laughs). And it’s a fantastic true story. It’s a kind of an investigation into the grey areas of what actually happened. We don’t know what they did when they went to Palenque.
I would say that the film is kind of a claim and it raises the question: What is the real history? The one we talk about or the one that actually happened. Our view of past events tends to be more what we imagine, than what really happened.
What attracted you to the project?
It’s about the fascination and the mystery of why they did what they did. Because they found all the pieces intact, which normally doesn’t happen with a petty thief. We came to the conclusion that they became adorers of the pieces they had stolen. They became guardians of the pieces. They became bound to those pieces. For example the Mask of Pakal – which is one of the most important historical pieces in the Americas. They kept the artifacts in their backpacks.
Amongst the many things that it questions, is the sense of preservation. There is a character who says, “There is no preservation without any looting.” Which is one of the main arguments for museums in a way. Museums take away stuff and keep it locked up. There are even extremes. Wars are being financed or arms are being financed through the looting of art. The other extreme is that there are places that are being completely destroyed because they are not preserved. Like in Iraq or Syria.
These artifacts are kind of totemic elements of a nation. Because really in the Museum of Anthropology you feel that it is a museum where you understand or get a sense of what Mexico is. Even though it relates to an epoch that doesn’t exist anymore. You sense where things came together. You’re really seeing what humanity has gone through. What has happened in the clash of civilizations. It’s fascinating. It kept us questioning all the time. Wondering about our human nature. Why does someone steal something and then regret it.
What keeps you working in Mexico?
In Mexico, we have so many complex stories to tell. And so much to offer. For example Guillermo del Toro has spent so many years outside the country, but he’s the most Mexican person I know. He’s like completely Guadalajara. Before people assumed that I would end up in Los Angeles, or that Hollywood would be my ultimate goal. Fortunately that has changed, thanks to many people, and I include myself in that group, who say “Why would I go and do something elsewhere, when where I come from I can do so many great things and change so many things and do so many good films.” As opposed to what I get offered in the U.S. It’s not the nationality thing. The films are better. The films I can end up doing are much more interesting.
Do you have a preference between films and TV series?
TV series and cinema have a different dynamic. I don’t plan exactly what projects will happen. It’s more accidental. TV and cinema complement each other. For example on “Mozart in the Jungle” I had absolute complete creative freedom. We would be like a repertoire company which every year would go to a carnival and play. Doing a film involves another dynamic. There’s much more time. It’s a loving process. It’s not like a carnival, it’s more like a theater play. It’s a bit like the difference between a stadium concert and playing in a chamber.
Tell us about “Z” with Jonas Cuaron?
I can say very little because I don’t know when the project will happen. I have no idea. It will definitely be very different from previous filmed versions of the story. It takes place in what can be called “New Spain” when California was still part of Mexico. It was a whole different time. There was clash between Catholic people who spoke Spanish and Puritans who spoke English. And there were also issues of slavery. That angle has never previously been explored in Zorro. But I can’t reveal what my identity in the film will be (laughs).
A lot of your films have been about political issues…
Films in Latin America are inherently political. Maybe because politics is so much on the surface. There are urgent questions and urgent issues and films in Latin America still have relevance. They act as levers on society. It still has incredible relevance and it’s really nice that cinema still has that. We can remember when we starting watching films as kids. We knew how these films opened up a new spectrum or a new paradigm. For example dystopian futures. You could read about these questions in literature but it was really through film that we started to wonder about the burning questions in the 1980s.
I think that U.S. mainstream films are not so relevant any more on these issues. They can be about something very specific and very important. But for some reason they don’t bounce. They don’t connect. Films in Latin America and I’m sure in other countries as well still have that relevance. I think that it’s important that it exists. It reinforces my desire to make films in Latin America, inclusively on a very deep level of transcendence. At the end of the day we know that it’s the films and it’s not the industry or the awards. These things are nice. But it’s not what survives. It’s the film.
What are your expectations for Olivier Assayas’ “Wasp Network”
It’s going to be interesting. We’re going to shoot next year. It’s a nice ensemble piece and will be shot in Spanish in Cuba, which is fantastic. I’m going to get to do a Cuban accent, I haven’t done a Cuban accent before and it’s perhaps the one in Latin America that I’m missing. I still need to tick that box.
Will it also have a political angle?
Oh yeah. Whatever you do in Cuba has political dimensions. This one way more because it’s about the discourse of terrorism. About what terrorism is and who sponsors it. What really happened in the 1990s with Cuba with all the terrorist organizations that were based in the U.S. or Panama. This guy, Luis Possada, recently died and never went to prison and he was responsible for many terrorist attacks. But obviously the U.S. would never call it that. We’re being witnesses of a horrendous discourse that is semi authoritarian, kind of leading to whitewashing the past. We’re living in a strange time.
Can you tell us about your own project, “Chicuarotes”?
I finished shooting one month ago. It’s now in post production and it will be ready to launch next year. It’s a film about kids in the south of Mexico City who live in Xochimilco, which is a very important place in Mexico. It’s where the lakes were, and still are. There’s a dystopian kind of life there. It could be paradise. But as humans we can’t handle a good harmonic of communication with the place. The kids think they have to get out. They find ways to get out without really knowing why they have to get out. They unfortunately don’t discover that they have a hidden paradise there. Perhaps only at a very deep level. Obviously it’s very hard to still talk about the movie when I haven’t put it out yet. But I’m really curious to see what people think.
In the future do you plan to work more in the field of acting or directing?
I think anthropologist is the best position for me. Making films is a kind of a sociological and anthropological exercise, as an actor or director. I like that angle. To engage with films that way. Maybe it says a lot about me. I started to study philosophy and sociology. I’m a frustrated sociologist. So I’m projecting! (laughs)