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Gael Garcia Bernal on ‘Chicuarotes,’ Hope for Mexico

There’s a scene right at the beginning of “Chicuarotes,” Gael García Bernal’s second movie as a director, where Cagalera and Moleteco, two teens from the humble San Gregorio Atlapulco district of Mexico City, board a bus in clown’s makeup, and launch into a clumsy comedic sketch.

Maybe because it’s delivered in San Gregorio Atlapulco argot, their effort to beg some money goes totally ignored.

Then Cagalera pulls out a revolver. The passengers duly cough up money, mobiles. Cagalera and Moleteco escape to the bouncy strains of a Spanish-language version of “I Fought the Law.”

That’s the only way to go, pull out a gun, Cagalera tells Moleteco.

Written by Augusto Mendoza (“Mr. Pig,” “Abel,”) in the slang of San Gregorio, where he grew up – “chicuarotes” refers to both a type of chili and to hardheaded individuals – the film follows Cagalera and Moleteco’s increasingly desperate attempts to buy a ticket out of San Gregorio, its poverty, violence. When they hear they can purchase membership of an electricians’ guild, which will give them a job for life. But only Cagalera’s teen girlfriend, Sugehili, seems to really have a sense of reality. Cagalera conceives a hare-brained scheme to abduct a kid he sees walking home by the river. His masterplan soon goes tragically awry.

“Chicuarotes” is produced by La Corriente del Golfo, the production house Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna set up last year, and Cinematográfica Amaranto in co-production with Televisa and Pulse Films. It is produced by Marta Núñez Puerto, García Bernal and Thomas Benski.

A genre blender – a tragic crime farce, family melodrama and coming of age drama – “Chicuarotes” asks big questions: Whether violence is ever any solution, its origins in Mexico, and the country’s capacity to change.

Variety talked to Bernal about the film, which world premiered out of competition in Cannes and plays at the Sarajevo Film Festival.

The film comes back time and again to the question posed by the opening scene, whether violence is the only way to get things done in Mexico. It suggests, however, that violence just engenders violence and maybe there are other ways for Mexicans to live together. Could you comment?

One of the main issues or ways into the film is the open question of where violence comes from. It’s hard to answer that without being too on the nose, but the film does ask how you manage to create a loving family, love within a family. Its absence is definitely one factor that makes Cagalera dead inside, someone who could end up as a petty contract killer.

In “Chicarotes,” if you talk about absence, Cagalera’s father is often under the influence, beats his wife Tochi and near kills his son, Cagalera.

Yes, and the mother channels his violence through her passivity, by refusing to take action, try to change anything.

Yet, the film suggests that if there is hope for Mexico, it comes from its women. Sugehili gives a sense of a younger generation that’s not going to walk away from the country’s problems but try to make things better.  Do you see this as reflecting  contemporary reality?

Absolutely, in terms of making the film, it was interesting that half of the crew were women, which came about naturally. Regarding the film itself, having a son meant I disconnected, took me to another place. When I came back to engage with the film, I wanted to find some sense of light in the narrative. That meant making the character of Sugehili more prominent, for her to be the hope. We don’t know what she’ll end up doing at the end of the film, but she’s definitely a hope. Having seen the film recently, I think there’s a sense of Greek tragedy about some of it, but at the same time it also has a strong connection with an anti-hero Western. We root for Cagalera. The trouble with, say, the Peckinpah movies is that they don’t turn anything around to offer a sense of hope [that we need nowadays]. The film combines things we’ve thought of and things which are consequences of the times we live in and make complete sense.

Did you write the screenplay with Augusto Mendoza? 

The script was written over 10 years ago. It was a very different script. It’s changed a lot but there were three things that haven’t changed. First of all, Augusto’s wonderful mixture of comedy and drama which you see in the opening scene. The film goes to really dark places, but with a lot of humor, rooted in day-to-day things. Then there’s the context. Augusto, his family, is from San Gregorio, so you can see that in the nicknames the characters have: Cagalera, Moletco and Chillamil, and the way they speak. And the first scene remains. Augusto started off writing a short film about clowns that rob a bus, that’s why he wanted to write this script.

In terms of direction, you often move the camera around in a continuous shot rather than cutting on movement. This gives a sense of a common space, and claustrophobia, and also a clearer idea of the district, what places are where….

Yes! exactly! We wanted to create a map of the town so that we always knew where we were: the waterfront, the places around it, the mainland, and also, for example, with the kidnapping plan, to be very precise in terms of, O.K., they are doing this and at this time this is going to happen, and if this happens, they’re going to change plans, and do this. The discipline of logic, however arbitrary, helped a lot when writing.

“Chicuarotes” comes back to a fish tank inhabited by some axolotls. They seem symbolic, amphibians which can change, raising the question as to whether Mexico itself can change as much.

Axolotls regenerate. They can live for 18 years, but never grow old, stay young and die young. They’re always in a constant sort of evolution. But only one out of 100 or something gets to be a salamander.

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