Gael García Bernal’s career is a study in the possibilities of puckish anti-conformity. With a couple of important exceptions, the 30-year-old Mexican star has infused all of his movie roles with an obstinate, often witty rejection of conventionality and authority. Youth explains much of this; few actors in their twenties—a category that included García until last November—have found success without a healthy dose of irreverence.
García earned his stripes when he was barely out of his teens with a pair of Mexican films at the beginning of the decade: Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También. Ostensibly, the characters in these two movies are quite different. The protagonist of Amores Perros, Octavio, is a grim Mexican City youth who amasses a small fortune thanks to his mutt’s invincibility in clandestine dogfights. In Y Tu Mamá También, García’s Julio is a carefree high-school grad gallivanting across the countryside with a wealthy friend and his cousin’s jilted and flirtatious wife.
In both movies, García’s rejection of convention manifests itself in love, or, to be more precise, sex. In Amores Perros, Octavio sets his romantic sights on his violent brother’s pregnant wife; in Y Tu Mamá También, Julio engages in a series of dalliances with both of his co-stars, thus becoming surely the only member of his freshmen class to have had sex with both a man and a thirty-something Spanish woman in the preceding summer. In each movie, the sex doesn’t merely move the story along; it’s a broken taboo, an act of defiance that serves as a central axis of the plot.
García has expanded his American profile in recent years, starring in Hollywood films like Babel and Blindness. In the latter film, he stepped into his most despicable role: the sadistic leader of a group of extortionists and rapists. But while the consequences of his character’s behavior are horrifying, his motivation comes across as trivial. Instead of greed or vengeance, a simple contempt for another man’s (Mark Ruffalo’s character) authority provokes García‘s diabolical impulses. García’s entry into the movie is marked not by any ominous sign of depravity, but rather a simple question, uttered by teenagers since time immemorial: “Who do you think you are, giving all these orders?”
Beyond García’s youth, there is a more significant and potentially more enduring force behind his convincing portrayal of disdain for authority: a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.
This discontent presumably developed at an early age. Parented by a pair of prominent leftist actors, García took frequent visits to Cuba as a child and hung out with the exiled citizens of Latin American dictatorships during grade school. As an adult, he doesn’t wear his political leanings quite as openly as, say, Sean Penn, but he also doesn’t hide them; he became a Hollywood darling in 2003 when he chucked his prepared speech at the Oscars in favor of an anti-war harangue.
However, García’s work has been most preoccupied with society’s essential inequality, not those who bear the political responsibility for addressing it. His best movies—Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También—offer viewers unsettling portraits of the injustice of love, class, and life itself in Mexico. But, tellingly, in neither movie is there a proper villain. The entity most responsible for the characters’ adversity is society itself, using everything from class constraints to car crashes as weapons.
A similar sentiment courses throughout Motorcycle Diaries. García’s turn as a young Che Guevara, the archetype of the anti-establishment rogue, is not particularly political. Viewers catch only glimpses of Che’s ideological foundation, and there is no pedantic exposition on communism or the New Man. Instead, the most poignant moments stem from Che’s simple realization that certain groups—Chilean miners, Quechua Indians—suffer unreasonably. The obvious corollary, that the majority of society at best ignores and at worst exploits the poor, remains implicit.
A parallel pattern prevails in Déficit, which García also directed. He stars as Cristóbal, the high-strung scion of an elite Mexican family which sees conventionality (i.e. a graduate degree from an Ivy League school) as the path to success. Unfortunately for him, a rejection from Harvard early in the film leaves in doubt his place among Mexico’s most powerful.
Against this backdrop, a night of partying turns into a disaster for Cristóbal. The party-goers offer a stark dichotomy: his sister’s hippy friends, whom he despises, on one hand; his ambitious buddies, with whom he may no longer fit in now that Harvard has rejected him, on the other. He ends his night utterly alone, all-but-abandoned by his exiled parents, ditched by his friends, alienated from his girlfriend, and rejected by a would-be fling. For good measure, he tosses a cold shoulder, a few punches, and then a racial slur at a childhood friend who works at his house. Cristóbal’s misguided attempt at conformity destroys him.
Taken as a whole, García’s body of work is profoundly pessimistic. Standard happy endings are exceedingly rare on García’s resume, and his movie’s finales are often achingly sad. Rather than a call for resistance, the message seems to be a lamentation that resistance is irrelevant; society can crush you whether you agree to its demands or not.