One of Mexico’s brightest movie stars, Gael García Bernal went from being a soap opera kid, to the breakout star of Birdman director Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Roma director Alfonso Cuarón’s luscious road movie Y Tu Mamá También. His trilogy of films shot with Pablo Larraín – Ema, No, Neruda – are all gold, as is his turn as a trans drag star in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education. More recently, he’s played cutesy with his vocal turn in Pixar’s Coco.
This month, SBS World Movies pays homage to Bernal with a special collection of four films, screening 8.30pm Sundays. Here, we celebrate some of his magic moments on the big screen.
The Kindergarten Teacher
There’s no denying Maggie Gyllenhaal is the star of this show. Her towering performance as Lisa Spinelli, an early childhood educator who obsessively fixates on the brighter life she feels she deserves, is one for the ages. But even the wildest cards in any movie are usually stacked on less showy roles that are equally important for the deck. That’s certainly true of Bernal in American director Sara Colangelo’s gob-smacking, New York-set re-do of the Nadav Lapid original. Bernal plays Simon, the charismatic though slightly smarmy poetry teacher Lisa decides is her ticket to creative fulfilment. If only she had more of a way with words.
They share the film’s best moments before its utterly bonkers and achingly sad final act. Simon puts on his best poker face while trying to offer constructive criticism on her tired compositions in the first class we sit in on. Later, after she starts stealing ideas from one of the young kids she teaches, his shocked approval allows us a voyeuristic insight into a small deception that will soon spiral out of control. It’s wickedly good.
The Kindergarten Teacher screens Sunday 3 October at 8.30pm on SBS World Movies.
The Motorcycle Diaries
How does a man go from becoming the powerful symbol of a world-shaping political movement, to the poster boy pasted up on countless dorm room walls? If you want to unpack that question, a fair place to start would be right back at the beginning. This is where director Walter Salles takes us with this origin story of sorts. Bernal is brilliant as the young Argentinian Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, who chucks in medical school, straddles a motorbike and sets off on an eye-opening tour of South America with his buddy Alberto (Rodrigo De la Serna). It’s a journey that will forever change him and the course of history.
He isn’t yet the near-mythological Marxist revolutionary. But an astounding moment depicting the young man ditching his birthday party to swim across the Amazon and celebrate instead with the shunned residents of a leper colony is magic and presages the symbol he would one day become.
The Motorcycle Diaries screens Sunday 10 October at 8.30pm on SBS World Movies.
Bernal hasn’t done a lot of action movies. Which is why it’s a literal thrill to see him on the run for his life in this economically gripping border crossing drama from Cuarón’s son Jonás. Released in 2015, two years before you know who crashed into the White House, it nevertheless feels like a horror film for those times. A psychotic American sniper (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his bloodthirsty hound hunt down Mexican nationals making the crossing in the hopes of a better life, only to find themselves mercilessly taken down one by one.
The look of stifled terror on the face of Bernal’s character Moises, when the slaughter begins and he cannot scream for fear of revealing everyone around him, is heart-palpitating. But the film’s most memorable scene is an excellent call-back to a seemingly insignificant moment. When we first meet the gang in the back of a smuggler’s truck, Moises plays with a stuffed toy with a voice box that won’t shut up. It’s comic, but also carries the sadness of children left behind. Later, when it goes off while Moises and co. are huddling in terror, the suspense is excruciating.
Desierto screens Sunday 17 October at 8.30pm on SBS World Movies. It is also streaming now at SBS On Demand:
It’s a pleasure to see Bernal share screen time with Certain Women star Michelle Williams in the English-language debut from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (Fucking Amal, Lilya 4-Ever). A fraught family drama that straddles continents, it picks at privilege and the immigrant labour that supports the so-called American Dream through the prism of their married couple’s Filipina nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito).
While it may lack a little of the nuance of his earlier films, it feels like a more intimate, low-key take on Iñárritu’s globe-hopping Babel. A shaven-headed Bernal’s key scene as Leo, the founder of a social media site for gamers, takes place thousands of miles from his family. Working a Lost in Translation vibe, he flounders on a business trip in Thailand and winds up meeting sex worker Cookie, played to great effect by Run Srinikornchot. When he clumsily offers to pay for her to sleep alone the night they meet, she winds up giving him a guided tour the next day. It’s a meet-cute on the surface, but the financial power imbalance and the eventual infidelity muddy the waters.
Mammoth screens Sunday 24 October at 8.30pm on SBS World Movies and is streaming now at SBS On Demand.