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At the crossroads of revolution

Gael Garcia Bernal pursues a new style of filmmaking, stardom -- and a role as Che Guevara.

December 15, 2002|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

"Bienvenida al [fin] del mundo," he blurted into the phone. (Loosely translated: Welcome to the rump of the earth). After flying for 13 hours, not sleeping in 24 and only vaguely remembering when I had my last meal, I agreed with him that I had indeed, landed at the end of the earth -- Chile, to be exact, on the southernmost edge of South America.

I did it all for him -- Gael Garcia Bernal, 23 and already the star of some of Mexico's most celebrated films. Beginning two years ago with "Amores Perros," last year's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and this year's "El Crimen del Padre Amaro," he has come to represent Latin America's new breed of filmmaking -- daring, visceral, subtly political.

It was his debut as the working-class street thug in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Oscar-nominated "Amores Perros" that first grabbed Hollywood's attention. Like a Mexican Marlon Brando, Garcia Bernal transmits vulnerability beneath a bad-boy sexuality.

As director Gonzalez Inarritu sees him: "There is this internal complexity that he reflects in his eyes. He reminds me very much of River Phoenix; he has the same tenderness but also this sense of being on the edge. He has an ambivalence that is very interesting and that the camera loves.... He is a cinematic animal -- a type of animal that is almost extinct."

But his path to stardom has been unusual, considering that his feature films have been small and -- outside Mexico -- foreign. If his luck holds, and he continues to land the right roles, he could be on his way to becoming a new breed of international movie actor. His current project, "The Motorcycle Diaries," for example, is British-financed, directed by a Brazilian, about an Argentine revolutionary, starring a Mexican, with dialogue in Spanish and developed by an American company.

Given all this, I set out to interview Garcia Bernal in Chile on the location of "The Motorcycle Diaries." Based on Ernesto (Che) Guevara's personal record of his pilgrimage across South America, the film chronicles the seven-month journey in 1951-52 with his friend Alberto Granado that marked a turning point in young Guevara's life -- a trip that would eventually transform Guevara from optimistic doctor-in-training into a stern Marxist insurgent.

I had been told that I would catch up with Garcia Bernal in the midsection of Chile, in a coastal industrial city called Valparaiso. Chile is as long as the United States is wide; bordered by the imposing Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, it boasts one of the world's most diverse geographies, from scorched deserts to ski resorts.

But visiting a movie set is rarely as glamorous as it might seem. Usually, it is an exercise in frustration. Reporters are at the whim of temperamental stars or directors, held hostage by jittery publicists eager to keep prying eyes from the realities of the set.

I had been invited by Garcia Bernal's representatives, but the company that financed the movie, Film4, had closed the set to all journalists. By the time this became clear, I was lost in Chile searching for Gael, following Ernesto Guevara's trail.

On the trail

After a two-hour drive from the Santiago airport, passing through valleys lined with vineyards bathed in early morning fog, I arrived in Valparaiso, just north of Santiago. The cabdriver searched for an hour but could not find my hotel. So he dropped me off in the heart of the city, where I could make inquiries.

Valparaiso was once a thriving port town until the Panama Canal cut off its business in the early 20th century. Described by locals as San Francisco without the gold, Valparaiso's downtown is grimy, with packs of street dogs scavenging for food and a place to sleep. The nicer part of the city was above, on hillsides that overlook the Pacific, dotted with brightly colored houses and lined with meandering stone paths. I wandered the narrow concrete streets, dragging luggage and my computer, as buses belched black smoke around me. I found a telephone and reached the film production scheduler based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had been sent to the wrong city. The hotel was in Temuco, a city about 500 kilometers -- or an eight-hour drive -- from Valparaiso.

The production was running a week behind schedule and would arrive in Valparaiso next week. Panicked, I checked into a hotel and made more phone calls. Around 7 p.m., I found a note slipped under my hotel room door from a "Micky."

I called the number and asked for Micky in Spanish. I was greeted with "Hello" in English and the male voice correcting me: "This is Michael." It was Michael Nozik, a producer on the film, overseeing the project for South Fork Pictures, part of Robert Redford's production company.

He reassured me I would meet with Gael, but I had to fly to Temuco.

So I booked a flight for myself and a photographer. The closest photographer available happened to be in Argentina, so he immediately set out on a seven-hour bus trip across the Andes to meet me.

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