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Movies | FACES TO WATCH 2007

A leading man of the world

Gael Garcia Bernal is Mexico's most alluring envoy.

December 31, 2006|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

London — THERE ought to be a name for them, "Gael's Groupies" or "Bernal's Babes" -- something like that. Pleasant, seemingly respectable women who turn into starry-eyed teeny-boppers in the presence of Gael Garcia Bernal.

Women, for instance, like Win Beaumont and her daughter, Christine. "He's so young, and he's done so much," the elder Beaumont gushes about the man who, according to Google, is the most famous Mexican this side of Frida Kahlo or Pancho Villa. "If he can get me going -- and I'm 80! And his acting can only improve as he gets older."

Christine, 57, nodding, scans the lobby of Britain's National Film Theatre. "Do you think there's a stage door?" she asks her mum hopefully.

It's a brisk fall night on the banks of the Thames, but the NFT crowd is acting all hot and bothered. The object of their anticipation, Garcia Bernal, has come to town to lend his celebrity aura to "Mexican Cinema Now," a six-week tribute to the country's celluloid renaissance.

Specifically, Garcia Bernal is on hand for a screening of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001), the steamy revisionist road movie that transformed him and his best-friend costar, Diego Luna, into international leading men. When the actor mounts the stage for a Q&A following the film, you might think you'd traveled back to 1964 and landed at a Beatles concert.

Squeals! Cheers! Mad applause! "Viva Mexico!" someone shouts from a back row. "You look good as a girl!" blurts a young Brazilian woman, alluding to the actor's tarted-up turn as an homme fatal in Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" (2004). Bernal smiles.

Well, to be honest, he looks good as just about anything, doesn't he? A conscience-stricken priest in "The Crime of Father Amaro." A street punk who lives off the earnings of his killer canine in "Amores Perros." A horny Chilango on the bumpy highway to self-awareness in "Y Tu Mama." Or the youthful Ernesto "Che" Guevara of "The Motorcycle Diaries," another bildungsroman with a social conscience, in which Garcia Bernal's furrowed brow serves as a virtual Thomas Guide to the tortured South American soul.

Last year he was as visible as ever, appearing in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's much-feted "Babel" and taking the lead in Michel Gondry's post-Freudian romantic fable "The Science of Sleep." Garcia Bernal aficionados can look forward to more of the same in 2007 and beyond. He'll be starring in Hector Babenco's "El Pasado" (The Past), which chronicles a married couple's difficult breakup, and is set to reteam with Luna as a pair of pro soccer players in Carlos Cuaron's "Rudo y Cursi."

Oh, and he also directed his first feature film, "Deficit," which he describes as a "generational allegory" focusing on a group of young, upper-class Mexicans coping with the country's ongoing socioeconomic upheavals.

More than a mere heartthrob, Garcia Bernal, 28, is something of a throwback, or possibly an endangered species: a non-Hollywood global glamour boy with the talent to back up the pin-up persona. Half a century ago, it seemed, there were lots of these guys and their female equivalents on the art-house circuit: Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau. Cosmopolitan actors with international appeal who managed to preserve a palpable connection to their own countries and cultures. But in the ensuing decades, as "foreign cinema" lost much of its old-school cachet, such performers have grown scarce. Garcia Bernal, the most recognizable Mexican actor since the Golden Age of Pedro Infante and Dolores Del Rio, possesses an allure that translates across many different subtitles, plus the big-screen charisma of a Hollywood star.

Yet the next day, as he slides into a restaurant near Spitalfields Market for a late lunch, he is the picture of casual anonymity. Wearing thick-frame glasses, a rumpled leather jacket and a faded David Bowie T-shirt, he could pass for a punk-rock drummer or a young acting student trying to find his way in the world, which is what he used to be not so long ago.

Garcia Bernal says he lived in this then-ungentrified neighborhood after turning away from the lucrative world of Mexican telenovelas, where he'd become a sensation while still in his teens. He left Mexico to study at the Central School of Speech and Drama, one of many odysseys that have led him to unexpected revelations.

"London is a great place that throws you, like if there was a bunch of lances pointing at your inner self, so that you deal with your introspection, your inner demons, thoughts and experiences," he says. "I think that's the reason why they [the British] are such great actors and actresses." Though he has since moved back to Mexico City, for years he kept London as a base. "Maybe the road to discovery," he reflects, "is to go to other places, not to those places that everyone goes to."

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