Gael Garcia Bernal demonstrates this transformation in The Motorcycle Diaries with an internal conflict visible in every expression on his face. Yet his performance is all-embracing and captivating enough to bring a universality to the character – the pre-legend – that audiences viewing it feel they, too, are on this journey and can experience a life change. This quality is the essence of why Guevara’s memoirs (first translated into English in 1996) have proven so enduring to millions of readers, whether young or young-at-heart. And it is this essence which is beautifully demonstrated by The Motorcycle Diaries, no small thanks to a laudable performance by the young man sitting to my right during this interview, who exudes a much larger presence than his compact frame might lead one to believe.
Before the discussion, the 25-year-old Mexican makes a point of introducing himself to each of the seven journalists in the room, shaking hands with all of us and bestowing a kiss upon each woman’s cheek. My greeting to Gael in Spanish bridges a camraderie between us. His charm is inescapable; females who up until now were rolling their eyes in boredom at the rigmarole of press junkets were suddenly blushing and primping when it was announced Gael would be next in the room. Even the men are rapt with attention, trying to clue in to the secret that makes this guy tick so as to perhaps employ it on their own time. It’s no wonder Garcia Bernal has garnered so much attention and critical acclaim for his work in the likes of Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá Tambien and El Crimen del Padre Amaro.
[Note: questions are being asked by a series of journalists, including myself.]
I thought one of the signs of [Ernesto] being kind of a remarkable person regardless of who he becomes later on is the fact that he goes on this trip and it really does profoundly change him, he actually makes life changes, because most people would go on this kind of a trip and be changed but then just go home and become a doctor and live the life they planned out.
I think it’s worth also mentioning what he became as well, because in every person’s life I think you can tell in their eyes in whatever instant what they were, what they are, and what they will become. And I think he was a person that definitely his ideals that he set forth, or his moral perceptions then changed into political, were very valid for his time, and necessary, no? That’s why he’s such an intriguing character, because of the congruency he wanted to have with Latins and his life, with these ideals and his life, which is something that rarely politicians do, not to mention humans. (Laughs) It’s very rare! He decided which side of the river to live on, and he didn’t decide to live where you live properly – well, not live properly, but where you live a better life. He decided to live where he should live, where duty is the way, without duty sounding heroic, you know? It’s just duty. (Chuckles) I think that’s why it was so fascinating to be able to play him because it’s something that is never-ending romantic. This search continues on forever, especially when you’re young. It’s this awakening of actually trying to achieve and trying to get a bit close to those utopias, but therefore the name makes them unapproachable, but they set the direction of where to go.
You’ve been asked this question a million times but I’m just wondering how this really profound journey of making this film and in being filmed with different people changed you. I’m sure you're still changing, just processing all of what you’ve gone through.
Yeah, exactly, yeah. It's the process of…how do you call it when a wine…sedimentation?
No, when everything, the sedimentation starts to fall down? Sedimentation?
Okay! The process of that is still happening, you know. It’s still like everything starts to fall down into place and definitely you’re able to express it in words. But I’ve got to say that it is very difficult to point out exactly what made a change. I just feel different…and there’s a million reasons for it but I think that in the process of evolution of a human being, you’re encountering all the time these concepts or these situations which challenge your perception, and I think this one is one that inevitably will do that, regardless of where you’re from, regardless of what you do. This is something that will definitely change your life forever!
And I think we were very fortunate because we had a great opportunity to live and interpret a life that existed 50 years ago, trying to experience that and trying to interpret how things changed this character in this particular way, but at the same time yourself being changed by doing that and by experiencing this same journey and lending that experience – once experienced – to the characters as well to have this life. And that is something that I can sense reaffirms yourself, redeems yourself, with films, because films actually give you this opportunity to do this. It would be very hard to do it in another way and to get to a conclusion, to get to a finished document.
Just to mention an example of what the impact made, it’s like it challenges you on a semiotic level, you know – the meaning of words completely change. The word “under-development”, for example, means to you another completely different thing. I mean, why is a Quechua considered underdeveloped if he doesn’t speak Spanish? You know, Germans don’t speak Spanish – they’re not considered underdeveloped! In global political economics and culturally, it’s very exclusive, it’s not inclusive – it doesn’t include people that live in the same territory. It leaves people behind. And so the process of colonization still continues. So I wouldn’t consider underdeveloped a small piece of land that is not as productive as the same piece of land but in a richer country. I don’t consider that underdeveloped because it follows the cycle of land! It’s not fermented, it’s not put with pesticides, with this and that, it’s not transgenic corn! It’s autonomous corn that grows and obeys a certain rule of the land in a way, a cycle of the earth.
So, just to put two examples, but there’s many where you actually wonder if…I mean, I think, in America – and in America I mean the continent – we’re still finding our identity. We’re adolescent countries that are still finding our identity as mature countries. And that process is continuing and it is more – perhaps it’s because I’m this age (grins) – but I consider it bubblier than ever, you know, more boiling than ever. And I can mention any country in America, things are happening really fast and this notion of getting to know each other in the same territories is happening, and I think that is very interesting.
Gael, do you feel that you have discovered more of what this Latin American identity is by doing this film? As a young person like you who shares Mexican identity, I feel that Y Tu Mamá Tambien was about discovering the Mexican identity, both in terms of the country and the Mexican people. But how about this film as this elusive Latin American identity – what is it to you, and do you think you know what it is better now?
I think that films are very transparent in that sense and they really portray the journey that that society is going through. I mean, there’s the example of 400 Blows in France, exactly in a time when society in France was changing, and is again a journey of discovery, and Easy Rider, another road movie that was done in a time when these questions were being asked. Definitely I could not conceive another story being told that includes Latin America the way that this does, because it’s very hard to tell a story in many different countries. It’s hard enough, but this one actually can get away with it. And yeah, of course, I recognize that we share the same idiosyncrasies, we share the same irreverencies as well. We share the same social problematic. I’m sorry if I’m not…have good grammar, but I’m really trying. (Laughs)
Culturally we’re very much together, you know, and that’s what matters! Politically we might not be and economically we definitely are not, you know - the Mexican economy has more contact with the Italian economy than with the Argentinean one, which is crazy, you know! There hasn’t been a sort of development in that sense. But still, culturally, we have the same cultural references, and we have the same – I’m trying to quote [Ernesto] – we are the same people in a way, and it’s very recognizable once you travel. It’s very immediate. It’s incredibly immediate and it’s very beautiful because you find your house being bigger. You find it that everything is way much more…I mean, your house is bigger than you thought, and that is a wonderful feeling!
When did you come to that recognition in your own life? Was it a journey like Ernesto’s? When did you come to these conclusions?
Well, they happened with this film as well. I think where everything sort of started, this kind of awakening was when I was like…I mean, ever since you’re born in Mexico, you’re faced and confronted with this situation, these impossibilities. You think why, why? You ask yourself these very elemental questions as a kid that are very valid, you know? Why should a person be poorer than the other, and why is five cents important for one person and not important for another? And I think when I set forth on a journey of discovery, that it was a conscious journey to get to know what the hell this was about, I think it was when I was like 14 and I went to do, um…(He turns to me and asks in Spanish) Do you know what this is, to teach people to read and write?
Yes – literacy.
Literacy, yeah! I went to do literacy programs in the mountains in Mexico with indigenous people, especially with the Huicholes, the Huichol Indians. And that again inevitably awakes you and surprises you that actually we share the same place! You find yourself in a more privileged situation just because you’re born the way you are, you know, and they’re underprivileged because of what they are, and yet we share the same territory, and it’s ridiculous! This concept cannot be swallowed easily.
One of the challenges of making a film like this is you really can’t use the same location more than once because it is a journey and you’re constantly on the move. Can you talk about the experience of shooting in all of these different locations – I’m thinking about the snow as well – and was there ever a spiritual moment for you during this process, something perhaps at Machu Picchu or somewhere else along the way?
Yeah, the whole landscape is completely breathtaking. It really drives you to ask yourself the questions you ask when you see a night, you know, and you concentrate a bit on the sky and you say, “Shit, we’re really small!” (Laughs) That kind of thing.
We shot according to the circumstances of where we were. Sometimes if it snowed, well, we might as well shoot with snow – which was great! It was a big contrast. Sometimes when it was raining, well, let’s use the rain, and if it’s not in continuity, well, it doesn’t matter, because if you’re in the jungle you don’t feel any continuity with the rain. It’s bright sky and all of a sudden there’s the biggest load of water falling down out of nowhere and the rivers change and everything changes, so there’s no continuity ever. (Laughs) In the desert as well, it was incredible to shoot there. I mean, it’s a very high desert, it’s 3,000 meters above sea level, it’s the driest desert on earth.
And you’re just amazed when you see Chuquicamata, the copper mine – 30% of the copper in the world comes from that mine. It’s actually rather beautiful. When you think of it to begin with, when you’re going there, you think, we’re gonna to go to this place where whatever you’re gonna to see – the whole landscape – is going to be man-made. All the mountains that you’re gonna see are man-made. The holes are man-made. You’re gonna say, oh, it’s going to be too artificial, you know? And when you arrive and you’re looking at that dark thing that is there it makes this sound of like grrrrrrr, like a volcano, like if it was a rape towards earth. Yet there’s something really clear and striking about that, like, man, the earth is so generous in this sense! It’s so generous and it’s allowing this kind of rape that is happening right now! And it leaves you with this image of confusion, but a very beautiful one – it changes you, it makes you think!
So we were adapting to whatever the shooting was, whatever the conditions were. And to name spiritual moments like that one, I mean, there were many, but I think one that I feel really proud of that they were generous enough to let us shoot and that we managed to do it is the coca ceremony, you know, with the coca leaves? Because the coca leaves have been going on, I mean, that plant existed centuries ago…yeah, refined it’s made a drug and…ugh, I don’t have to explain what it is. (Laughs) Anyways, the coca leaves is something that goes very deep, that ceremony and sharing. (He gestures with his hands, the thumbs together as if they were holding the leaves, demonstrating the offering) And whenever you share it you’re thinking about the mountains where you’re from and you dedicate every bite to a mountain of your land, for that mountain to take care of your people. It’s very beautiful and this is what you talk about when you’re doing the coca ceremony and this happens like every day! If you’re a Quechua it would be like sharing and talking about the mountains and taking care. This contact is beautiful! I mean, it’s something that you’re so out of touch with, and something so elementary – it’s not about any scripture or any kind of higher, hidden god. It’s about the mountain, which like actually you can relate to – oh yes, I know certain names of mountains, I’m going to think about the mountain and dedicate it to it.
There were many. They were more spiritual than what I’m talking about. (Laughs)
Can you talk a little bit about working with Almodóvar on Mala Educacion? What’s it’s like working with him and what was that experience for you?
Well, it was diametrically the opposite of this one, because it was shot in a studio and much more a film film. It is very Almodóvar, like all his films, you know – it’s a very, very specific point of view that he puts across and it was an incredibly different experience. Very free in one sense, very restraining in one sense, the same as this one. But fortunately they complement each other a lot because one character is much more restrained and The Motorcycle Diaries is much more a kind of inner journey, an inner character that cannot be characterized too much, because how can you characterize Che Guevara, you know? He was a very normal person – I mean, he wasn’t flamboyant or he wasn’t incredibly extrovert. On the other hand, with Almodóvar, the character is completely, like…whew! Like a rocket. So it was very different, but it was a good experience. It was really nice.
What’s the story about?
Oh, it’s crazy! If I told you the story I’m gonna sell out the film, because it’s one of those where every five minutes, you discover, like, “Ah! Ah! Okay!” And the character…I play three characters…(He shuts his mouth tight and won't go any further; everybody laughs)
We keep asking about how this film has changed you. Have you had an experience when you’ve realized that films you’ve done have changed people, have affected them? And do you believe that films can change lives?
Well, talking about my experience with films that have changed me that I’ve seen, I think certainly at that moment they feel like a big change, yet that change is fragmented and it has to settle down again for it to be a real change. And then later you don’t recognize that as being that change that happened. I mean, I think Dumbo changed me, a lot! (Laughs) You know, when I was little I couldn’t watch it because every time the mother carried the baby…whew! I would just completely get destroyed and cry like mad and wonder that if my mother ever got far away from me, it would be…you know? So imagine, those are the kinds of things, of course, they shape you, they take out your fears, your insecurities, they challenge you. I mentioned Dumbo for example but in my closer age I can say that a film that definitely changed me a lot was Coda Inconnu – Code Unknown – by Michael Haneke. It was a film that definitely made me want to work more – but not like too much, I mean like work more in the work I’m doing. Things like that.
And that experience is really beautiful when someone comes and shares it with you and tells you, "Man, this film actually…" I’ve been lucky enough that the first film I did ended up being this consistent film that actually people came and told me about. “Hey, Amores Perros, it moved me, it changed me!” I think it does! But it’s a grain of sand, you know. It's only a grain of sand because things have to settle down and they obviously conform a whole change. At least in my life that’s how they are. Maybe some people do change from one day to the other. (Laughs)
Did you know Amores Perros was going to transcend or did you think it was specifically for the Latin market? Because it did very well here in the States.
Yeah, but the thing is it didn’t exist, like Mexicans didn’t used to go to see Mexican films when we were doing it. It wasn’t usual for Latin Americans to see Latin American films. So, it was very surprising first of all. (He turns to me and asks) I guess I’m not too wrong, or am I?
No, I don’t think so. The industry was kind of dead for a while.
It was very dead.
There weren’t Mexican films to go see that were bringing out audiences.
Yeah! This was
one like a big hit. I didn’t expect it at all. I didn’t know!
I was very impressed – I was 20 years old, I didn’t know what
I was doing! (Laughs) I needed the money.