In Neruda, Pablo Larrain’s dreamy noir-ish biopic about the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Gael Garcia Bernal is tasked with playing a man who never existed. Against the backdrop of Neruda’s post-WWII escape into exile, forced into hiding by swiftly shifting political tides and violent anti-communist sentiment, Bernal is the dogged, fascist policeman plagued by clues the artist-politician leaves behind as his stature as a populist symbol of liberty grows.
“He’s a nihilist-fascist, because he talks terribly about the communists and who he represents, who he works for,” Bernal mused of his policeman character, Oscar Peluchoneau, whose bitter hunt for Neruda brings him bewilderingly close to the paradoxical communist poet and politician in Larrain’s well-received drama.
Sipping green tea in Los Angeles during a weekend of press interviews, the Mexican-born actor beamed with affection for his latest collaboration with Larrain, for whom he starred in 2012’s No.
“I think there’s a turning point where he starts to be fascinated by the person that he’s persecuting,” said Bernal. “Understanding him. There is a key point, and a beautiful scene, where a transvestite says something very moving. He tells him, ‘[Neruda] talked to me artist to artist, man to man, with human dignity—that’s something you will never be able to do.’ That kind of sums up the inability of this character to do something bigger than that, and it makes him wonder: Maybe I can change.”
Selected as Chile’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, Larrain’s Spanish-language biopic is the director’s second film contending in this year’s Oscar race. His Natalie Portman-starring Jackie also brings alive the tale of a key figure of politics past, with a window into the human dimensions that history books have little nuance for.
In their previous collaboration, No, Bernal played a Chilean ad exec in the middle of Augusto Pinochet’s campaign to remain in power. With Neruda, Larrain and Bernal explore the intersection of art and politics preceding that period in Chile’s history, of the power of one man’s words to give voice to his suffering countrymen as his government enemies drive him from his homeland.
“In a way, Peluchoneau is the natural character that would be the recipient of Neruda’s poetry,” said Bernal. “He is the unrecognized son of a father, he is the son of a prostitute, he is a marginalized member of society who Neruda’s poetry wants to incorporate. Communism wants to empower him into society. But he chose another pathway, which is a very short-lived and implosive narrative, which is fascism: Save yourself. Don’t care about the rest.”
In his adversarial relationship with his prey and his poetry, Peluchoneau comes to a confrontation of self. “He says at one point, ‘I wrote myself a death and it was a good one. But the poet wrote me a death that has animals, that has snow, that has music’—and that gives him life,” said Bernal. “This is Neruda saying, you can go further. You can reinvent yourself. You can live many lives within your life, and therefore learn compassion and gratitude and empathy.”
“It is a very uplifting feeling, and very moving, actually,” he smiled, his face full of emotion. “I cry my eyes out when I see this film. I feel a lot for the fascist policeman, which is crazy… it satisfies our romantic optimistic ideals of what poetry can achieve.”
Bernal is also pulling awards season double-duty in the lead-up to the Academy Awards. He co-stars opposite Luis Gnecco in Neruda and in the visceral cat-and-mouse border thriller Desierto, the Oscar entry from Mexico with even more urgency in a post-election America where President-elect Trump still threatens to build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the Mexican border.
Bernal’s political two-fer, and his Golden Globe-winning work on Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, have given the Guadalajara actor, filmmaker, and activist ample opportunity to ponder and sound off on the state of U.S.-Mexico relations. “I am concerned,” said Bernal, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People this year. “But at the same time, knowing that for a country so huge and culturally so massive like Mexico, combined with the United States—the amount of people, the families that are interlinked between the United States and Mexico culturally and economically... with the amount of that dimension that these countries represent, Donald Trump doesn’t exist, really.”
He smiled optimistically. “It is irrelevant.”
“It is far bigger, the unity that exists, than what somebody can do as a president. The only problem is that his discourse can create problems, of course. It can create the empowerment of certain people that feel that they have to take matters into their own hands, and that’s really the problem. That’s what Desierto really exemplifies.”
“But really, I would say that for the history of the world, even more,” he lowered his voice, smiling. “Donald Trump doesn’t exist.”
“It is alarming,” he granted. “But it’s like wanting to stop air from flowing. It’s impossible. What we can do is build that fraternity even more. People from the United States should come to Mexico and people from Mexico should come to the United States. To travel! To have sex!”
If he had been born during Neruda’s time, Bernal says, “I would have been a communist, for sure.”
“But let’s not forget that communism comes from socialism, and it’s different,” he quickly added. “Communism couldn’t answer a very important question which comes to play in the film a lot: In the part where one of the compañeras talks to [Neruda] and says, ‘When we communists get into power, how are we going to be? I’ve been cleaning the shit of rich people for years and I don’t know how equality will arrive.’ And communism couldn’t answer that.”
At just 38 years old, Bernal has already played several political figures. After breaking out in 2000’s Amores Perros and achieving international acclaim with Y Tu Mama Tambien, Bernal portrayed Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara twice onscreen: in the 2002 miniseries Fidel and, two years later, in Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries. He’s continued to work with auteurs from around the world in films like Bad Education, Babel, and The Science of Sleep.
On the nonfiction side he’s taken on more of an advocacy role to tell stories of migration from home. In 2011, he partnered with Amnesty International and director Marc Silver on The Invisibles, a collection of documentary shorts depicting the harrowing experience of immigrants crossing the Mexican border. In Sundance 2013’s opening documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal? Bernal traced the path of a Central American man gone missing along the trek—an experience he portrays in the fictional Desierto, which adds the terrifying element of a bitter, gun-toting American (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who stalks the Texas border hunting down illegal immigrants.
“I’ve been accompanying that issue for a long time,” he said. “I was invited to do a visit to see what the situation of the migrants from Central America were going through, passing through Mexico. The work that we started to do was fascinating. It brought me to a head-to-head experience as a migrant as well. The experience and my fascination with being a foreigner, an ‘other.’”
Bernal acknowledges the privileges he’s been afforded by his industry, and the celebrity status that grants him the kind of access to work that President-elect Trump has promised to deny to immigrants from all over the world—particularly the Mexicans he vilified on the campaign trail.
“I get offered to work here in the United States on Mozart in the Jungle and stuff and I come every year to do it, and I enjoy it—and it’s a free circulation of labor,” Bernal explained. “I do it with a work visa and the whole thing, and I’m not criminalized for doing it. The tomatoes that we eat need that free circulation of labor!”
“The problem is that we are criminalizing that free circulation of labor, hugely. There’s something wrong there. And the fact that I have those rights means I have to defend people who have no rights.”