Gael Garcia Bernal Is the Hottest Import at Sundance

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Every year there are those Sundance darlings who come to the festival with several projects under their belt and build the buzz not only on quality but also on quantity. This year, one of those darlings is Mexican star Gael García Bernal, who is having a resurgence after breaking out in 2001 in Y Tu Mamá También and both of his projects were definitely worth checking out. And if he has so many good movies here, why was he spotted flying coach to get to Park City?

The more well-known is the excellent Chilean film NO, which is nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It tells the story of an advertising executive who comes up with the campaign that is eventually responsible for the overthrow of a Chilean dictator. Americans, who usually don’t even bother to learn their own history (at least until Steven Spielberg enlists an Irish actor to play it for us) might be surprised to learn it is a true story. FIlmed as if by a camcorder in the ’80s, when the film is set, it is gritty and real, looking like something plucked out of a truck somewhere like a Bar Mitzvah video.

But this story will be remembered far longer than any rite of passage. And that story holds resonance for us stupid Americans as well. The way that story is told, how freedom, happiness, and democracy can be packaged and sold to a reluctant public, looks a lot like modern elections in the States, where the population is staunchly divided and every election is a struggle. In a restrained but killer performance, Bernal shows a sophistication that should do well to carry him further into his career.

Speaking about how stories are told, Bernal also stars in and helped create a documentary. Yes, this is a documentary that has a star. The film Who is Diyani Crystal is a different work where Bernal plays a Honduran immigrant found dead in the Arizona desert. In the movie the border patrol finds the body and goes about trying to discover his identity after he is identified only by the tattoo on his chest, which reads “Diyani Crystal.” As they unravel the mystery, we learn about the real man and talk to his family. Bernal tries to recreate his 60 day trip from his country to his eventual death in the desert, showing the difficult route countless undocumented workers take every day.

It is an interesting experiment and it seems like Bernal took an approach to his scenes like a reality show would, where he is with real people making the journey on their own and he had a camera with him to try to capture exactly what the experience is like. But, as any fan of Jersey Shore or the Real Housewives of Anytown USA can tell you, reality never gets to the reality. This is still a star making the trip and its obvious from the way people react to him.

In the end, the technique isn’t necessarily successful (at least not as successful as the mind-boggling recreations in The Summit, which used both the real people involved and actors). The documentary is a bit scattered with the story of finding Diyani, talking to his family, and recreating his journey all vying for attention. But, in the end, the point was to humanize the lives of immigrants and it does that in spades. Luckily for Bernal, who is going to get all the attention, not only do both of these projects make him seem more human, but like an even bigger star. Guess you have to make even more than two good movies to get yourself upgraded to first class these days.

Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan

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