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Is America ready for Gael Garcia Bernal?

Gael García Bernal has long been the darling of foreign film fans. In the new film ‘The Science of Sleep,’ fans can finally leave their reading glasses at home.  By Paige Ferrari
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Gael García Bernal has long been the darling of foreign film fans. The subtitle set first met him as Octavio in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores Perros,” and then as Julio Zapata, the hormonally charged teenager in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También.”  Audiences have seen him inhabit an ethically conflicted priest and a drug addicted transvestite in “El Crimen del Padre Amaro” and “La Mala Educación,” respectively. In his best known role to American audiences, Bernal played a young Che Guevara, crossing Latin America and growing a social conscience in “The Motorcycle Diaries.”

Bernal specializes in grit and gravitas, not rescuing people from invading spaceships, sucking snakes out of planes, or hunting down bad guys as a cop with a temper.  His characters do not always get the girl.  Often, they make us squirm in our seats.  But no matter how taboo a film’s subject, Bernal’s characters are always fascinatingly human — flawed, seeking redemption.  Who cares if we relate? We find it nearly impossible to look away.

In “The Science of Sleep,” the new film by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michael Gondry, Bernal shows off his English, and gives American audiences the chance to meet him without their reading glasses on.  Bernal plays Stéphane, a man who struggles to distinguish between dreams and reality, even as he’s wooing his similarly named neighbor, Stéphanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Will Bernal appeal to a broad American audience?  And will his trademark — the ability to move between intense emotion and a goofy kind of earnest sweetness — translate into English and carry a film that is, well, a little weird to begin with?

If “Sleep” doesn’t play in Peoria, or only to Sundance size audiences, that might be okay.  Bernal’s choice to take on an off-beat film like   “Sleep” — from recent previews, part romantic comedy and part dream sequence from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” — shows that he won’t stop taking risks just to achieve mass popularity in America.

An actor’s actorKeeping that indie credibility is part of that Bernal appeal. It establishes him as headed for a career that, for lack of better comparisons is a little more Ed Norton and a little less Ben Affleck.  Bernal may not be America’s biggest box office draw, but he will also never star in a movie built around an Aerosmith song. That means something when it comes to keeping his old fan base, and also building an artistic reputation that says not only “integrity,” but “Oscar material.”

Many actors claim to be down to earth, primarily concerned with their art, or not so caught up in the “Hollywood thing.” Bernal is one of the few who does it convincingly. With Bernal the proof is there: the smart movies, the low profile, the Sean Penn integrity without the Sean Penn-sized soapbox.  In interviews, he doesn’t make empty rants against Hollywood. It’s though his projects that he shows his refusal to be pigeon-holed by ethnicity, or to compromise himself in order to become a megawatt Hollywood leading man.

Of course, Bernal hasn’t totally escaped the Hollywood machine.  Lest we forget, he is a good-looking actor, with a handsomely angular face, long dark hair, and an intense (what some may call smoldering) stare, all of which certainly contribute to his allure.

If the true mark of a rising star is a preponderance of gossip, then Bernal is also coming into his own. Tabloids, entertainment television networks, blogs and fan forums have buzzed, though not yet with the intensity reserved for the likes of Brangelina, with speculation on his love life.  Is he back together with ex-girlfriend Natalie Portman?  Or perhaps Argentinean star Dolores Fonzi?  He’s also previously been linked with actresses Keira Knightley and Kate Bosworth.

Many foreign actors have crossed borders and earned success in American film. Salma Hayek, also from Mexico, began her career in a similar way to Bernal’s, acting in Mexican soap operas. She broke out alongside another successful import — Antonio Banderas — in 1995’s “Desperado.”  Penelope Cruz also made the journey, revisiting her role in the Spanish film “Abre Los Ojos” in the American remake, “Vanilla Sky.” Audrey Tatou of France’s “Amelie” took her turn in “Da Vinci Code,” though the reviews were mixed. For all, the key to success was picking the right project. Bernal seems to have learned this lesson well. After “Sleep,” he reteams with “Amores Perros” director, Alejandro González Iñárritu in “Babel” — also starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.  With the much anticipated “Babel,” coming out on the heels of the smaller, quirkier “Sleep,” Bernal stands to gain maximum exposure of the best kind.

The beauty, the mystery, the wonder of Gael García Bernal is simple:  He can make us feel a little dirty in films that make us more than a little uncomfortable.  Sometimes, as in “The Science of Sleep” he can even make us wonder if our drink was spiked. As an actor’s actor and one with enough talent to breathe  life into a revenge-seeking transvestite, an over-testosteroned teenager on a NC-17 road trip, a nascent revolutionary, and a waking dreamer, he’s set to take over America — on his own terms.