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In 'Desierto,' A Sniper Hunts Mexican Immigrants Along The U.S. Border


The new film "Desierto" doesn't have much dialogue, and the plot is simple. A group of Mexican immigrants crosses the U.S. border. A sniper and his dog set out to kill them. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays the immigrant at the center of the story, and he recently joined me from Los Angeles to talk about it.

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: Hello, yes, hello. (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Once he settled in, he told me in this film he wanted the desert - desierto - to be a main character.

BERNAL: Because it is a place where people die a lot, and it is where people are forced to make this journey. So it is, you know, a harsh landscape. And that's where you also realize what people are willing to risk to do what they do.

SHAPIRO: In the U.S., Bernal is known for films like "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Last year he won a Golden Globe for the TV show "Mozart In The Jungle." This movie "Desierto" is basically a 90-minute chase sequence.


BERNAL: (As Moises) Hey, hey. (Speaking Spanish).


BERNAL: (As Moises, yelling).

SHAPIRO: It returns to a subject he's been passionate about throughout his career - the stories of people who risk their lives crossing the border.

BERNAL: Well, I had done before this film a few films related to this issue, you know, of migration. I also did a feature film documentary called "Who Is Dayani Cristal" that have - I related to this issue.

And I felt that when Jonas invited me to be part of this - Jonas being the director, yeah? - and I had then the preparation to play this part. And it hit on many levels, I mean especially because we were going to do a very, you know, sort of elemental journey. And we wanted to portray that.

SHAPIRO: What did that feel like for you as an actor?

BERNAL: Well, it's another point of view that acting gives you, you know, to live many lives within one life and also to pay homage to a journey that I consider heroic because when you're doing it, I mean some people might think, OK, well, it's pretty hard, you know, to go run up the hill, you know, many times to shoot this film and do it so many hours, you know, and everything.

But at the end of the day, whatever we live while doing the movie is nothing compared to what the people that actually do this journey for real experience. So it gives us an insight on what they have lived, and it makes us approach the issue on a much more empathical (ph) - with emotional empathy, you know, which is ultimately what acting gives you.

SHAPIRO: As you said, you have worked on this issue a lot and been involved with films that are about immigration, but this is the first time you've really stepped into a role playing somebody who is crossing the border. How did it feel to you to finally inhabit this character that you have spent so much time focusing on variations of him over the years?

BERNAL: Yeah, I want to underline that it's not about immigration. It's about migration, you know? It is about the coming and going. It is about like the constant verb, you know, of the...

SHAPIRO: The journey rather than the arrival.

BERNAL: Well, exactly - the journey that we all come from and we will all be and that our kids will be as well. And you know, the first story - the first big story that came up is a journey of a man returning home.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean the "Odyssey?" What are you referring to?

BERNAL: Exactly, yeah, the "Odyssey," yeah.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about your decision as an actor not to become famous and leave the world that you came from behind? You know, there are people who come from poverty and don't make films about poverty in America, and yet you keep returning to these issues that are clearly very important to you and have been your whole life.

BERNAL: Well, I've had the fortune of, you know, I mean of being able to work in many different places and to exercise that freedom and that responsibility as well, you know? And...

SHAPIRO: Responsibility is an interesting word.

BERNAL: Yeah, yeah, I think that my approach maybe to everyday life has always been political, yes. I grew up that way, and maybe that's something that has been motivating me since I've been a little kid. And I want to put forth this kind of notion that we have to find ways of participating more, you know, everybody, in the political agora, you know, because...

SHAPIRO: The agora, the town square, the dialogue...

BERNAL: Exactly because we shy away from it, you know? It is - if movies are not poetry or political nowadays, I don't know then what purpose they have because we have to incorporate in that discussion all the time.

SHAPIRO: Gael Garcia Bernal, thank you so much for joining us.

BERNAL: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Gael Garcia Bernal's new film is "Desierto."

BERNAL: I was getting a little bit - I am very Sagittarius. I cannot sit down for long. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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