The Fearless Call To Youthful Love and Desire In Mexican Cinema By a Young Gael García Bernal

Julio Zapata (Gael García Bernal) and Luisa Cortés (Maribel Verdú). Y tu mamá también (2001) dir. Alfonso Cuarón. 20th Century Fox.

by Aaron Sánchez-Guerra | February 11, 2021

It had been nearly a decade since the hearts of Mexican audiences were won over by the puppy love-sweetness of a prepubescent, mop-headed Gael García Bernal. 

Playing a sweet orphan boy in the El Abuelo Y Yo (1992) soap opera, he encountered the sappy meaning of love and friendship, famously sharing a romantic on-screen kiss as young as 11 years old.

The new millennium came and it was rung in with the sharp contrast of an older García Bernal — newly virile and in his early 20’s — as a protagonist in Alejandro Iñárritu’s film Amores Perros, rendering him the new heartthrob messenger for youthful love and its forbidden devotion.

The critically-acclaimed director Iñárritu pushed García Bernal to the limelight to draw on his past in mushy telenovela romance but cranked up a notch, bearing much more than an innocent kiss on camera this time.

Placing him front and center within his groundbreaking film’s ensemble cast, Iñárritu inadvertently let Garcia Bernal begin his residency as a passionate and libidinous symbol in Mexican cinema.

Through roles as versatile as they were controversial, he equipped generations of teens and young adults with the cinematic inspiration to chase romantic desire and seek sexual ecstasy in a way that few male actors did in 2000’s Hollywood-centric cinema. 

He landed explosively into the new age of Mexican cinema in Amores Perros. Starring as the grimy Octavio, he makes ends meet within an urban Mexico City hellscape by taking his pitbull to deadly dogfights, all to pursue a classic but violent tale of prohibited love.

“Come away with me,” he says in a desperate invitation to audiences and to Susana, his older brother’s wife with whom he’s fallen in love with and fights for to painful ends across a series of shocking scenes.

But his true claim to both erotic and cinematic fame followed closely a year later in Y Tu Mama También (2001), arguably García Bernal’s and acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón’s most well-known film. 

Joined by fellow chilango actor and childhood best friend Diego Luna, they struck controversy and made history with their sexually explicit performances, which were unprecedented in Mexican cinema at the time.

Such was the brazen raunchiness that the government slapped a strictly-enforced 18 and over rating for the film, a move that outraged Cuarón enough to sue for censorship. 

And in one town, a group of high school students went so far as to protest the age restrictions outside of a movie theater. They were only admitted after threatening to publicly unclothe themselves in rebellion, according to Cuarón.

After all, here was a film about the concerns of coming of age that for once wasn’t from Hollywood, wasn’t dubbed into Spanish, but was about angsty, restless Mexican teens just like them.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

The youthfulness that makes up Y Tu Mamá También didn’t belong to the adults allowed into the movie, but rather to the very people being kept out.

Its initial restrictions of young audiences crushed Luna because “this movie is made for the kids who supposedly now can’t even go see it with their parents,” according to a 2001 article in the newspaper La Universal.

In the narrated, partially-unscripted masterpiece a pair of best friends separated by economic classes seek identity together in a concoction of machismo, sex, alcohol and drugs as they face the postmodern Mexican capital city with apathy.

To their surprise, the hot-blooded capitalinos Julio and Tenoch (played by García Bernal and Luna, respectively) meet an older woman and convince her to join them on a road trip that is the film’s central vein.

With a Spanish woman in tow who bears the colonial last name of the principal conqueror of Mexico, the duo embarks on a scenic journey toward the Oaxacan coast to fulfill their lustful means and at once discover truths about themselves and their beautiful guest.

Its title And Your Mom, Too is a line from the film whose context requires little imagination. It is heard, appropriately, over swigs of tequila during a confession from the duo that they’d slept with each other’s girlfriends multiple times.

“Do you realize this? We’re milk brothers!” exclaims a drunk Tenoch.

Gael García Bernal as Padre Amaro

García Bernal’s unabashed sexuality wasn’t limited to the ire of the Mexican government; his sacrilegious role as a young, handsome priest who breaks his chastity vows for a catechism teacher in El Crimen Del Padre Amaro (2002) was enough to garner a boycott from the Catholic church.

“Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies,” says the sexy priest, reciting the erotic Old Testament verses of Song of Solomon as he undresses his secret lover before making love to her.

Draping a sacred cloak for the Virgin Mary over her, he tells her she’s more beautiful than Guadalupe herself, wrapping himself together with her in a scene that was bound to piss off the devout and rile up the repressed.

The consequential nature of these films’ excessive passions remain important all the while, which cost Father Amaro his priestly robes and uncovered things to Julio he would have rather avoided all his life.

García Bernal as Zahara in La Mala Educación (2004)

The Mexican actor’s first appearance in European film is a unique addition to his repertoire and features an escape from his traditionally straight and cisgender confines.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala Educación (Bad Education), he portrays an aspiring actor and screenwriter in Madrid, who manipulates childhood romance to fulfill his dreams in a twisted tale of queer love.

His 2004 performance in the Spanish film is a treat as the young actor brandished two firsts: an awe-inducing performance in drag and a Castilian Spanish accent.

Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna in Rudy y Cursi (2008)

In one of his last films demonstrating the remnants of his previous roles, García Bernal starred again with Luna in a 2008 comedy as they portray Rudo y Cursi (dir. Carlos Cuarón), two rural banana farmworker brothers who leave the countryside to make it big in a Mexican soccer league.

Playing the frosted-tip fútbol pretty boy Rudo, he wins the attention of a supermodel whom he and his friends back home kept swimsuit calendars of and would crowd around a fuzzy old T.V. for when she appeared in commercials.

“Mayita, you’re sexier than I thought,” he tells her, dumbfounded. “My buddies are never gonna believe this.”

Surely enough, García Bernal is the only protagonist with a sex scene in the film.

Anyone who watches these films can read the warning label on each of García Bernal’s romantic exploits, with pitfalls looming closely behind.

At García Bernal’s expense, we learn — humorously, erotically, shockingly — that love is superficial among the materialist elite, it is toxic and painful when pursued in secret and that a mania for sexual conquest can result in abuse, loss or separation.

The momentary bliss of ignorant, unrestrained desire was all met with consequences ranging from hurtful to fatal. It is not so much a spoiler for the films as it is a harsh reality.

“Fast, funny, unafraid of sexuality,” wrote Elvis Mitchell in his 2002 The New York Times review of Y Tu Mamá También after its U.S. release.

“…and finally devastating,” Mitchell added, perhaps best defining García Bernal’s particular past as Hispanic cinema’s heartthrob-horndog-heartbreak extraordinaire.


Aaron Sánchez Guerra is a trilingual writer, artist and journalist for The News & Observer in Durham, North Carolina. He was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley region of the U.S-Mexico border.