In Mexican cinema, a single kiss, or an act of oral sex, can express a vast social gulf. The Mexicans are penetrating Hollywood with an aesthetic of class divisionby Mark Cousins / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
At the Oscars this year, it seemed a dead cert that the best cinematography award would go to one of two Mexicans. Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography in Terrence Malick’s The New World was astonishing, and Mexico City-born Rodrigo Prieto shot this year’s hottest film, Brokeback Mountain. When neither won, you could feel the disappointment from Baja to Veracruz.
I am in Mexico City as a guest programmer at the city’s international contemporary film festival (FICCO), and it has been fascinating to see the complex manner in which the country relates to its cinema. In recent years there has been much to be proud of. Amores Perros and Y tu Mamá También were international art house hits. The lead in both—Gael García Bernal—is one of world cinema’s hottest stars. Salma Hayek went to Hollywood and made good. Alfonso Cuarón, the director of Y tu Mamá, did the same, and ended up helming box office juggernauts such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Rodrigo Prieto seems never to draw breath. Hollywood is hoovering up Mexican talent. Such attention boosts the ego, but Mexico’s sense of itself as a movie-making nation has always been richer than that of local boys and girls making good.
From the start, movies played a role in the nation. Its 1910 revolution was not only filmed; Pancho Villa is said to have staged some of his campaigns for the camera. In the 1930s, Veracruz-born Fernando de Fuentes was the country’s first important director and virtually invented its national cinema. Like Lubezki and Prieto, Gabriel Figueroa was one of the greatest cinematographers of his day—working with de Fuentes in the 1930s, studying with Orson Welles’s favourite director of photography, Gregg Toland, then giving the consistently sparkling look to the 1940s films of Emilio Fernández—the country’s second great director.
De Fuentes, Fernández and Figueroa together created a national cinema which took a distinctly Mexican approach to subjects like indigenous people, peasant versus city life and religious piety. In terms of actors, Cantinflas and Tin Tan were massively popular comedians in the Chaplin mode. Dolores del Rio became a star in Mexico as well as a memorable character actress in Hollywood. And María Félix was so famous that she seemed to transcend cinema.
By the late 1940s, Mexican cinema was on a roll. But then came Luis Buñuel, guns blazing. The Spanish surrealist made films in Mexico between 1946 and 1965, a sabbatical about which the country is rightly proud, though Buñuel’s mockery of Mexican archetypes created mixed feelings. At the parties and discussions at FICCO this year, it was clear that there was a similar ambivalence about the new wave of Mexican cinema that we have so admired in Europe.
Take two of the most distinctive films of this new wave—Cuarón’s Y tu Mamá También and Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven. I could find hardly anyone with a good word to say about either. At first I thought this was tall poppy syndrome, but later it became clear that something more interesting was at play.
Y tu Mamá También is about the friendship between an upper-class teenager and his lower-class friend. Battle in Heaven depicts an intense relationship between a high-class young woman and her working-class chauffeur. Mexico’s massive class divisions—a sliver of a cultural elite, another sliver of a middle class and a huge majority of poor people—explained the potent anxiety of both films. Each was made from within the cultural elite. Each imagines the elite engaging with those beneath it.
Each encounter has a sexual dimension. Watching Brokeback Mountain in Mexico, you’re struck by how many times the script suggests that Mexico is a place of sexual liberty. The Mexican new wave films point to the fallout from such freedom. Encouraged by an older woman they both fancy, the male teenagers from different worlds in Y tu Mamá También kiss. Afterwards they recoil from the moment and their friendship breaks down. The kiss, and its divisive impact, is a bleak metaphor for the impossibility of class interaction in Mexico. I heard it said several times here in Mexico that the film is too American—yet its pessimistic ending could hardly be less so. I think its portrait of social immobility touched a nerve.
Battle in Heaven’s cross-class sexual contact is even more disturbing. The films begins with the rich girl crying as she fellates her entirely expressionless chauffeur. The fact that the scene is so implausible seems to make some Mexicans dismiss the film as fake or patronising. But seen as a pitiless metaphor for the social divisions in the country, the sex scenes are devastating.
In Mexican cinema, elite filmmakers create the aesthetic while a majority social class provides the subject matter. Both form and content reveal the impossibility of social marriage—and the result is remarkably challenging.
It’s the question of who gets to tell the story that makes people uneasy. Down the road, the first big-budget film set in the Mayan period is being shot. A key story in Mexico’s history is coming to a multiplex near you. Its director? An Australian filmmaker called Mel Gibson.