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…