Column: Mexican Films Mix Art with Social Commentary
In a bold move last year, the Mexican film Desierto used Donald Trump’s voice as part of its marketing campaign.
Trump’s claims that Mexico is sending drugs and criminals north, and his plea that “It’s gotta stop fast,” narrate an early trailer for the film showing Mexican immigrants being shot in the back by a crazed American vigilante.
“Words are as dangerous as bullets,” the trailer warns. None too subtle, but a reminder that Mexican artists have plenty to say about politics and social issues.
This can be seen in the early films of Oscar-winning directors Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), two of today's most acclaimed international filmmakers.
The pair, together with Guillermo del Toro, who won the top prize at the recent Venice Film Festival for The Shape of Water, are known as the Three Amigos of Mexican cinema.
Many of their early films are now available online, as are other, newer Mexican works inspired by them – including Desierto, co-written and directed by Cuarón’s son Jonás, and the 2014 urban tale Güeros.
Like any good action movie, Desierto serves up a nail-bitingly tense 90 minutes sustained by a charging rhythm, stunning locations, an uncomplicated storyline and archetypal characters.
The desperate journey of a group of Mexican immigrants, forced by their smugglers’ stalled truck to cross the border on foot through the desert “Badlands,” turns into a race for their lives when a gun-toting trucker begins to literally hunt them down.
The camera shifts between close-ups on the characters’ faces, wider shots of them racing over boulders, across canyons and through cacti, and screen-filling vistas of the striking, untamed desert and an infinite sky.
The movie stakes an obvious political position in its broad-stroke depictions of the rival protagonists. The victim, a kindhearted immigrant played by the baby-faced Gael García Bernal, carries a teddy bear for his son back in California and risks his own life to help the weakest in the group.
Contrast him to the vigilante, a scruffy Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing a whisky-chugging cowboy with a long-distance rifle and a ferocious hunting dog. “Welcome to the land of the free,” he jeers after he kills.
What the movie may lack in story and depth, it makes up for in tension and thrill, winning a critics’ prize at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
Y Tu Mamá También
Alfonso Cuarón’s hip 2001 road movie is a socially conscious, stylistically self-aware film that helped launch the careers of García Bernal and co-star Diego Luna (Rogue One) and arguably influenced a generation.
The two play best friends intent on squeezing the most out of their last summer of adolescence. They live by an 11-point buddy “manifesto” that includes getting high at least once a day, never marrying a virgin and never, ever moving to America.
The opening sequence, for mature audiences only, introduces a technique Cuarón employs throughout the film, where he freezes the action to let a fast-talking narrator fill us in on related people, places and events.
Permeating these voiceovers is quite a bit of social commentary, including about the financially disparate backgrounds of the two friends in a country plagued by corruption and a huge gap between rich and poor.
We see this ourselves as they set off on a road trip across the Mexican countryside. In village after village, colorful festivities camouflage impoverished villagers inevitably portrayed as victims of abusive police and corporate or political injustice.
Trailing along on the trip is a sexy Spanish woman (Maribel Verdú) who’s unhappily married to one of their cousins and, unbeknownst to them, just received a dire cancer diagnosis.
The relationship between the three quickly becomes sexual, though her illness stays a secret. Her vivacious yet tumor-ridden body could easily read as a metaphor for Mexico.
This coming-of-age tale made more than a decade after Mamá but set around the same time seems to tip its hat to the earlier film thematically as well as in its playful upending of cinematic norms.
When Tomás is sent to live with his big brother, he finds him and his roommate barely subsisting in a half-abandoned apartment block while waiting out a student strike at their university.
Caught splicing a neighbor’s electricity, they take off in their car and begin roaming the city. A subplot has them searching for a dying folk singer, but this feels like a device to give their journey direction.
In fact, Güeros’ storyline takes a while to solidify. In one of several self-parodying, art-meets-reality scenes, a character opines that the movie’s script is actually “pretty bad.”
You may agree with him. But Güeros has plenty to make it a compelling watch, including a melodious mid-century soundtrack and a stylized ‘60s-inspired black and white cinematography that continues to play in your mind well after the film ends.
This review is dedicated to those affected by the earthquakes this month in Mexico.
This column originally ran in The Daily Record.