And Your Mother Too is a sexy teen road movie, but its quiet politics prove Mexican cinema is resurgent, argues Paul Julian Smith. Plus interview with Alfonso Cuarón
Mexican cinema is on a roll. Despite the political turmoil and crisis that plague the government-funded film institute IMCINE, it has produced a string of local hits. These have most recently been crowd-pleasing comedies that couldn't be more different from the earnest art movies by the likes of Arturo Ripstein that are usually distributed abroad. Domestic cinema may even survive proposals, condemned by Ripstein and others, to increase the market for US imports - now shown only with subtitles - by dubbing them into Spanish. Nostalgic for the golden age of the 40s, when the Mexican industry was one of the world's largest, boasting stars like Dolores del Río and directors like Emilio Fernández (not to mention Buñuel), local producers hope this latest revival may be here to stay.
Alfonso Cuarón's smart and sexy road movie And Your Mother Too (Y tu mamá también ) broke the all-time domestic box-office record for a Mexican film, taking $2.2 million in its opening week, despite a widely ignored 'X' rating that should have excluded much of its target audience. A reprise of the oldest story in the book, And Your Mother Too tells the tale of two teenage hedonists, wealthy Tenoch (Diego Luna) and poor Julio (Gael García Bernal), who take off from the city with unhappily married Spaniard Luisa (Maribel Verdú) in search of a mythical beach called Boca del Cielo (Heaven's Mouth). And Your Mother Too is both a love-triangle and a coming-of-age movie in which, in the familiar cliché, "none of them would be the same after that summer."
Writing in Variety, Mexican film scholar Leonardo García Tsao dismisses the film as a "south-of-the-border Beavis & Butthead", its protagonists "oversexed and underdeveloped". He also describes the theme of a boy's sexual education by an older woman as a fantasy "straight out of Penthouse". There's no doubt many viewers read the film in this way: a glance at the messages posted on the film's official website confirms this salacious response. But most of the film's frequent and graphic nudity is male, as when the two boys are shown desperately servicing their girlfriends before the latter leave on holiday in the opening sequences. In a later shower scene Luna gamely wears a prosthetic glans (unlike the actor, his character Tenoch is circumcised). To accuse the film of crudeness is not only to misread its grungy technique but to confuse the characters' viewpoints with the film's own. Apparently a slight comedy packed with the lewdness for which Mexican speech is famous, And Your Mother Too subtly revises models of gender and national identity for a new Mexico and a new international audience.
Cuarón himself is eager to disassociate himself from what he calls a "cinema of denunciation" - the explicitly political output of an earlier generation of engaged auteurs such as Felipe Cazals' Los motivos de Luz (1985), which explores poverty and exploitation among the underclass, or Paul Leduc's Dollar Mambo (1993), which attacks US imperialism. Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. Yet his attack on what he calls "ideology" could itself be read as ideological. Julio's sister, a leftist student who supports the Zapatista rebels, is given short shrift: she exists only to loan the boys the battered car in which they make their trip. The opening sequences in Mexico City include such high-end locations as Tenoch's palatial home and a plush country club. And the official website unashamedly plays for pleasure: surfers are invited to tour the characters' station wagon, dress the boys in their favoured grungy garments and shoot down flying phalluses that flit across the screen.
Nevertheless, there's no doubt that like Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros (2000), which also starred the charismatic García Bernal, And Your Mother Too marks a new cinematic moment that coincides with a new political order. Indeed its sober closing sequence refers explicitly to the defeat in July 2000 of the oddly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which had ruled Mexico with the dead hand of corruption for 71 years. With the election of new president Vicente Fox of the rightist National Action Party (PAN) Mexicans were more than ready for political and cultural change. The first film to herald the end of the ancien régime was Luis Estrada's political satire La ley de Herodes (1999), a cause célèbre after the PRI-controlled IMCINE tried in vain to prevent its distribution. But while La ley de Herodes is too local to appeal to foreigners, And Your Mother Too's coming-of-age story has hit a universal nerve, winning the film awards for best screenplay and best newcomers at last year's Venice festival.
Rejecting the glossy professionalism of his Hollywood features A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1997), Cuarón employs a loose and supple technique. The plot develops, in true road-movie fashion, with apparent spontaneity, helped by the fact that the film was shot in sequence with the actors seeming to change and mature over the 105 minutes of its running time. The camerawork is seemingly artless: Cuarón's account of his collaboration with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki recalls Buñuel's relationship with Gabriel Figueroa in that both seek to avoid prettiness, refusing to film if the light or landscape is too beautiful. Cuarón and Lubezki also favour sequence shots - when Luisa goes off with the boys, the camera watches her linger in her apartment and go out of the door before simply wandering to the window to see her exit into the street below. Performances appear improvised. García Bernal and Luna are real-life long-time friends, first having worked together at the age of 12. Their intimacy and awkwardness in the sex scenes seem quite unforced, while their expert chilango (Mexico City dialect) will prove as opaque to outsiders as it is to the Spanish Luisa.
But just as the seeming absence of ideology is itself ideological, so the apparently artless form relies on artistry. Though the actors contributed to the script during the rehearsal process, the screenplay (by Cuarón and his brother Carlos) is deceptively well made. When they set out on their journey the two boys recite a Rabelaisian manifesto to Luisa - it comes down to 'do what you want' (but don't screw another guy's girlfriend). Towards the end of what is now an exhausting trek, Luisa lays down the law herself, improvising an alternative, woman-centred manifesto. Dramatic irony ensures the audience knows more than the characters: we have seen Luisa split up with her philandering husband, but the boys have not.
The casual-looking cinematography is also smarter than it appears. When the camera strays from the table where the main characters are enjoying a meal, it is to enter the kitchen where Indian women cook. As the trio crudely discuss sexual technique in the car, they pass roadblocks where we glimpse soldiers interrogating peasants. In long shot, the car, suddenly diminished, vanishes in the vast landscape or appears behind women washing clothes in a river. If framing unobtrusively makes a political point, then so does editing. Cuarón cuts for contrast: from the sunny swimming pool where the boys jerk off together to the fantasised image of 'Selmita' Hayek to the dark bedroom where a solitary Luisa confronts her husband's infidelity on the phone. A student demonstration in the city is juxtaposed with the teenagers' trip to a vast supermarket in the suburbs, a temple to consumerism.
Favouring long shots and lengthy takes as the film does, its principals need all their professional technique to keep control. Cuarón has said that initially he intended to cast amateurs, but they couldn't give the performances he required. The experience of Maribel Verdú, veteran of some 30 films in Spain, anchors the relative newcomers García Bernal and Luna. From a prim, melancholy wife (dressed in ivory satin), she is transformed into a denim-clad sexual predator who takes on the boys in a seedy motel and on the back seat of a car. Her voyage of discovery thus complements the teenagers' more familiar quest for identity. All three are at their best in a final drunken dinner scene, a tour de force that lasts for an unbroken take of seven minutes.
But the strongest indication of the unforced seriousness of this sexy, funny film lies in its use of voiceover. Throughout, dead-pan, third-person narration informs us of what the characters can never know or choose not to reveal. Speeding heedlessly through the city, the young lovers are ignorant of the fact that a migrant worker has been killed on the same road. Later Tenoch doesn't tell his companions they are passing the village of his Indian nanny, whom he called "mother" until he was four. The fisherman the characters meet on the magical beach will, we are told, be displaced by a luxury hotel. Cuarón cites Godard as an inspiration for the voiceover and And Your Mother Too can be reread as a Mexican nouvelle vague, deftly skewering the Latin American cinéma de papa even as it shares aspects of its predecessors' social critique.
The notorious Oedipal Mexican profanity to which the title refers is also incorporated and ironised. Luisa may be a mother-whore or Penthouse fantasy, but she has hidden motives for her sexual abandon. Moreover she loudly exposes the homoeroticism underlying Mexican machismo, claiming the boys only fight like dogs because they want to fuck each other. Gender stereotypes are revised, culminating in a final twist that has disconcerted some fans, just as national identity is re-evaluated. The only sign of fetishistic folklore is at a glamorous wedding where charros (cowboys) and mariachis perform in a muddy arena. But Cuarón's camera pointedly abandons the wealthy masters to follow a maid taking food to the chauffeurs outside. Or again the camera tracks after Tenoch's nanny as she treks through the huge family house to deliver a sandwich and answer the phone ringing unheeded at his side. The "cinema of denunciation" Cuarón critiques is not so much abandoned in And Your Mother Too as fully and unselfconsciously integrated into the film's narrative and form.
Important here is a new aspect of cultural nationalism: Mexicanness need no longer be defined in opposition to the US. Cultural commentator Carlos Monsiváis has recently noted Mexico's naturalisation of Halloween, a holiday hitherto unknown. Likewise, Cuarón Mexicanises the US genre of the road movie and is confident enough to employ a gloriously hybrid soundtrack. While the script was written to the sound of Frank Zappa's melancholy instrumental 'Watermelon in Easter Hay', the songs booming from the boys' cassette player stray from Eno and Nathalie Imbruglia to Latin dance numbers. Most telling is the fact that the term charolastra, which the boys use to describe themselves (an invented word said to mean "space cowboy"), is derived from misunderstood English-language lyrics overheard on the radio. This is significant because the idiosyncratic speech is the most local element in the film: the Castilian-speaking Luisa repeatedly asks the boys to translate their chilango, and while And Your Mother Too has been shown around the world, most Spanish speakers are partly excluded from its dialogue. As sociologist Manuel Castells has written, globalisation is combined with a resurgence of intense localism. The website is intriguing here - surfers from Montevideo to Madrid lament their failure to understand chilango but an equal number post their fanmail in versions of that same idiolect. Like a Mexican A Clockwork Orange, And Your Mother Too schools its consumers in a rich and strange idiom.
If the language remains irredeemably local, the same goes for the landscape. Heading south and west of the capital through the impoverished states of Puebla and Oaxaca to the Pacific coast, And Your Mother Too reveals unselfconsciously and unobtrusively a Mexico rarely seen on screen. The travellers chance on popular traditions: a local carnival queen used to extract money from cars stopped on the highway; an ancient woman standing guard over an indigenous altar where saints and candles mingle with fluffy toys. And when we finally, miraculously, reach the longed-for beach, we are not allowed to forget the ravages of tourism on this unspoilt environment as the voiceover informs us that the fisherman the friends encounter will end up as hotel caretaker. The "magical, musical Mexico" toasted by the drunken trio is both ironically celebrated and ruefully mourned.
In a final, downbeat sequence the two boys meet up by accident back in the city. This is the only time the voiceover is explicitly political - the PRI has, we are told, just lost the presidential elections. Cuarón has described Mexico as an "adolescent" country, struggling to grow up and acknowledge aspects of itself for which it was not prepared. The sombre dialogue here (filmed in shot/reverse shot as opposed to the wide shots and long takes favoured in the rest of the film) suggests the boys' quest for identity is equally unsettling: there are some things about ourselves we would prefer not to know.
While the decline of state funding for film is disturbing in a country where the government was for so long a major participant in production, And Your Mother Too (like Amores perros before it) is testimony to a sector newly invigorated in part by private money. Like the equally surprising Argentine renaissance, the revival of Mexican film will lead to destinations that cannot be predicted. This is the final moral of Cuarón's artfully artless road movie.