A Search For Cultural Identity: Introducing the Mexican Cinema Series (1/7)

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Mexican cinema entered into a period of incredible success. A new wave, later to be dubbed the “Buena Onda”. A wealth of talented filmmakers emerged from the nation, with them bringing a string of critical and commercial hits. It’s this new wave and the talent behind it that I’ll be exploring over a series of seven posts, in which I aim to plot out the events surrounding the Buena Onda to discover to what extent it was shaped by the nation’s political and cultural history, as well as Mexico’s supposed “search for identity”.

Three directors, in particular, rose to prominence during this new wave, each instrumental in raising the profile of Mexican cinema; Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón. Through this series, I’ll be using them as core figures in exploring the Buena Onda and modern Mexican cinema. Each of the following six posts will delve into the works of these filmmakers, Mexican culture and politics, representation of Mexico in cinema and the new wave. This first post acts as an introduction for what’s to come; so without further ado, we begin, as they say, at the start…

A brief history of Mexican cinema:

Throughout the Mexican film industry’s largely unstable history, it’s seen decades of great financial and critical success followed by years where the nation’s industry has all but collapsed. In highlighting this we needn’t look any further than the change in the state of Mexico’s cinema industry between the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1940s and 1950s, in comparison to the barren spell which followed in the 1960s, a decade in which the industry, as Mora (2005, p. 105) states, ‘was to enter its darkest days.’ It’s been a recurring pattern of a rise and fall in successes, stability and opportunity often affected by the incumbent government’s stance on culture. The turn of the century new wave, the Buena Onda, occurred on the back of decades of turmoil, following barren spells in the 1980s and 1990s, and again was significantly impacted by politics.


Amores Perros (2000).

The early 1990s saw the first features from two directors who played major roles in the upturn in fortunes for Mexican national cinema; Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. A short few years later at the turn of the twenty-first century, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) would change Mexican cinema and draw worldwide attention to the films and filmmakers coming out of the country. Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu have gone on to become leading figures in Mexican cinema, and their success in Mexico has ultimately led them to Hollywood, each making high profile, big budget, Academy Award-winning films such as Gravity (2013), The Revenant (2015) and The Shape of Water (2017). For Cuarón, his 2018 film Roma has brought him full circle back to Mexico, with a story deeply rooted in his experiences growing up in the nation. It’s also important to note Carlos Carrera’s The Crime of Father Amaro (2002), which would become the highest grossing Mexican film (in Mexico) of all time upon its release, setting the benchmark in a steady run of financially profitable films from the country.

The films of these directors from 1991 through the 2000s can all be viewed as being a part of the new wave, and the themes that were established in the films of this time are still prevalent in several of the pieces that the filmmakers have produced since.

Culture and politics in Mexico:

In many respects, the Mexican governments’ involvement within its country’s film industry has been imperative to the peaks and troughs that have been experienced in past eras of Mexican cinema. And though at the turn of the twenty-first-century the industry was being portrayed across the world as being in a healthy state, reports failed to display the entire truth.

In fact, funding for films within Mexico has often proved scarce. Of the four key features of the Buena Onda (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También, The Devil’s Backbone and The Crime of Father Amaro), only one of them was funded by the Mexican government. The government would end up adding to the industry’s financing troubles, refusing to give the kinds of tax incentives that other governments in South America gave to aid their own creative industries.

This lack of support came to a head in 2003 when the then president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, outlined his plans to close down both IMCINE (Mexican Film Institute – Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia) and one of Mexico City’s two film schools the CCC (Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica) in an attempt to cut costs. Naturally this caused much uproar within the film industry and eventually, the plans were discarded.


Former Mexican president Vicente Fox.

The fact that in the years prior to this a series of commercially and critically successful films had come out of the country from up and coming directors makes Fox’s attempted closure of two of the most significant contributors towards the nation’s industry even more bewildering.

International representation of the Buena Onda:

Through a combination of films in the early 2000s, Mexican cinema became recognised as part of a wider new wave happening in Latin American cinema at the time. When this string of films was released the media were quick to group them. Guardian critic Andrew Pulver, who coined the term ‘Buena Onda’, felt the need to point out in his critique that Latin America isn’t a ‘backwater’ of cinema (Chanan, 2006, p. 38). The need to point this out alone highlights the position that Mexican culture was in and the impact that international representation of the nation’s identity had had on its cultural standing and perception.

The cultural influence of America:

There’s no doubting the importance of the impact which America has had on Mexican culture. As author Jason Wood put it:

‘Mexican audiences had, for the most part, given up on Mexican cinema, preferring instead to see the numerous American productions that were filling up the screens at the increasingly popular multiplex cinemas springing up throughout the country.”

(Wood 2006, p. xii)

While these multiplexes – owned by American corporations – broadened the range of social classes that would now go to the cinema, previously something the middle classes would avoid due to the dingy screening conditions (as well as the “poor quality” films being shown), there was still a tendency towards Hollywood productions. And although audience numbers increased, the somewhat 2D and regressive Hollywood representation of Mexicans remained; something which would later play into the hands of the new filmmakers striving to show the real Mexico.

Imports from Hollywood meant that Mexican audiences rarely watched Mexican cinema, and Americanisation in Mexican society led to discussions of ‘Mexico’s search for identity’. Castro (2006, p.88) believes that ‘because of the overwhelming influence of American cinema, and because of the influence of the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican cinema, it has become very difficult to look at ourselves now.’

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro.

The core three filmmakers in the Buena Onda, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón would strive to give a clearer picture of what Mexico is really like and what being Mexican means, portraying aspects of the nation through their own unique points of view, for the most part disregarding Hollywood clichés and representations of Mexico.

Mexico’s search for identity:

Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso Cuarón, and writer on a handful of his films, stated his belief (2006, p. 98) that ‘…Mexico is still a teenage society. The difference, I believe, is that the society is much more mature that the government. We are sixteen…in the middle of our teenage years. And my feeling is that the government is about thirteen and just starting with the whole hormonal thing.’ With a recurring theme in discussions on Mexican cinema being Mexico’s search for identity, it would perhaps go some way towards explaining why stories focussing on rites of passage and a desire for validation became so prevalent in the films to have come from the country during the Buena Onda.

Mexico was a nation trying to claim its cinematic space, striving for self-development and forging its own identity. These themes were reflected not just in the films from this period, but also in several of the Hollywood films that the central directors have made since.

Over the course of this series, I’ll look to discover the extent to which this search for identity that the government and society seemingly went through related to the change in the Mexican film industry.

Coming up…

In the second instalment of this seven-part series I take a look at the modern political and cultural history of Mexico, plotting out some of the key moments of its filmic past and the events that preceded the Buena Onda in an attempt to gauge the true impact of the government on the nation’s culture, and furthermore, the impact of culture on the nation’s identity. In posts three-through-seven, I’ll explore the new wave, the importance of Mexico’s perceived identity in relation to the successes in the Buena Onda, before diving deeper into how Mexican identity has been portrayed in Hollywood and the importance of identity in the works of the three central directors, Cuarón, Del Toro and Iñárritu. All of which is to find an answer to what extent a search for identity in Mexican culture was reflected in the turn of the century new wave for the nation’s cinema.

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Join in with the discussion in the comments below, and let me know your favourite Mexican films and filmmakers!

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A quick note on this series of posts: many hours of reading and research were conducted to ensure that events are described as accurately as possible. To see the full reading and viewing list for more Mexican cinema goodness, hit up the following link.

Viva Mexico!

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