Mexico’s Cinematic Representation and Identity: The Mexican Cinema Series (5/7)

What does identity mean, and what makes the concept of identity so important to Mexican culture? Throughout this post, I’ll be looking at the ways in which Mexico and Mexicans have been represented in American cinema, in doing so exploring the impact that these representations have had on the films of the Buena Onda, the new wave of Mexican cinema.

(For part one of the Mexican Cinema Series, click here.)

The impact of Mexico’s history on its perceived identity:

All of the events of Mexico’s past have shaped the face of the country as it is today. Yet major influence in its history has meant that traits of other cultures remain prevalent, in particular, American and Spanish. The 19th century marked an important period in Mexican history with victory in the Mexican War of Independence against Spain, before losing Texas and California to America in the Mexican-American war. This was followed by the Revolution and more decades of instability. All of these aspects of Mexico’s recent history have meant that rather than the nation forging its own independent national identity, it’s been hugely subjected to aspects of other nation’s culture. These factors are what has led to the argument of what it is to be Mexican. Mexico is developing its own national character, and as Gleason (1983, p.923) points out, ‘self-understanding is always important.’

The recent generation of Mexican filmmakers have strived to explore the nation’s identity and to make their mark on the cultural makeup of the country. As Alfonso Cuarón stated (2006, p. 172), ‘this ‘wave’ is an effect of what is happening in the arts in Mexico and not just film. It’s a generation reclaiming its part in the world, and not only in Mexico.’

Representation of Mexico in Hollywood:

It’s important to discuss the representation of Mexican identity in Hollywood movies. The films of Hollywood, which remain largely prevalent throughout film exhibition not only in Mexico but throughout the world have often depicted Mexicans almost as being backwards, the films generally failing to illustrate a realistic picture of what Mexico is truly like. Dated generalisations of moustaches, mariachis, and backwardness are commonplace.

An example of this is Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004), which James (2006, p.26) describes as a ‘near-racist portrayal of Mexicans.’ In the movie Mexicans are shown as the antagonists, abducting children and holding them for ransom. The American, Denzel Washington, is hired to protect the daughter of a rich American couple living in Mexico City. Inevitably the daughter is kidnapped by the Mexicans, forcing Washington into a rescue mission.

Man on Fire (2004).

A very different portrayal of Mexico can be seen in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico (2003), the third film in Rodriguez’s El Mariachi trilogy. Important to note is that Rodriguez is a Texan with a Mexican family background, like many from Texas. The film has a considerably less biased feel to it than Man on Fire, but the characters are in many ways clichéd; the Mexican drug baron, the mariachi and the moustached Mexican hitman played by Danny Trejo.

Several film portrayals follow these clichés of Mexico, so it’s perhaps no surprise that people of the nation turned out in numbers to see films made by Mexicans about a truer Mexico. The characters and the places portrayed were identifiable.

There have been less traditional American-funded portrayals of Mexico. Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) portrays the Americans as the villains of the film. The film was written by Guillermo Arriaga, a frequent collaborator with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, both noteworthy in bringing forth this modern era of Mexican representation.

Representations of Mexico in the Buena Onda:

One of the factors that can be pinpointed as being key to the developments in Mexican cinema is that Mexican’s were able to see realistic representations of themselves on screen. After extensive market research during the production of Amores Perros (2000), producer Compean (2006, p. 64) found that ‘people didn’t mind happy endings; they also like romantic endings-but what they really wanted was to be able to recognize themselves on the screen.’

With Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros and The Crime of Father Amaro, this was suddenly possible. All three of these films portrayed aspects of Mexico, and what it meant to be Mexican that simply weren’t coming across in the films from Hollywood. Amores Perros represented the lower middle classes of Mexico City, instantly relatable for a large part of the Mexican audience, the characters a striking departure from the moustached, gun-toting Mexicans often seen in American cinema.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Y Tu Mamá También contained a sub-narrative in which the camera lingers away from the film’s protagonists to momentarily look upon the surrounding setting of the Mexican country, the voiceover describing the social/political changes occurring at each particular place. These spaces and people outside of Mexico City which are rarely seen in cinema are given essential significance in the sub-text of the film.

The Crime of Father Amaro bravely shows the corruption running deeply through the Catholic Church in Mexico. Though the Church is the central target, it can read as a comment on Mexico’s political history, one marred by corruption. Director Carlos Carrera said ‘there are only two or three films that talk about the church in Mexico and almost 85 or 90 percent of Mexican people are Catholic so I felt it important to talk about what is going on in the church…The Catholic Church is more of a political institution than it is a spiritual…one.’ In the film, Gael Garcia Bernal’s ‘Father Amaro’ falls in love with and impregnates a teenage girl. She dies during an attempted illegal abortion, but Amaro manages to cover up his own crime, placing the blame on the girls’ ex-boyfriend, enabling him to continue as a priest held in high regard by his peers. The resemblance of this story to the corruption that happened within the PRI political party’s seventy-year reign of the country is apparent. Jeff Menne suggests in his article ‘A Mexican Nouvelle Vague’ that Carrera added the layers of controversy into the screen adaptation of the film to make the church a metaphor of the nation at large. (Menne, 2007, p.24).

All of the films of the new wave ask the question of what identity is. But how is this reflected in the themes and story types used within the films? Is identity and representation in this period as central as it might appear? Alfonso Cuarón (2006, p. 1) noted, ‘the common identity of the films that people are describing as part of this ‘Mexican wave’ is that they are from Mexico, but the only other thing they have in common is that they are cinema’. Over the course of the next post, I’ll look to place the idea of identity into the context of the films themselves in search for an answer to how important Mexico’s search for identity has been in the Buena Onda.

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Next up:

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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.

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How have you perceived Mexican films and filmmakers over the past decade? Have you noticed a thematic link in the films to have come from the nation’s writers and directors? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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