Looking back on this Mexican Cinema Series, we’ve seen how Mexico’s national identity and cultural history was central in shaping the twenty-first century Mexican new wave (Buena Onda). In placing this into the context of the films from the key filmmakers in the new wave – Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón – I hope to find in more depth how Mexico’s identity has been reflected in the nation’s cinema from this period. The three films that I shall be looking at are Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos (1993), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001).
(For part one of the Mexican Cinema Series, click here.)
Guillermo Del Toro:
Identity has had an important role in the cinema of Del Toro since his debut feature-length film, Cronos (1993). The film follows the story of Jesus Gris, an elderly man who finds an ancient device which contains an insect. When the Cronos device is used by Gris the insect infects him, giving him the gift of eternal life at the cost of a vampiric lust for human blood. Meanwhile, a rich dying American man named De La Guardia is using his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) in a bid to find the device and save his own life.
Del Toro (2006, p. 33) stated that he wanted ‘to show the vampiric relationship between Mexico and the United States. This is why the date in the movie – which we see on a newspaper – is 1997, even though the film was made in 1993. I wanted it to be set in a post-NAFTA Mexico.’ Jason Wood explains the events of NAFTA as follows:
“In a bid to reduce public debt…President Carlos Salinas de Gortari pushed through the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) in September 1993, creating a free market between Canada, the US and Mexico. Intended to allow the Mexican economy to expand to the extent that it could enter the ‘first world’, in actuality NAFTA led to the exploitation of Mexico’s cheap labour and US companies outsourcing certain polluting industries.”
(Wood 2006, p.39)
The vampirism in Cronos is an important tool for reflecting the relationship between Mexico and the US that has been influential in shaping Mexico’s national identity. This is represented through several aspects of the film; the Cronos device is taking from the insect it holds to make it work, in turn, the insect is taking from Gris to sustain itself, Gris then must take blood to sustain his own life, and on a larger scale America is metaphorically sucking the life from Mexico (2006, Cronos. 1993 [DVD: Region 2 encoding]).
The Americans are portrayed as the villains in a reverse of the way in which Mexicans are portrayed in several Hollywood movies. Del Toro said that he tried to make the American characters broader, and more ‘cartoonish’ than the Mexicans (2006, Cronos. 1993 [DVD: Region 2 encoding]). The factory in which the Americans characters live is lit with cold blues and whites. In contrast Gris’s home and antique store are lit with warm oranges and browns, again reflecting Del Toro’s Mexican view of the Mexican-American relationship.
The characters hold a constant need for validation, obsessed with youthfulness and appearance. Gris’s wife bemoans not being able to fit into a dress that she could wear a year ago, whilst simultaneously Gris himself uses the Cronos device to breathe life into him. And Angel questions Gris about the size of his nose as he hunts for the Cronos device. This desire for validation is just one of the ways in which Mexico’s search for identity has been reflected in the films of the Buena Onda, and it’s been particularly important in the films of Guillermo Del Toro.
In Hellboy (2004), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy II (2008) and The Shape of Water (2017) this theme is again prevalent. Ideas of identity course through many of Del Toro’s films. Whether it’s the character of Hellboy in the film of the same name, who struggles to deal with not being able to live as a normal human, or Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, who to escape from the realities of the world fantasises that she is a princess of a lost civilisation, identity remains key to the narratives.
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu:
Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000) was the breakthrough film of the Buena Onda. It follows the stories of three sets of characters whose lives are connected by a car crash in Mexico City.
The crash acts as a crossroad for each of the protagonists, beginning, continuing and ending three tales littered with tragedy. It’s an entry point for us as the audience into the lives of people from different social classes in Mexico, from which we unravel the effects of their class status and the media on how they identify with themselves, and how the city around them informs their life choices. Media, in particular, becomes an important part of the narrative in showing the flaws and nuances of the character’s identities. It’s a gritty, bleak, and honest look at just a handful of Mexico City’s citizens.
Menne (2007, p.75) states his belief that ‘the film constitutes itself as a new wave not simply by denouncing the old habits of the national film industry, but by building this denunciation into its diegesis…’.
Amores Perros is a multi-faceted look at Iñárritu’s perception of Mexico City, and of the character’s perception of themselves. Self-perception and identity would again be primary themes in his later films, notably 21 Grams (2003) and Birdman (2014).
Y Tu Mamá También (2001) is Alfonso Cuarón’s rites of passage road movie. Smith (2002, pp.16-19) stated that with the film ‘Cuarón has described Mexico as an “adolescent” country, struggling to grow up…’. This analogy of Mexico’s adolescence is achieved through the two teenage protagonists Tenoch and Julio. At a family wedding, Julio and Tenoch meet a Spaniard named Luisa, whose husband has cheated on her. Trying to impress
Luisa, the two boys invent a beach called ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ that they say they are leaving on a road trip for, and invite her to join them. And so the three head out on a road trip to a non-existent beach, on a journey of self-discovery.
Tenoch and Julio’s coming of age is reflected by their ever-expanding understanding of themselves and the world around them. The camera shoots outwards through the window of their car onto the Mexican towns surrounding them, lingering on events whilst the narrator describes the fate of that particular place or person. These moments play a significant role in representing the expansion of knowledge and understanding that the two male leads are experiencing. An understanding of Mexico, and of Mexicans. Smith (2002, pp.16-19) said that the film ‘subtly revises models of gender and national identity for a new Mexico and a new international audience.’
Moreover, Mexican stereotypes are pointedly left out of the film, and at one point the camera quickly pans away from a mariachi performing at the wedding to instead follow a maid carrying food (Smith, 2002, pp.16-19). The focus here is on the vastly unseen side of Mexico. This film, more than any other in the Buena Onda, is reflective of Mexico’s search for identity as a nation. For Cuarón, the idea of identity becomes an important tool in highlighting his perspective on the nation and its inhabitants.
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.
Which of the films from these directors do you think have been most effective in showing the true Mexico? Let me know below!