Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001)
Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 August 2009
(These notes were first published in 2004)
Y tu mamá también is an accessible and enjoyable film from Mexico (providing that viewers have no problems with the graphic presentation of the sex lives of the characters).
On one level, the film is a mix of familiar genres – ‘road movie’, ‘coming of age’/youth movie and melodrama. But on another level it is a social commentary on Mexican culture. Never didactic, the filmmakers manage to subtly introduce this commentary via the development of a set of very specific aesthetic devices.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Carlos Cuarón and starring Gael García Bernal (as Julio), Diego Luna (as Tenoch) and Maribel Verdú (as Luisa).
(These notes assume familiarity with the narrative, so there are SPOILERS embedded.)
Julio and Tenoch are young men in Mexico City who are about to see off their girlfriends who are travelling in Europe. Stuck for something to do for the Summer, they decide on a road trip to find the mythical ‘magic beach’ known as ‘Heaven’s Mouth”. At a family wedding they meet Luisa an older woman from Spain who is married to Tenoch’s cousin – and seemingly unhappy with her lot. To their great surprise, she agrees to accompany them on their trip. The boys compete to seduce Luisa, who is far more experienced than either of them. After a series of adventures, they arrive at the coast and become friendly with a local fisherman and his family. There is a twist at the the end of the tale and an epilogue when the boys meet again after the first year of their degree courses.
‘Latin American cinema’ has a long history featuring periods of both commercial and artistic success. Compared to other parts of the world outside Europe and North America, Latin American culture is influenced by three distinctive factors:
- the close proximity of the US to Mexico and the American assumption that all of Central and South America is a ‘US sphere of influence’;
- Spanish as a common language (apart from Portuguese in Brazil and other languages in the Caribbean islands) and the lasting influence of Spanish cultural achievements;
- independence from European colonial powers in the 19th century, but issues about the persecution/assimilation of ‘Native Americans’, still sometimes referred to as ‘Indians’ or in Mexico as Amerindians.
The three largest countries, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, have had the biggest presence in film production (although Cuba ‘punches above its weight’ and Bolivia has produced at least one major filmmaker).
Mexico had a major industry in the 1940s, producing genre films such as family melodramas, musicals and action pictures. At the time of the Hollywood studio system, Mexico produced stars who appeared in both Mexican and Hollywood films – Dolores del Rio, Pedro Armendáriz – and others who were big stars within Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mexico was recognised internationally, because of the artistic success of the exiled Spanish director Luis Buñuel. Up until the last ten years, only a handful of other Mexican directors have been granted limited distribution in art cinemas in the UK.
Much of the commercial energy and the attention of the popular audience in Mexico has been diverted towards television since the late 1950s. Mexico is a big producer of telenovelas – popular television serials, similar to US/UK soap operas, but with stronger genre links to romance and melodrama. These programmes attract very large and enthusiastic audiences. They are also exported (along with similar series made in Brazil and Columbia), not only to other parts of Latin America, but also to Africa and the Middle East. This is a clear indication of the potential of Mexican production. In cinema, however, Mexican audiences have largely turned to American films which, as in most countries, take 80% or more of local box office.
The recent resurgence of Mexican cinema as ‘global cinema’ – i.e. significant circulation of a film in different markets across the world – centres on the work of three youngish directors, Guillermo del Torro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and American films such as Mimic, Blade 2 and Hellboy), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros (Mex 2000), 21 Grams (US 2003)) and the director of Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Caurón (who also directed the third Harry Potter film). All three now live in the US. Nevertheless, they claim (supported by critics) to have made the most definitively ‘Mexican’ films of recent years. In other words, they make films that are not pale genre copies of Hollywood films, but instead offer representations of life in a Mexico that its inhabitants recognise.
The Spanish connection has been important to Mexico. Spanish has long overtaken French as a major world language (alongside Arabic, Mandarin and English) and this increases the market potential of Spanish language culture. There is the possibility of Spanish co-productions and also the exchange of actors and production crews.
The political context for filmmaking is also important in Mexico. In 2000 the Mexican electorate finally voted to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held power since 1929. The new president, Vincente Fox, represented a new beginning. Fox may have turned out to be something other than what the voters first thought, but his election couldn’t help but change the outlook of most of the population.
In fact, Fox is a conservative, akin to the Republican Party in the US. He has opened up Mexico to both the US and global capital. A truly radical political force does still exist in Mexico in the form of the Zapatistas, the rebels in the Chiapas region of Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. Naming themselves after Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the 1911 Revolution, the rebels have proved themselves to be adept at low-key but effective organisation and action in resisting the ‘neo-liberalism’ of the multinational corporations.
Genre and Y tu mamá también
One of the ways in which the film works is to set up expectations based on generic conventions, only to confound and surprise the audience in the final act of the narrative.
The road movie
The basic narrative structure of Y tu mamá también is that of the road movie, one of the prime cinematic genres – i.e. a genre developed within the context of cinema, not borrowed from another media form.
A road movie is based around a journey – in its classical form, a journey by motor vehicle across the continent. The journey will require stopovers in strange, usually small town, communities before ending with an arrival at some kind of defining location. The journey is akin to a form of ‘quest’, with the heroes acting as ‘knights of the road’. The thematic of the road movie tends to be ambiguous in that characters are either running away or searching for something new – often at the same time. The journey means that they will have new experiences and meet new people and both of these will set challenges for the heroes. The new situations will also test the relationship between two characters who might think that they know each other very well. At some point in the journey, the characters will find out something about themselves.
In terms of iconography and style, road movies are characterised by certain restrictions on camerawork – either the camera shows relatively close framings of the characters in the car or it shows long shots of the car travelling across the landscape.
Shots of the road are inevitably accompanied by music. Easy Rider (US 1969) was one of the first successful ‘modern’ road movies. The box office success of this low budget film encouraged producers to produce similar films and also to look for music tie-ins. Easy Rider was one of the first Hollywood films to come with a soundtrack album of rock songs, most of which were not written with the film in mind. Ever since, road trips, especially for younger characters, have been accompanied by ‘driving’ music, often guitar-based with lyrics celebrating the ‘freedom of the open road’.
The youth/‘coming of age’ movie
The emergence of the ‘teenager’ as a new marketing concept in the US in the early 1950s coincided with the decline in Hollywood’s traditional family audience. Young people were the new audience and films were made to target them directly – hence the ‘youth movie’ (often shown in the new drive-in cinemas).
Youth pictures are not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Youth culture is central to the export of American consumerist culture and encompasses music and fashion as well as cinema and videogames, the internet etc. The ‘youth picture’ could be argued as a generic category, but it is a broad category within which there are several distinct groupings. One is the so-called ‘coming of age’ film in which a boy or girl goes through a form of, usually sexual, initiation into adulthood. The road trip provides the perfect opportunity for the staging of this narrative – freedom from parental control and the restrictions of school and the excitement of new places to see, new people to meet etc. There is also a time limit on the story – the trip must end in time for the youths to go on to university – and this provides some of the narrative tension.
Another sub-group of the youth movie is the ‘teen comedy’. In the female variant of this narrative, the comedy is ‘romantic’ and centres on the obstacles in the path of true love in the romantic comedy. In the male variant the focus is much more likely to be whether or not the lead characters can find the way to lose their virginity. The young men of Y tu mamá también are certainly not virgins (although they are in some ways still ‘innocent’). However, the narrative they inhabit does at first glance appear to have been plucked from the pages of a lad’s mag – the fantasy of an ‘older woman’ on the road trip and the possibility that she might sleep with one or other, or both, of the youths. The comedy comes from the fact that although the youths can fantasise, they have little idea about how to deal with the reality of the narrative events and inevitably make mistakes in their social behaviour.
The least likely generic reference would seem to be ‘political film’ – but this is precisely what the critical consensus on Y tu mamá también suggests. This is partly down to the director Alfonso Cuarón himself, who has spoken about his own experiences as a teenager in Mexico City in the 1970s (he was born in 1961). Cuarón recalls seeing the films of Jean-Luc Godard in ciné clubs and suggests that this is where the idea of the voiceover commentary comes from. He makes specific reference to Masculin féminin and Bande à part. Godard, one of the most important directors associated with the ‘French New Wave’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s made films that were avant-garde in terms of both aesthetics (how they used sound and image) and, increasingly in the 1960s, revolutionary politics.
The voiceovers in Y tu mamá también, as Edward Lawrenson suggests, tend to give an air of melancholy to the film, often commenting on death – something unconsidered by the teenagers, but an important element of the narrative. But it is another aspect of the voiceovers and the general aesthetic of the film that reveals its political sub-text. Cuarón takes care with his camera to reveal to the audience the ‘other Mexico’ through which the boys travel and which most of the time, they fail to properly see.
Tenoch and Julio are both, by Mexican standards very well off. Mexico has a large population (over 100 million), most of whom live in urban areas. This means that in many parts of what is a large country the rural population is sparse – and poor. The per capita income in Mexico is something like a quarter of that in the UK and Canada and perhaps one fifth of that in the US – one of the reasons why the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) with the US and Canada is such a contentious issue. (Economists debate what the effects might be, but clearly these are not ‘equal’ trading partners.) Mexico is characterised by a small wealthy middle class and a large working class, many of whom have moved to Mexico City to look for work. This is the subject of the ‘commentary’ about the worker who is killed crossing the road in order to save time getting to work.
The division by social class is mirrored by the ethnic divisions in the country. The largest ethnic group in Mexico (around 60%) is classified as mestizo or ‘mixed’. These are people who are the descendants of intermarriage between Europeans (predominantly Spanish) and the local Amerindian peoples of Central America. The Amerindians themselves make up some 30% of the Mexican population. ‘Europeans’ make up 9%, leaving 1% to cover all other groups. The 9% of Europeans make up the Mexican middle class. On this basis, the decision by his parents to name ‘Tenoch’ after an Aztec chieftain who founded what is now Mexico City is a calculated attempt to assert ‘Mexican-ness’. The Aztecs were from North Mexico and they dominated the Southern Maya people before the arrival of the Spanish. A name like ‘Tenoch’ could be provocative for the people of Southern Mexico (especially in Chiapas, the state that is home to the Zapatistas).
Julio and Tenoch are themselves separated by a class division. Julio lives with his mother and sister who both work. Tenoch has a father who is an important politician and he lives in a grand house with a maid (who was also Tenoch’s nanny). This rift between the boys is central to the narrative.
The journey undertaken by the boys is from cosmopolitan Mexico City, south west towards the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. This is a movement from urban to rural, from sophisticated to ‘simple’, from rich to poor and from European to Amerindian. The film shows the two boys to be almost oblivious to the changing environment, but the camera and the voiceovers mean that the audience is constantly invited to notice the discrepancy between the rich boys’ internal world and the realities outside.
David Heuser (see website reference) offers a fascinating analysis of the film which he reads as a commentary on the impossibility of Mexico getting the kind of government that he thinks it deserves. In this analysis, Tenoch and Julio are representative of the two main political forces in Mexico (the upper class and the lower middle class – the ‘bourgeoisie’). Their obsession with selfish (sexual) demands prevents them from recognising what they could achieve through co-operation. For Heuser, the car represents Mexico and Luisa represents the possibilities of European-style government. Once she takes over, the goal of the journey, ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, becomes real, not a myth – just as the political goals of the country could become achievable. However, when the boys leave their tent, the pigs (i.e. the peasants) run amok, ‘proving’ to the boys that the peasantry can’t be trusted. When they wake up in bed together, the boys are horrified – they can’t face the prospect of being together. When Luisa dies the experiment has come to an end. This is a detailed and quite convincing reading.
In an interview on the DVD, director Cuarón says the film is about ‘identity’, for Luisa, for the boys and for the country. He says Mexico is a teenage country that still needs to find its identity. He also confirms that the names of the characters refer directly to Mexican history. Luisa is a ‘Cortés’ – the name of the original Spanish conqueror (‘conquistador’) of Mexico. Tenoch is an ‘Iturbide’ – the name of one of the early political leaders of revolutionary Mexico who wanted to become President. Julio is named Zapata – the name of the great revolutionary fighter (from whom the contemporary ‘Zapatistas’ take their name).
The voiceovers in the narrative structure
The narrator’s voice appears roughly twenty times during the film (more frequently in the first half). The function of the voiceover is to do three things. First, it tells us the important information about the backgrounds of Julio and Tenoch, their families and their girlfriends. This enables us to make a ‘reading’ of the characters and place them accurately in the Mexican class structure. Cuarón argues that giving this kind of detail in his Hollywood films proved impossible, but here it adds a great deal to our understanding.
The second purpose is to reveal to the audience things that Julio and Tenoch do not know about each other and also to show aspects of Luisa’s behaviour that the boys don’t notice. A good example of this is when the car breaks down and Luisa buys a doll from a local woman because it has her name. The voiceover tells us that she is thinking about the doll when she passes a funeral procession for a child. This links to later scenes by the beach when she plays with the fisherman’s children. Finally the voiceover tells us that she left the doll to the fisherman’s daughter. Throughout the film Luisa is much more aware of the lives of people around her – in contrast to the boys who are interested only in themselves. Another good example is when the car is stopped by a group from a small village and the boys are asked for money for the village queen. Only Luisa looks at the young woman. (Yet a little while earlier they have passed the village where Tenoch’s nanny was born.)
The third purpose of the voiceover is to tell us about characters who are either peripheral to the story (like Chuy, the fisherman) or completely outside the boys’ story. These are comments on the lives of Mexico’s rural/migrant poor. Further examples include the migrant worker killed crossing the street and the road accident which is marked by a roadside shrine. As well as these incidents, the voiceover reminds us of the political changes in Mexico. This stealthy political comment is also taken up in the cinematography and mise en scène.
Camera and mise en scène
The camerawork is an integral part of the overall ‘feel’ of the film. It is fluid but not overly expressive. Much of the time, scenes are shown in relative long shot, e.g. in the two scenes when Luisa seduces the boys. The central three characters are in the frame together inside the car for long periods. Organising this when they are driving in the car is quite difficult and sometimes requires a distorting wide angle lens. If it is not peering into the car, the camera is often showing the car in long shot, from in front or behind on the road itself or at an angle from the road. Alternatively, the camera looks out of the car windows at the countryside passing by. It is the shifting balance between these kinds of shots which slowly begins to show the audience more about the conditions of the local people.
In the early part of the journey, the camera is mostly focusing on the trio, but there are several instances, often in conjunction with the voiceover, when it manages to capture what is happening at the edges of the frame, or just out of the frame in which the boys are appearing. The best example of this is in the scene when the trio arrive for their first overnight stay in a country hotel. As they are about to order food, the camera leaves the party and follows one of the family in the hotel into a back room and then on into the kitchen where the family are eating and getting on with their busy lives.
A second example comes a little later when a discussion about sex in the car is undercut when the camera peers out of the car window to notice a pick-up truck carrying two armed police overtaking. Further on down the road the camera again peers out of the car, ignoring the trio who are too engrossed to notice a shot of the armed police who seem to be arresting a group of farmers selling their produce at the roadside. There are several other examples of the repression carried out by police at roadblocks etc., all passed without a sideways glance by the boys in the car.
The political commentary in the film is not recognised by every audience (in fact, it is probably recognised by a small minority in audiences outside Mexico). Some critics have lambasted the film because it panders to American teen culture. It has been described as mirroring American Pie or Dude, Where’s My Car? Although there are some obvious similarities with these films, both the tone and the look of the Mexican film are quite different.
The interaction with American culture is also more complicated than simple acceptance of the dominance of American forms. Xan Brooks quotes Paul Julian Smith on the way that the language used by the boys – ‘chilango’ a kind of ‘Mexican youth speak’ – is quite distinctive. As is the music, much of which is a form of ‘Mexican style’ Anglo-American music – made either by Mexican bands or Hispanic bands in the US. Other tracks are European rock or more traditional Mexican music. (A complete soundtrack listing is available on the Internet Movie Database entry for the film.)
An example of how music ‘codes’ the changing world through which the car travels comes at the point where the portable tape player runs down because the batteries are fading. The boys have been playing American or Mexican rock, but now as the political struggles in the world outside the car become more apparent, the music on the soundtrack becomes more ‘local’ or more ‘roots’ as it must be derived from local radio stations. As the soundtrack switches to this rootsier music of accordions, the world outside becomes more alien – the boys’ car is hemmed in by cattle and they react angrily. Later they have to be towed to a garage behind an ox cart.
The success of the film is partly down to its young stars, especially Gael García Bernal. Bernal (born 1978) had already shot Amores Perros when he began work on Y tu mamá también. He was a child actor in a soap on Mexican TV and came to London to study acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Since Y tu mamá también, he has appeared in other Mexican and Spanish films, but 2004 has seen two major releases which have confirmed his status as perhaps the hottest young star in World Cinema. Bad Education (directed by Pedro Almodóvar) and The Motorcycle Diaries in which Bernal plays a young Che Guevera both offer interesting comparisons to Y tu mamá también, especially Motorcycle Diaries as it is another Latin American road movie with a political sub-text. Screen International (9/9/04) recognised Bernal as one of the few stars who can expect to be successful in Hollywood and in both Spanish and Mexican films (the large and growing Spanish speaking population inside the United States will also help. Diego Luna (born 1979) has a similar background, again starting as a child star on Mexican television. He has also appeared in several Hollywood films, notably in the lead for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004) and Goal, (2005).
Rudo y cursi (2008) directed by Carlos Cuarón and starring Bernal and Luna is a kind of companion piece to Y tu mamá.
Questions for discussion
1. Find some examples in the film of the youths acting in ways similar to those found in American ‘teen movies’ – how are these scenes ‘undercut’ by local, Mexican cultural differences?
2. Find examples of the ‘voiceover’ technique in the film – including each of the three types discussed in these notes. For each example, analyse what is being shown by the camera and mise en scène during the voiceover. How do sound and image work together?
3. How do the representations of the two boys differ in the film? Is it purely a difference in social class?
4. How do you read Luisa’s role in the narrative? How much is the ending of the film similar to the ‘twist’ in Hollywood films?
Jose Arroyo (2002) Review of Y tu mamá también in Sight and Sound, April
A. G. Basoli (2002) ‘Sexual Awakenings and Stark Social Realities: Interview with Alfonso Cuarón on Y tu mamá también’ in Cineaste Vol XXVII No3, June
Xan Brooks (2002) on http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4463899,00.html, accessed 8/8/04
David Heuser on http://music.utsa.edu/electron/YTuMama.htm, accessed 8/8/04
Edward Lawrenson (2002) Interview with Alfonso Cuarón, in Sight and Sound, April
Paul Julian Smith (2002) ‘Heaven’s Mouth’ in Sight and Sound, April
All text in these notes © 2004 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated. Images from Y tu mamá también © Icon