Category: Mexican Cinema

¡Viva! Mexico #1: Hilda (Mexico 2014)

Susanna and Hilda wearing identical dresses from Oaxaca

Susanna (Verónica Langer) and Hilda (Adriana Paz) wearing identical ‘indigenous’ dresses from Oaxaca

I puzzled over this film for some time but then discovered that its script was based on a 1999 play by Marie NDyiae, the French writer with a Senegalese father. I came across her as the co-writer of White Material (France-Cameroon 2009) directed by Claire Denis. This revelation didn’t explain everything but it did confirm the European ingredients in the narrative mix and the politics of race and class. During the screening I couldn’t help thinking about Luis Buñuel and some of his Mexican as well as his Spanish films. Although the overall narrative is not Buñuelian there are certainly recognisable elements including the disruption of an upper middle-class formal dinner and the whole concept of relationships between ‘masters’ and ‘servants’. That said there is also a distinct Latin American interest in ‘the maid’. I remember a Bolivian film Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) and La Nana (The Maid, Chile 2009).

‘Hilda’ is the name of a young woman recruited (reluctantly) as the maid/nanny for the Le Marchands, a very wealthy Mexico City family. Hilda is married to Francisco who was previously the gardener for the same family. Senora Le Marchand has a hold over Francisco to whom she has lent money to buy a house. He is now in the process of paying back these loans – which gives the Senora leverage to coerce his wife into the maid’s job. Senora Le Marchand (Susanna) is a woman in her 60s and the nanny role refers to her grandson. Her son has returned from America with his wife and child. Meanwhile Senor Le Marchand is in cahoots with the local police chief and is attempting to acquire an American business partner in order to expand his manufacturing business. He ignores and humiliates his wife (he gives her a new passport in which she is described as a housewife and a high school graduate). In fact she was at university in 1968 and she joined the radical students. Later she became a charity organiser. Now she is feeling nostalgic for those days and increasingly alienated from her husband. When she is asked for an interview about her 1968 activities by current students she becomes obsessed with her memories. She has always tried to be ‘fair’ to her servants and to include them ‘in the family’. But this time she becomes obsessed with Hilda – the maid works hard and is very efficient but displays no emotion until Susanna forces her to become enthusiastic and ‘passionate’. But Susanna gradually becomes ever more obsessive and we realise that she is out of control . . .

The film’s writer and director, Andres Clariond has explained that the film is a response to the great inequalities of Mexican society based on wealth, social class and ethnicity. Many of the Mexican films that make it into international distribution use the same themes to some extent. Y tu mamá también, for example makes some of the same points and La Zona emphasises the increasing alienation caused by the rise of gated communities and the security guard culture. Indeed the setting for the action rarely steps outside the Le Marchand house in which Hilda is virtually a prisoner. The film is presented in CinemaScope and I did wonder if we were heading for a full-blown family melodrama. That doesn’t really develop and instead we get more of a psychological study of Susanna, a woman who is representative of those ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ (as Godard once put it) who have reached their 60s and begun to wonder what exactly they’ve achieved. By contrast we never learn that much about Hilda. Veteran actor Verónica Langer as Susanna and Adrianna Paz as Hilda do well with the script they have been given but my impression was that there was something missing – perhaps this is because of the opening out of a play? I felt that the climactic section of the narrative developed too quickly and at only 89 minutes I wondered if something had been left out. There is a sub-plot about the son of the Le Marchand family as well as the impact of his father’s attempt to join up with American business. These narrative threads add to the overall structure but don’t completely mesh with the Susanna-Hilda story. Even so, the film worked for me, offering a mix of political satire, social commentary and psychological study.

¡Viva! Mexico at HOME

HOME

If you haven’t yet made it to Manchester’s new palace of the arts at HOME, this coming weekend offers an excellent introduction to its cinema programme with the second ‘weekender’ of the well-established ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival now in its 21st edition. This year, with the move from Cornerhouse to HOME, ¡Viva! is appearing as three separate ‘weekenders’ and this one focuses on New Mexican Cinema.

Starting on Thursday June 18 there will be six films, four of them playing twice, plus various other events. On Thursday at 18.15 before the first film En el último trago, HOME’s new Director of Film Jason Wood will draw on one of his own areas of interest in a ‘One Hour Introduction to Mexican Cinema and the Tradition of the Road Movie’. Three of the weekend’s films are road movies and the first will be introduced by its director Jack Zagha Kababie – who will also be the focus of a Q&A after the second screening on Saturday. On Sunday there will also be a Q&A with Alejandra Sánchez, writer-director of Seguir viviendo, another road movie. Paraíso (2013) directed by Mariana Chenillo is described as a “delightful comedy drama” about moving to the big city. As well as two public screenings this film will also be screened for an Adult Study Morning on Saturday 20 June (10.30). Ana Valbuena will present the film and lead discussion in Spanish for adult language learners.

Only one of the films, Güeros (2014) (showing on Monday), has a UK distributor so this weekend is a chance to see Mexican films that are unlikely to appear anywhere else. Cornerhouse/HOME performs a valuable service for cinephiles and Hispanophiles alike in bringing Spanish and Latin American Cinema to Manchester. The films in this weekender all look as if they engage with contemporary Mexican society in different and exciting ways. I hope to be there on Saturday and Sunday and I’ll be reporting back. It’s going to be good!

Viva-2015-Mexican-Weekender-brochure

Further details about the weekender can be found here or click on the image above. Reports from previous ¡Viva! Festivals are archived via this tag. HOME has five comfortable auditoria with big screens. Projection is top notch and admission prices compare favourably with multiplexes. Come and enjoy yourself.

After Lucia (Despuės de Lucía, Mexico, France 2013)

Alejandra

Alejandra

After this screening one of my friends was scanning the Leeds Film Festival brochure for a film that would cheer him up. I was fortunate as I followed this with Gloria. After Lucia film was written and directed by Michael Franco. I think the script was one of the problems with the film. The style and production are well done, with two excellent central performances. I incline to the view that ‘auterism’ has encouraged many directors to write their own scripts when they would be better served by relying on a professional writer.

The film’s opening suggested to me a tale about bereavement and grief: there have been a cycle of such films since the 1990s. First we see a man pick up a car from a repair yard. He drives away, stops at a red light, then removes the keys, gets out and walks away, leaving the car in the middle of the road. Then there is a cut to a young girl of school age, sitting on rocks and gazing pensively at the sea. She wears a distinctive earring, which helps to identify her later. The man is Roberto, the girl is Alejandra. We learn fairly soon that their wife and mother [Lucia] was killed in a road accident.

Roberto and Alejandra move to Mexico City. The characters in the film seem uniformly to refer to the city as Mexico, which confused me for a time. Roberto is setting up a restaurant; Alejandra is starting at a new school. They are fairly affluent, as are her new classmates. Some are as rich and self-centred as the school students in the earlier La Zona (Mexico, 2007). [The latter film dealt with two young proletarian youths who break into an affluent housing estate that overlooks the slums of Mexico City. The consequences, involving bourgeois youths on the estate, are violent]. The parents in La Zona pass their values onto their children who copy their actions. In After Lucia the parents of the school students are never seen. There seems to be a recurring motif in Mexican cinema of ‘absent bourgeois parents’.

Alejandra’s vulnerability leads to her being bullied by a group of students. Roberto is too consumed by grief to offer much support.

Michael Franco sees the film as a treatment of violence. “Even the way that the father and daughter communicate – or fail to communicate – turns out to be a sort of violence.” He also suggests some sort of distant parallels with the actual widely-reported violence in Mexico at the present.

I found the early sequences introducing the father and daughter and their grief-stricken situation very effective. And both performances are well done. However as the school and the bullying took centre screen I found the film less convincing. The plot is over-determined, i.e. the dramatic developments are piled on relentlessly. I found this unconvincing. The bullying really does become violent. Yet the staff and the school appear completely unaware of this. When Alejandra arrives at the school she is given a drug test; is that the limits of the school’s discipline and supervision?

As the agonies pile on Alejandra the film begins to feel like a combination of sadism and masochism. Hence my friends response at the end of the film. The earlier La Zona offered a tale centring on young people, but emphasising class as the dividing force. This convincingly motivates the actions of their parents. The film managed to portray violence without suggesting sadism and [for me] had a far more effective resolution.

LFF 2012 #5: Aquí y allá (Here and There, Mexico-Spain-US 2012)

‘Here’ is the mountain region of Guerrero in Southern Mexico (inland from the Pacific Coast around Acapulco).

This Mexican feature, like the earlier LFF film Memories Look at Me, is placed somewhere between fiction and documentary. It’s a deceptive neo-realist story that forgoes a strong central narrative in order to present events in the life of a Mexican family in separate episodes over a few years. In the section titled ‘The Return’ at the beginning of the film, Pedro, a would-be dance band musician returns from his latest trip ‘over there’ (i.e. to New York) bringing with him an electric piano he’s bought in the hope of starting a new band. He’s welcomed back by his wife and two young daughters, the older one, Lorena already a rather moody adolescent. In the next few months Pedro finds that earning money from the band will not be easy. He works in the fields picking corn cobs and later on building sites, but it is hard to make progress.

The film’s setting is the province of Guerrero, specifically Copanatoyac, a small town in the mountains. The presentation is calm and slow-paced. Individual shots are often held in beautiful long shot compositions for 30 seconds or more. On the other hand, there is plenty of diegetic music (all written and performed by the musician Pedro De los Santos, playing himself) with rehearsals and impromptu performances. There is a strong sense of place and we get to know the characters well. There are moments when it looks as if the film might move into realist melodrama – especially when Teresa, Pedro’s wife, has a problem pregnancy and Pedro must find money for drugs and for blood transfusions in the hospital of the nearest major town. At this point, I was concerned that Pedro, in desperation, would turn to stealing the money as the hospital offered to accept money instead of blood. But seemingly deliberately, the director withdraws from the possibility of dramatic scenes and this particular crisis is averted. By underplaying these scenes, writer-director Antonio Méndez Esparza allows the overall narrative effect to perhaps be stronger.  He was brought up in Madrid and trained in New York, having also lived in Mexico according to his bio in the beautifully-produced Press Pack on the official website. It has taken him five years to realise this project in which Pedro and Teresa play versions of themselves. The whole cast is non-professional but the film is very well put together.

Pedro listens to the old woman’s request that her funeral procession should go straight to the cemetery

It’s a hard life in the hills and there are many problems to be overcome with stoicism and the occasional dance. One scene typifies the philosophical position of an elderly woman who announces that when she dies she doesn’t want to be carried in her coffin in a procession to church. She doesn’t want a fuss – she has already been to Mass and she wants to go straight to her grave.

The family together

Here and There received support from the Sundance Festival and it screened at Cannes in the Critics’ Week strand. It has been highly praised by critics but I have seen some reviews which clearly don’t appreciate the power of quiet, contemplative cinema. I agree with the consensus which recognises that the unique approach of the film in tackling the other side of the migration issue – what happens to the people and communities left behind? They suffer in different ways – children who don’t see their fathers, young women who lose their boyfriends, wives their husbands, friends their social contacts. I was disturbed to read that Guerrero is now the Mexican province with the highest murder rate (presumably around Acapulco) but just as tragic is the slow death of communities from loss of migrants to ‘over there’. Aquí y Allá deserves to be distributed widely.

Here’s a trailer indicative of ‘feel’ and pacing:

MexFest, London, 17-19 August 2012

The inaugural MexFest runs in London in August. A celebration of Mexican film and culture, taking place at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, it spans three full days, starting on August 17th with the world première of Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico) by Duncan Bridgeman, followed by a concert from Amandititita the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia. We are happy to promote new festivals of global cinema so here are highlights from the website and the following sources:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LondonMexFest

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/LondonMexFest

General Info: http://www.richmix.org.uk/whats-on/festival/london-mexfest/

Festival Highlights include:

  • World première Made in Mexico (Hecho en Mexico), a kaleidoscopic portrait of the music of Mexico, its people and their way of life, by UK filmmaker Duncan Bridgeman (dir. One Giant Leap), followed by a live concert from Amandititita, the Mexican queen of Anarcumbia, an urban blend of rock, reggae, rap, and traditional Mexican cumbia.
  • The festival closes with a screening of Daniel and Ana (Daniel y Ana), which follows the kidnapping of a brother and sister and is the first feature from acclaimed director Michel Franco (his second feature, After Lucia, won this year’s ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes).
  • Documentary film highlights include award-winning The tiniest place (El lugar más pequeño), by Tatiana Huezo, which follows the struggle of five families to rebuild their lives in the middle of war and Draught (Cuates de Australia) by acclaimed director Everardo González.
  • Short film highlights include Carlos Cuarón’s The Second Bakery Attack starring Kirsten Dunst and Elisa Miller’s Watching it rain, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and two programmes of vibrant, short animations including the Best Animated Short at Morelia International Film Festival, Black Doll (Prita Noire).
  • Rare opportunity to view sci-fi classics from Mexico hardly screened before in the UK.
  • A series of talks with Mexican filmmakers.
  • A Sensory Pop Up Studio by Sight of Emotion charity.
  • The first ever UK exhibition of Lucha Libre photographs by Lourdes Grobet and the first ever projection onto the Rich Mix facade by renowned artist Tupac Martir, titled ‘The Gentleman, The Mermaid, Mexican Cinema, Lottery!’

LondonMexFest is part of the Shoreditch Fringe Festival www.shoreditchfringe.org


!Viva¡ #3: El árbol (Spain/Mexico 2009)

Santiago who roams Madrid in El árbol

My third 70 mins feature during !Viva¡ turned out to be the least interesting, despite featuring a producer’s credit from Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas and being promoted in some quarters as similar to the Dardenne Brothers or even Tsai Ming-Liang (see this quite positive review that appeared after a Leeds Film Festival screening with director Carlos Serrano Azcona in tow in 2009). This time round the film featured in the Instituto Cervantes’ ‘Cine en construcción’ strand. Santiago wanders fitfully around Madrid. He appears to be separated from his wife and is prevented by legal constraints from seeing his children (but he does try). This information is revealed to us over the course of the film and Azcona expects us to ‘work out’ what is happening. Santiago is fired from a bar job originally given to him by an old friend. He plays football with some youths, buys dope from a dealer, is propositioned by a prostitute and takes home a young woman who is being abused by a British tourist/student. At least it might be his home, but I’m not sure – twice he sleeps rough on a bench in a city street. That’s about as much plot as there is – apart from the ending which I won’t ‘spoil’. I think I might have dozed off and missed the ‘tree’ of the title. In an interview, Azcona makes some interesting comments about the Dardenne Brothers’ work, but what he says he was attempting didn’t work for me.

The strategy is to follow the character closely with the camera – showing the back of his neck as the weakest point. But although I have found this illuminating in the Dardenne Brothers’ work, it usually requires a character who is interesting in a situation with some dramatic interest, neither of which I found here. All the actors here are non-professionals, which could have worked well if they had been given a bit more to do. Santiago is played by the Mexican painter Bosco Sodi who is quite believable but doesn’t command the screen. All in all, a disappointment after El asaltante last week with a similar aesthetic, but (much) more dramatic content.

BIFF 3: Perpetuum Mobile (Mexico/Canada 2009)

Francisco and Gabino (in the yellow hat)

Perpetuum Mobile was introduced as being the best film that programmer Neil Young had seen at the San Sebastian Festival in 2009. It has its moments but overall it lacked the intensity and the riveting cinematography of Fish Eyes (see the previous post) which it in some ways resembles. Set in Mexico City, but largely shot indoors or inside the central protagonist’s van, this is another observational and slight drama about a few days in the life of a family – son Gabino (in his twenties), mother and grandmother (who lives separately from the mother-son duo). There is also an older son Miguel who doesn’t live with his mother and brother. Gabino and his mate Francisco run a removals service but spend a fair amount of time playing basketball in the back of the removals van. Their work brings them into contact with couples possibly splitting up and singles being evicted. Gabino is duped at one point and dupes someone himself. That’s about as much as I can remember. The narrative ends with a different kind of tragedy than Fish Eyes.

This is director Nicolás Pereda’s second or possibly third feature. He’s 27 and based in Canada, getting funding from Canadian public funds. The 86 minute feature was shot on a low definition video format. Festivals being what they are, this film ended up on the big screen while Fish Eyes on high def was on the small screen. Perpetuum Mobile didn’t look too bad and in a couple of scenes – such as a driving sequence with considerable lens flare across the windscreen – it even felt like an aesthetic choice. The performances were OK and Young is justified in seeing the promise offered by a director who can create interest in seemingly mundane events. Again, there is little on the soundtrack other than dialogue. This passes the time and it’s certainly about real lives, but I think most audiences are going to want something more. The film is distributed by Ondamax Films – Latin American Cinema distributors. I don’t think that the film has a UK distribution deal.

Sin nombre (Mexico/US 2009)

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Here is a dilemma for European cinephiles. Is Sin nombre, a Sundance awards winner, an example of a new kind of committed auteurist film from the Americas or just another slickly-packaged City of God look-alike? Both of those extreme options have been taken up by reviewers.

This is a film written and directed by a young (31) American filmmaker of mixed Japanese and Swedish descent, Cary Fukunaga. It’s a US/Mexico co-production with the involvement of Focus Features as distributors and the ‘dos amigos’, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as executive producers. So, it has muscle behind it. On the other hand, it’s the product of extensive primary research in Central America by Fukunaga and it’s presented in Spanish with subtitles.

The narrative involves two separate strands which come together. ‘Casper’ is a member of the MS 13 gang (see the IMDB bulletin board for explanations of this infamous gang which now operates across Central America and the US). He recruits a 12 year-old, ‘Smiley’, into the gang, but also foolishly consorts with a girlfriend without telling his local gangleader. Meanwhile Sayra, a young woman in Honduras, is persuaded to join her estranged father, who has been deported from the US, and her young uncle in an attempt to get back into the US via a long train ride through Mexico. She hits the border between Guatemala and Mexico, just as Casper and Smiley are ordered to rob the train. We aren’t surprised that Casper (under his other name of ‘Willy’) and Sayra get together on the train – what will happen next?

This is a very professionally-mounted film. The ‘Scope cinematography looks great (on a good transfer from a 35 neg to a digital print) and I also enjoyed the music soundtrack (which probably means a lot more to those who know the tracks/artistes). The performances are very good and overall it is a solid genre film – a mixing of the social commentary migration film and the youth/gang picture. There is an obvious authenticity about many of the migration scenes and there is also pleasure on offer in a look at Mexico from the top of a freight car. Whether this is as exciting or as innovative a film as the hype suggests is more open to doubt. All I can say is that I was gripped for 96 minutes and never bored. On that basis it’s good to see American-based directors reaching out to embrace Central American stories.