As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again . . .
In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana.
In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.
I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters.
Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees.
Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.
I was lucky to catch Roma on the big screen after a mad dash from Kings Cross to Leicester Square and then to the Curzon Soho – I was briefly in London with three hours to spare. I refuse to subscribe to Netflix so the only other option was a trip to tiny screens in Curzons in Sheffield or Ripon. (See Keith’s earlier posting on the difficulties of seeing the film in West Yorkshire.) I didn’t worry though. I knew the effort would be worthwhile and it was. A great deal has already been written about Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘memoir’ and I wonder if I can say anything new? I’m not one, I hope, to be taken in by all the hype that surrounds a Golden Lion winner at Venice. So I’ll try to be dispassionate.
Much as been made about Cuarón’s multiple roles as writer-director, co-producer, cinematographer and editor. Roma‘s camerawork has plenty of attention. Cuarón shot the film on an Alexa 65 digital film camera. This means that he recorded more visual data via the ‘capture chip’ in the camera than most digitally shot films. The projected film is shown in black & white in a CinemaScope 2.35:1 ratio and it looks very good. There are possible ‘flaws’ however. Cuarón is fond of both tracking shots and pans to construct scenes in long takes. Because much of the film is set in an upper middle-class district of Mexico City (‘Roma’) in streets and inside a family home using only ‘available’ light, there is often a quite shallow field of focus and several shots throw characters out of focus or distort the image as the camera pans and tracks (I assume that this is a function of the lenses and the focal length). This in turn offers a comment on the neo-realist qualities of the cinematography. Occasionally, Cuarón swings the camera up and catches a jet airliner flying high over the city. But most times that a wide vista offering the deep focus of classic neo-realist imagery in long shot is developed it is in the scenes set outside the city centre such as where a large group of young men are practising martial arts moves in a form of parade ground setting or when the family travel to the beaches near Vera Cruz. I mention neo-realism simply because it is one of the cinema aesthetics mentioned by critics writing about the film, but Roma is not a neo-realist film. It does, however, achieve the emotional impact of some of the classic neo-realist melodramas.
The look of the film has been seen as very important for several reasons. Cuarón has said that he went to Netflix because traditional Hollywood studios would question a project on this scale presented in black and white and without a conventional genre-based narrative or recognisable international stars. Cinephiles also have expectations of the camerawork and staging which were so important in the closing scenes of Children of Men (2006 US-UK-Japan) and throughout Gravity (UK-US 2013). Cuarón himself has further generated expectations by promoting 70mm film screenings and making claims about the details in the projected image. (Screen 1 at Curzon Soho has both 35mm film and 4K digital projection. I assume what I watched was a DCP but whether it was 2K or 4K, I don’t know.) But while the image (visual and aural) attracts cinephiles, several film fans on IMDb complain that “there is no story”. I don’t agree, but I can see where the complaint comes from.
The film is a ‘memoir’. It is set over roughly one year from the summer of 1970 to the middle of 1971. Alfonso Cuarón had his 9th birthday in November 1970 in a similar house in the same district of Mexico City. His younger brother Carlos was 4 at that time and I believe Alfonso also has a sister Christina. Mexico hosted the Olympic Games in 1968 and the World Cup in 1970. Large scale student demonstrations in Mexico City broke out in 1971 resulting in the ‘massacre’ of 120 student protestors in June. The latter, known as the ‘Corpus Christi massacre’ features in the film. The civil action was part of a protest during the so-called ‘Dirty War’ in Mexico. The fictitious family presumably mirrors the social class position of the Cuarón family at this point.
[I should guide any readers at this point to the dossier of essays on Roma published by Mediático “a collectively authored media and film studies blog, which showcases a diverse array of research, news, views and perspectives on Latin(o/a) American, Spanish and Portuguese media cultures”. The dossier can be found at http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/mediatico/2018/12/24/introduction-to-the-special-dossier-on-roma-alfonso-cuaron/ These experts on Latin American cinema know far more than I do. I’m still going to make my comments, but you can use the dossier to explore the issues in more detail.]
The family comprises the mother Sofía, the father (who moves out in the early part of the film), three young sons and a daughter ranging in age from 4 to young teenager and Sofía’s mother, Sra. Teresa. The household also includes a large dog kept in the closed driveway and two house servants who live in an annex. One of these is Cleo who acts as a maid/nanny and she is the main protagonist of the story. The other is Adela who seems to be mainly concerned with cooking, cleaning and laundry. There is also a male handyman who works mainly as a driver but I don’t think he ‘lives in’. Cleo is based on Alfonso Cuarón’s own nanny, Liboria or ‘Libo’, to whom the film is dedicated.
The narrative follows the daily lives of the household through the period in which the father absents himself, first on a plausible trip to a conference which is then extended. Sofía will at first keep up the pretence that he will return but will eventually be forced to tell the children. Cleo is part of the household but on her days off she has a boyfriend and we follow the course of her relationship with him. If this sounds like an intimate family melodrama, Cuarón makes it into something more akin to an epic ‘city symphony’ using CGI to fill in the period details in the street scenes including memorable visits to cinemas and a theatre, the government hospital (where the father is a senior figure), a New Year house party with relatives in the outer suburbs (Mexico City covers a vast area) and the activities of ‘Profesor Zovek’ (a showman performer played by a famous wrestler known as ‘Latin Lover’ – wrestlers in Mexico are celebrity figures and feature in popular films). So there is a story, which in its final act becomes highly emotional and delivers the punch of a superior melodrama. But, in an important sense, there is much more to the film and it is the wealth of detail and the richness of allusion which makes the film so compelling.
I was struck quite early in the film by the importance of its relationship to Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001). I’ve written quite extensively on this film in various places and therefore it has stayed with me. I think that audiences who aren’t familiar with the earlier film will miss something because they won’t be prompted to think about the different ways in which the two films approach some of the same ideas. (The dossier quoted above suggests that other Cuarón films are also important but I’ll stick with the one that is most closely connected.) There is too much to analyse in a single post but I should explain that the first film is set in the 1990s and is a form of road trip in which two young Mexican men take a road trip to the coast from Mexico City with an older female cousin of one of them. There is sex, drama and comedy along the way (and a narrative twist) but the film also acts as a social/political commentary on Mexico as a ‘teenage country’ (Cuarón’s term). The two young men Julio and Tenoch come from different social class positions. Tenoch is the character with the Cuarón family characteristics, coming from an upper middle class (in Mexican terms) family. His maid/nanny in the film is played by the real Liboria. Cuarón uses a device in the film borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard in which the ambient sound is cut and a voiceover comments on the action and on Mexican society/polity. So, for instance, when the boys drive through a village, the voiceover tells us that this is Leo/Liboria’s village. In Roma, Cuarón places similar information in the dialogue of the family melodrama. In a way this is more direct, but actually it requires more work to make the connections. For instance, although it is not said explicitly, we can deduce that the family has done very well under the long-running PRI government. They are the beneficiaries of state-supported ‘professionalisation’ – the father is a senior physician, the mother is a bio-chemist and university lecturer. At the same time, government policies have impoverished rural Mexico and encouraged the peasantry to migrate to the city where, like Cleo, they are forced to work as servants. Later in the narrative, Cleo will learn that another government initiative has taken her mother’s land rights away from her. Given the structure of society, the class system is also based on race. The family belong to the 9% ‘European’ population of Mexico. The rest of the population is Mestizo (‘mixed race’) at 60% and Indigenous at 30%. Cleo and Adela speak at various points in the Mixtec language of the peoples of Western Oaxaca (which is on the Pacific coast but is actually not far from the Caribbean coast of Vera Cruz given that Mexico is at its narrowest in this South-Eastern region). The UK print of Roma has two separate subtitle texts with the translation of the Mixtec dialogue shown inside square brackets.
In the dossier referenced above, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado refers to the distinction above in the two ways of delivering the social/political commentary and suggests that in Roma it is ‘sensorially conveyed’. This is achieved in two ways, first in Cuaron’s approach to the cinematography – i.e. using camera movement, composition and framing to signify the lived culture of the family in the city – and secondly through the soundtrack:
. . . the sound design, Roma’s most brilliant technical feat, building on the territory explored by directors like Lucrecia Martel in La ciénaga, turns the noises and utterances of everyday life, along with the mediascape of Mexican and global popular culture, into a constant set of signifiers related to the affective and social environment of 1970s modernity.
Sánchez Prado is not the only one to single out the film’s sound design and many critics have commented on it. I found it quite disconcerting in the Curzon cinema and it reminded me of the dramatic sound design of films like Apocalypse Now (Walter Murch, 1979). I was sat in the third row of 250 seat cinema and I was conscious of sound from behind me and from the sides of the auditorium. Background chatter and traffic noise were so subtly rendered that I thought for a moment that a door had been left open in the cinema. I can’t imagine the same experience is available via Netflix. I don’t think I could process all the sounds and visual images that I was offered – this is an incredibly rich text. But I would need to go back to a cinema and that looks very difficult. What have you done, Alfonso? I understand that Netflix enabled your creative freedom, but it’s important that audiences can see your film in a cinema. Thank you for this remarkable film, but I want to watch it again.
The triumph of the film is to place us in a position from where we can attempt to understand a world from the perspective of Cleo – played in the film by a non-professional actor, Yalitza Aparicio. Some critics have remarked that Cleo says very little and that the family members treat her badly. But I think that the aim is for us to work out for ourselves what Cleo is thinking about what she sees. I don’t think that the family treats Cleo badly out of malice. I think that they behave towards someone who is very important for them emotionally in ways that have developed within a society structured around race and social class divisions. I enjoyed the film immensely and in the dramatic scenes in the latter part of the film I was unable to stop the tears which were shed for Cleo. The film is 135 minutes long and at the end of the screening, including the long credit sequence, the woman behind me said to her friend: “Gosh, is that the time? It’s hard to believe we’ve been here that long.” That’s the result of watching a great film in the cinema.
Gravity works with audiences – in industry terms it has ‘legs’. Although it was released in early November, it still pulled in a healthy audience at the 3D screening I attended this week. It also works as a technical exercise in creating a ‘realist’ representation of the work of astronauts on a space station in orbit above the earth. (I am not commenting on the scientific ‘truth’ of the operations depicted, rather on the sense of ‘being there’ experienced by the audience.)
Alfonso Cuarón and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of the long take, though when bodies are floating through space and cameras are ‘virtual’ in the world of CGI, this means something rather different than it did for Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir. Cuarón is certainly ‘in control’ since as well as directing, he produced the film, co-wrote the script with his son Jonás and co-edited it with Mark Sanger. Perhaps he might have relinquished one of those roles and focused a little more on the script and possibly the casting? The film works for me as a thriller and I was squirming in my seat with the tension I felt. It also did make me think about the prospect of slow death if I was ever cast adrift in space. The 3D generally worked, although I found the objects being thrown at the audience became too distracting after a while. The three flaws for me were: (1) the dreadful music, (2) George Clooney and (3) the ‘re-birthing’ and spiritual/religious symbolism of the last third of the film.
I can see that each of these ‘flaws’ could be attributed to the commercial constraints facing Cuarón. I’m sure that I remember early discussions about this not being a ‘studio picture’ but instead some kind of ‘super indy’. With a budget of $100 million and a massive international roll-out, this seems like a blockbuster to me and therefore in need of various conventional touches. Clooney is a likeable star with a ‘big’ persona but the role in Gravity would have been better filled by a lesser-known actor who would not have drawn attention away from Sandra Bullock (an effective, restrained performance, I think). Space would be more ‘other’ and even more terrifying with only the ‘natural’ sounds of the space station or the diegetic music on the intercom.
The re-birthing symbolism is more problematic – Sandra Bullock is seen several times getting out of her spacesuit (like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis?) and coiling up in a foetal position. I guess much of the resonance of these scenes comes from 2001? My concern is that these images come as part of what is a general slide into a ‘Hollywood ending’ to the film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it did seem to me to be disappointing for a film which seems to promise something different. I’ve seen Gravity referred to as a ‘science fiction film’ but this does not seem helpful – action thriller seems the best description (Speed with Sandra Bullock would make an interesting comparison.)
Alfonso Cuarón showed in his best film, Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001) that he is capable of subverting the mainstream and that he can work effectively with genre repertoires as in Children of Men (US/UK/Japan 2006). Of course, Children of Men proved a difficult sell to audiences and dented Cuarón’s ‘bankability’ after his earlier success with a Harry Potter film. Gravity has restored his status, so something with more bite next time?
Alfonso Cuarón is a transnational filmmaker working in Mexico, the US or across Europe on international projects. I see that IMDB lists Gravity as simply a ‘US’ production. In fact it was co-produced with David Heyman in the UK (his company also co-produced the Harry Potter movies) and most of the studio work was completed at Shepperton. UK crews and facilities deserve some credit for the technical virtuosity of the film.
(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