Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

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Aquarius (Brazil-France, 2016)

Invisible woman

Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.

Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.

Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.

By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años, Uruguay-Spain-France-Argentina-Germany, 2018)

The fruits of tyranny

I’ve bashed Netflix a few times on this blog but am grateful to it for A Twelve-Year Night, an extraordinary biopic of three political prisoners who were tortured and kept mostly in solitary for 12 years up until 1985. Writer-director Álvaro Brechner does a brilliant job of conveying the hell the men lived by focusing on their experience firstly by laying out the restricted routine of their lives before opening out the narrative, mainly through flashbacks. Through this we get a sense of the claustrophobic lives they were forced to live having being imprisoned for opposing the military dictatorship. The ‘opening out’ is obviously a relief to the spectator and the contrast with the early part of the film gives us a sense of the mental torture of loneliness and depravation suffered by the men.

The prisoners were three of six who spent 12 years being taken from prison to prison (40 in all), presumably as a way of keeping them away from their families who were trying to use the courts to get access to them. Brechner never explains the machinations of the state as his focus is on the men, we (sort of) experience what they experience, so when a family suddenly are able to get a prison visit we are as surprised as the men. There is one scene that gives us a sense of what was happening on their behalf in the ‘outside world’ and this is when they are hauled in front of a committee from the International Red Cross but are only able to state their name before being taken away. This shows us the men had not been forgotten but effective help was not seriously forthcoming until the return of democracy.

If it all sounds gruelling, and the first hour is tough, the film is leavened with humour such as how one of the prisoners advises a guard on how to write love letters. The script is based on two of the prisoners’, Mauricio Rosencof and Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, book about their experiences; the third prisoner was Jose “Pepe” Mujica. As is conventional at the end of a biopic we find out what happened after the end of the film; I was truly gobsmacked by what the men did afterwards. My astonishment was, in part, caused by my ignorance about Uruguay; I’ve only seen one other film from the country, 25 Watts and  Alfonso Tort (Huidobro) features in both. Antonio de la Torre (Mujica) may be familiar from the television series The Night Manager (UK-US, 2016); Argentinean Chino Darin completes the triumvirate as Rosencof.

All the performances are convincing but it is Brechner’s script and direction that elevate this film to the truly special. As there is a danger of Latin America sliding back into American-backed authoritarianism at the moment (here’s an alternative view to MSM’s propaganda about what’s happening in Venezuela), we need reminding of the horrific consequences of rule without law. ‘Strong men’ only bring order through crushing dissent.

Incidentally the film ends with a fantastic version of Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence by Sílvia Pérez Cruz.

The Official Story (La historia oficial , Argentina, 1985)

Officially captivating

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina, 2017)

Casting light?

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift the it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

Time Share (Tiempo compartido, Mexico-Netherlands, 2018)

Happy holidays

Time Share won a Special Jury Prize (for scriptwriting, World Drama) at last year’s Sundance festival and appears to have been seen little in cinemas outside Mexico (where it won a couple of Ariels). Whether we should be grateful to Netflix for picking up the film for distribution, or berate them for preventing it being shown in cinemas, I don’t know. I do know that director Sebastián Hofmann, who edited the film and co-scripted with Julio Chavezmontes, clearly has a cinematic eye that would greatly benefit from the big screen. Matias Penachino’s cinematography brings out the candy colours of the holiday resort setting that makes it look like a Ballardian hell.

Pedro (Luis Gerardo Méndez) and Eva (Cassandra Ciangherotti) arrive late at their time share villa to find it’s been double-booked with another family. Hofmann and Chavezmontes’ script beautifully captured the apologies of corporate speak that mean nothing and the families are forced to co-habit. A parallel plot focuses on Andres (Miguel Rodarte) and his wife Gloria (Montserrat Marañon) who are taking opposite trajectories as workers for Everfields, the American owners of the resort. The corporate environment is causing Andres to lose his grip on reality whilst Gloria relishes the promotion that gives her the opportunity to sell time shares to the holiday makers.

I don’t know the location of the film’s setting, a building designed to look like a Mayan temple, but I’m guessing it is an actual resort and wonder how the filmmakers managed to finesse making such an excoriating satire at the expense of the industry. ‘Excoriating’ only to an extent: the final half hour doesn’t quite have the punch of what precedes it. I’d have preferred that they had gone full blown ‘madness’ rather than keep the narrative world in touch with reality. Grotesquerie is reserved for the credit sequence at the end.

As noted above, Hofmann creates some stunning shots (the golf buggies’ dreamy movement, for example) and uses shallow depth of field, occasionally, to give a surreal look to the setting. A pink flamingo makes its appearance a couple of times suggesting that the pharmaceuticals given are designed to do more than pacify and relieve pain.

This was Hofmann’s second feature as a director and I hope I get to see his next one in a cinema.

Netflix.

Roma (Mexico-US, 2018)

Chronicle of a life

Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary autobiographical (he says it’s 90%) movie is the best film of the year. He directed, photographed (in a luminous 65mm digital monochrome), co-edited and wrote; that’s an auteur for you. His way of shooting, feeding the casts lines and situations day by day, and using non-actors, is similar to Ken Loach’s and although their visual style is very different; Cuarón also uses melodrama to dramatic effect like the older filmmaker. Roma, an area of Mexico City where Cuarón was brought up, consists of slices-of-life featuring Cleo (a stunning debut performance by teacher Yalitza Aparicio), who stands in for the director’s nanny/maid, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. Cuarón wrote the script based on Libo’s, his sister’s and his own memories.

Cuarón’s visual style (after the green palette of his early films) is most obvious in his use of long takes and often moving camera. The movement in Roma is ‘reduced’ to panning and tracking, no freeform steadicam, and the average shot length is considerable. As is usual, he reserves extremely long takes for moments of high drama. The slow pans, particularly at the start of the film, mark the film as ‘arthouse’, along with (to British audiences especially) its foreign language and ‘black and white’ cinematography. The pans usually move to the action and that action is often banal: the quotidian activities of a maid. The tracks are more dynamic, one reveals a main street where busy life goes on as Cleo chases after the children in her charge. As Cuarón says (he was paraphrased):

“Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds…we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again.”

Wikipedia states the budget was $15m; an extraordinarily small amount even taking into consideration the use of digital editing of images to ensure the setting looks like the early 1970s.

I regularly find myself railing against critics’ mischaracterisation of melodrama. The review of the film in Little White Lies concludes:

‘This is his magnum opus, unassuming, emotion, never melodramatic, sublime…’

The writer assumes melodrama must be ‘over-the-top’ and thereby in bad taste according to bourgeoise standards. As can be seen in the still below, the hugs of the two sets of characters are mirrored showing how both the women feel about the males they clasp. In addition, the cage like gates, and bars on windows, echoed by the caged birds inside, are emblems of restricted lives; Cleo’s in particular. And the meaning of the dog shit is obvious. All these are likely to be Cuarón’s memories but once placed into the mise en scene they take on meanings.

Melodramatic mirroring emphasises the dynamics of relationships

There’s more: during the credit sequence at the start the camera stares at a tiled floor that is being cleaned. Even after the director’s credit the camera lingers and the water that flows looks like the sea breaking on a beach; why is revealed at the end. In the same shot, an aeroplane is seen reflected in the water. This visual sign reoccurs and represents life going on elsewhere; maybe the life of the viewer. And there’s more: the earthquake in the hospital; the gun pulled on Cleo by Fermin and so on. Roma is a domestic melodrama! (I’ll shut up now).

Looking at Cuarón’s work which, Great Expectations (US, 1998) apart, has always been critically highly regarded (including Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US 2004), he is primarily a commercial filmmaker (no offence intended). Roma, thoughis arthouse because of the aforementioned visual style and the painstaking elaboration of daily routine. The second half of the film explodes into action (no spoilers) that manages to combine the personal with the political. Cleo is a Mextico-speaking indigenous woman who serves the family of European heritage; in a great line one of the children states a gringa they’re visiting makes him feel as though he stinks. Cleo’s race defines her class: in one scene she, with another maid, descend many steps to join their ‘people’ whilst the middle classes celebrate the new year upstairs.

Given the small budget I’m surprised Cuarón opted for Netflix. Having resisted any cinema distribution of its films Netflix has learned from Amazon (Moonlight) that certain awards can greatly raise the profile of films so Roma did get a very limited showing in cinemas. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix’s roster of foreign language films (from an English/UK perspective) is extremely limited and I doubt that is about to change. It’s not just that such a film should be seen in its ‘natural’ environment but we shall also have no idea what impact it has, in terms of numbers, on audiences as Netflix doesn’t release the data. Would it have been a crossover hit or remained, outside Spanish-speaking audiences, an arthouse release? If you don’t wish to ‘give in’ to Netflix, join for a month’s free to see this masterpiece.