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A New Mexican Revolution

As they spar with the country's film board, Alfonso Cuaron and fellow renegades are injecting vibrancy into their nation's cinema.

March 10, 2002|LORENZA MUNOZ

At the Venice Film Festival last fall, director Alfonso Cuaron screened his new movie, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (And Your Mama Too), about two teenage Mexican boys on a raucous road trip in search of sex and adventure. A French journalist asked him why he made such a superficial film when Mexico has so many overwhelming problems. Why wasn't the crushing poverty and the social inequity addressed in the film?

The Mexican-born director's answer was typically blunt. "You are a racist. You have the mentality of a classic liberal European. Your own guilt is eased by creating a paternalistic view of what Latin American film should be instead of seeing Latin America for what it is--a very diverse society.... Why is it that when [Italian director Michelangelo] Antonioni deals with issues of the so-called bourgeoisie or when [Spanish director Luis] Bunuel does it, it's OK, but if a Latin American uses characters from the upper or middle classes we are considered sellouts and reactionaries?"

Cuaron is a man with passion and a vision. His exchange of words with the French journalist is just one of a number of justifications he has had to make in defense of his film, which will be released in U.S. theaters Friday. Not only did he have to break down stereotypes about Mexico, but he also had to fight his countrymen when it came to the rating of his sexually explicit picture. (In the U.S., the movie is being released without a rating.) His battle with the Mexican ratings board was one of many occasions on which the outspoken director and the Mexican bureaucracy that oversees every aspect of moviemaking--from funding to ratings to submitting movies for foreign Oscar consideration--have clashed.

And yet Cuaron says making "Tu Mama" was one of the most joyous experiences he has had as a director. It put him back in touch cinematically with his cultural roots after a decade in Hollywood making such films as the critically acclaimed "A Little Princess" (1995) and the disappointing "Great Expectations" (1998). It helps that "Tu Mama" was a huge hit in Mexico. Perhaps most important, it re-sparked the love of filmmaking he had lost.

"I felt like after 'Great Expectations' I was repeating myself," he says. "I needed to find my voice."

Cuaron is one of a crop of Mexican directors--most between the ages of 30 and 40--who have brought a new vibrancy to their nation's cinema. They include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose hard-charging tale of violent, contemporary Mexico City, "Amores Perros," was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar last year; Guillermo del Toro, whose critically acclaimed "The Devil's Backbone," a horror story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, was made in a co-production of Spain and Mexico; and Salvador Carrasco, whose "The Other Conquest," a historical epic about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, made $1 million on a limited release in Los Angeles alone. Their films have, in part, led Mexican audiences back into movie theaters after a decades-long dry spell and opened Hollywood's eyes to the talent south of the border.

But Mexico is not alone in its brazen filmmaking. Directors in Iran, Korea, Taiwan and Argentina, for instance, are also breaking the mold with their stylish and bold movies. More than ever, filmmakers who come from countries suffering through political or economic turmoil are introducing the world to their stories. For instance, Korean director Kang Je-Gyu's action thriller "Shiri," about a renegade group of North Korean commandos infiltrating South Korea, was a No. 1 hit not only in Korea but also in Japan and Hong Kong. Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar-nominated "Son of the Bride," a dramatic comedy about a man's relationships and his inability to cope, typifies the kind of original filmmaking in that country.

These directors are not making your typical art-house fare. Instead they are making entertaining, relevant and energetic films, says MJ Peckos, president of First Look Pictures, one of the most active distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S. In some ways, foreign filmmakers are filling the void left by Hollywood's more formulaic movies, creating their own brand of original and edgy material.

"There certainly seem to be more countries turning out good films," she says. "They are taking on issues that are contemporary and important. I suppose it's people reacting to their environment and making a statement and expressing themselves."

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" began about 10 years ago with a flip suggestion from Cuaron's closest friend, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Ali"): "What if we do a road movie about a couple of dudes who go to the beach, dude?"

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