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In 2000, first-time director Alejandro González Iñárritu
caused quite a commotion with a little film called Amores Perros.
He caused this stir not only in his native Mexico—where Perros swept
the Ariel Awards for acting, directing, editing, cinematography,
set design, make-up and sound—but across the globe. In Argentina
Britain Denmark Cuba and Japan the film was acclaimed—and awarded—by
each of those countries’ most prestigious film critics and festival
judges. At Cannes, Iñárritu took home the Critics
Week Grand Prize, as well as the Young Critics Award. Among the
honors the film received in America were Oscar and Golden Globe
nods for Best Foreign Language Film and the Audience Award at AFI
Fest.

More than just a breakout hit, Amores Perros heralded
a new brand of independent moviemaking—an epoch that skipped the
usual slick trappings and focused on translating the real-life
struggles of everyday people to the screen. Much like the American
independent cinema movements of the 1970s and 1990s, this one film
promised a new era of cinema that dealt with truth—and had its
foundation firmly planted in Mexican soil.

Cinematic innovation and Mexico are a duo that
have long coexisted. Ever since moviemaking began in 1896 and
sound moviemaking arrived in the early 1930s, the Mexican film
industry has been considered one of the world’s most vibrant
and creative. Although there have been slow periods as a consequence
of fluctuating economic and political factors, Mexican-made films
have always appealed to large audiences—even without a large
indigenous film production community.

Following the great social upheaval of the
Revolution of 1910 (an upheaval that remained violent into the
1920s), the new national government regarded film as an enormously
influential instrument for impacting public opinion—particularly
as the Mexican Revolution became the first armed conflict to
be extensively filmed. In a society still very much affected
by illiteracy, film was enormously effective in transmitting
ideologies.

In the post-Revolutionary government’s attempt
to create an official narrative of a unified Mexico film functioned
in tandem with virtually all other art forms to promote a united
cultural nationalism from which it was difficult for most artists
to escape or oppose. No better example of this exists than Emilio
Fernández’s Río
Escondido
(1948), in which María Félix—already
a star on her way to becoming a Mexican cinema legend—triumphed
as a rural school teacher determined to make a difference, despite
the village’s feudal caudillo.

Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950)

The moviemaking industry continued to grow,
becoming increasingly dependent on the government for funding—and consequently more closely
scrutinized. No matter how creative Mexican moviemakers succeeded
at being, they could rarely run counter to the overarching imperatives
of cultural nationalism. But rather than oppose the powers that
be, Mexican moviemakers focused their energy on perfecting the
art of movie­making—employing outstanding writers,
energetic producers and directors, top-notch cinematographers and
truly talented actors.

Mexico soon created a star system comparable
to the one that was enjoying so much success north of the border.
In fact, some of the country’s most notable stars such as Dolores
del Río
and Ricardo Montalbán went on to star in Hollywood productions.
(The greatest diva of all, María Félix, made a career
ploy out of never being lured across the Río Bravo/Rio Grande.)

The country’s early films were noted for their
excellent sound and for the enormous artistry and precision with
which they were edited. And just as they shared their stars with
Hollywood, the country’s close ties—both geographically and politically—to
the United States also helped the industry to grow. Like Brazil
Mexico enjoyed favored nation status during World War II, which
kept the industry well-supplied with items such as film stock
(at a time when it was being denied to non-supporters, like Argentina).

An Emerging Indie Movement

Because of the craft with which films were
made, Mexican moviemakers were able to make their films about
art rather than politics, and as a result they received very
little direct, heavy-handed censorship. But Roberto Gavaldón’s La Rosa Blanca (1961), concerning
the appropriation of American oil interests by Mexico went over
10 years enlatada (left in the can), until Mexico’s most
leftist government in the 1970s decided it could be shown. When
Spaniard Luis Buñuel was invited to the country in 1950
to make Los Olvidados, a film that presented a pitiful picture
of abandoned children in a city undergoing significant capitalistic
growth, the project did not sit well with official social policy.
Though the film escaped being censored, Buñuel was roundly
denounced as a foreign guest who dared to criticize Mexico’s internal
affairs.

Prior to the 1970s, a certain uniformity of
theme could be found in most Mexican films. Generally they addressed
the conflicts between the countryside and the city, between traditional
values and evolving social roles, and between nationalism and
foreign influence. But by the 1970s, Mexico was ready for some
fairly important changes, beginning with the questioning of societal
roles and the breakdown of the iron grip of the centralizing
PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). By this time, there
was a growing number of independent films—or films that were
willing to go against the by-now weary formulas of moviemaking
past.

Luis Alcoriza’s National Mechanics (1972)
parodied traditional Mexican family values, even recruiting famed
actress Sara García
to do a send-up of the dozens of “sainted grandmother” roles she
had played. Arturo Ripstein’s Castle of Purity (1973) dwelt
on the hypocrisies of patriarchal concepts of moral purity. Jaime
Humberto Hermosillo’s Mary My Dearest (1979) became a cult
classic, because it showed the continuing patriarchal threats to
independent women (Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez
wrote the story). In 1985, Hermosillo released Doña Herlinda
and her Son
, Latin America’s most famous gay film, a delightfully
outrageous revision of the patriarchal order. Jorge Fons’ Rojo
Amanecer
(1989) is the only narrative film to directly deal
with the 1968 student massacre by the armed forces in Tlatelolco
Square. Even though Fons was unable to do any direct filming in
the Square, his film was kept from being shown for a number of
years.

Maria Novaro’s Danzón (1991)

These titles are just a sampling of the early, emerging independent
movement, which has now come to dominate Mexican moviemaking. The
release of productions from a dependence on state support, in part
through the cultivation of foreign funding sources (both private
and institutional), has been a major contributing factor to the
enormous output in the last decade and a half of Mexican film.
And this is to say nothing of the impressive quality and originality
with which these films are made.

Mexican films get attention

The actress maría Rojo is virtually an institution unto
herself, functioning not only as an icon of independent moviemaking
in Mexico today, but also as an important political voice in defense
of the industry. Her film Danzón (1991), which showcases
the danzón music and dance forms of the title, was
directed by María Novaro, Mexico’s most important feminist
moviemaker. The film deals with the attempts of a middle-class
working woman and single mother to survive in Mexico City, which
she does in large measure through her commitment to escaping into
the world of ballroom dancing. It is within this world that she
achieves a measure of feminist assertion, and it is with the success
of Novaro’s film that one can say that Mexico attains a definitive
body of films by and about women.

Fons’ Midaq Alley (1995) went on to
garner the largest number of prizes ever awarded to a Mexican
film. Set in a rundown building and environs of an alley-like
neighborhood within walking distance of the National Palace,
Fons’ film tells several interwoven stories of contemporary life
in Mexico City, with a profound sense of the precarious and conflicting
emotions of urban life. (María
Rojo acted in this film, which also gave a strong boost to the
budding career of actress Salma Hayek.)

Still, it is Iñárritu’s tour-de-force, Amores
Perros
, that is destined to be recognized as the most important
film of the decade—if not of the latter half of the 20th century.
Certainly, it has received in short order all of the international
attention that went to Buñuel’s Los Olvidados 50
years previously. And like Los Olvidados, it is a great
film of the city. In this case, three separate stories bound
together by dogs (or, one dog in particular) serve to portray
all of the alienating violence of Mexico City—now unquestionably
a monstrous wasteland, where dogs are both the correlates of
a brutalized existence, but also the hope for a renewed human
dignity.

At 147 minutes long, the film presents real
problems of political correctness in the representation of human
violence toward animals—and
the violence in animals bred by a nightmarish humanity. Amores
Perros
is also noteworthy for the demands it places on its
audience, which cannot help but feel brutalized by the film. One
can only hope it is a productive brutalization, in the struggle
toward the rebirth of human commitment. The film at least looks
toward such a possibility, but always against the grim Mexico City
skyline.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros

Consolidating the reputation of Mexican cinema in the U.S. and
abroad, Amores Perros has ensured that, for the time being,
new Mexican releases will receive at least a modicum of attention—as
will their cast and crew. A quick rundown of the 2003 Oscar nominations
solidifies the country’s reputation as an international cinema
powerhouse. Director Alfonso Cuarón and his brother Carlos
received a nomination for their work on Y Tu Mamá También,
a film which works through issues of Mexican masculinity and an
undercurrent of queer desire. But rather than the expected Best
Foreign Film nod, the Cuaróns were singled out for their
writing work, with a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Among
the five Best Foreign Film nominees was Carlos Carrera’s El
Crimen del Padre Amaro
. Julie Taymor’s Frida,
about the great Mexican bohemian artist Frida Kahlo, was shot in
the country and starred Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek—who produced
the film and picked up an Oscar nomination for her role. The film
also scored nods—and a couple of wins—in the areas of art direction,
costume design, make-up and music.

While Frida was officially an American
production, its on-location shooting and participation by a number
of local moviemakers accorded the film a measure of “Mexican-ness.” This,
despite the controversies it provoked in the country, confirmed
the broad-based enthusiasm for what may be perceived as Mexican
moviemaking.

Scoring big with Amores Perros, Iñárritu
re-teamed with writer Guillermo Arriaga and cinematographer Rodrigo
Prieto (who shot Frida, as well as Curtis Hanson’s 8
Mile
and Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour) to make 21
Grams
for Focus Features, starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and
Benicio del Toro. While he had dabbled in Hollywood before, with A
Little Princess
and Great Expectations, after the success
of Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón
was tapped to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for
Warner Brothers.

As was the case in earlier days, the hope is that the cross-border
movement of Mexican stars, both in front of and behind the camera,
will further assert the importance of the Mexican moviemaking community
on an international scale for future generations of movie lovers. MM

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