In a recent roundup of Mexican movies on DVD, Village Voice critic J. Hoberman began by asking if cine Mexicano predates the likes of Del Toro, Iñárritu, and Cuarón. Obviously the question was rhetorical—and satirical as well. Here’s another in the same vein: Do Mexican cineastas need global distribution and Oscar nominations to be considered nuevo?
Put it this way: If you say the French New Wave is Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais, you’re only missing—to name a few—Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Demy, and Eustache. Surely there’s room in world cinema—if not around Charlie Rose’s cozy table—for a few more young Mexican directors. Señoras y señores, meet Francisco Vargas, Daniel Gruener, and Gerardo Naranjo.
Vargas, who’ll introduce his debut feature The Violin at the Walker on November 16, cites Luis Buñuel’s 1950 masterpiece Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) as his inspiration to explore an “ignored reality in Mexico.” Accordingly, the Walker’s nod to lesser-known Mexican directors at the start of its “Cinemateca” series of Latin American film might owe something to the U.S. acclaim of Babel—whose maker Alejandro González Iñárritu famously took the occasion of his Golden Globe award to remind California’s governing terminator of other olvidados, joking, “I swear I have my papers in order.” If Nuevo Cine Mexicano is about using one’s tools, podium included, to help those less fortunate, Vargas’s Violin could be considered the movement’s theme song: The titular instrument miraculously allows its player to disarm the military oppressors of a Mexican village while bolstering the peasant revolucionarios.
Based on the heroic adventures of activist musician Carlos Prieto, The Violin is set in the 1970s, although the film’s ingenuity extends to capturing the mood of polarized Mexico in the months before the contested election of conservative president Felipe Calderón. Just weeks before the movie’s premiere at Cannes in May of 2006, some 200 protesting farmers were arrested in the brutal crackdown of San Salvador Atenco near Mexico City. Lacking violins, some family members of those jailed in the conflict performed Christmas pastorelas at Santiaguito Prison in order to gain permission to visit loved ones. As reported in Counterpunch, the relatives, costumed as Biblical figures, were subjected to body cavity searches (even the “Virgin Mary” was ravaged)—though, once inside the prison, the “three wise men” and company did manage to fire off a round of “Presos Politicos Libertad!”
Guillermo Del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth dramatizes the war of fanciful artistry against everyday oppression, hardly minced words himself when, in answer to Rose’s one and only question about Mexican authorial identity in an hour-long broadcast, claimed, his blue eye gleaming on PBS, “One thing we [Nuevo Cine filmmakers] all share is a distrust of institutions.” Sí, though the “Cinemateca” films express more than skepticism. Gruener’s Never on a Sunday (screening Friday)—wherein a Mexico City man’s dead uncle gets sold for scrap to a medical school—employs a distinctly Day of the Dead-ish style of black humor to do away with the notion of proper burial. “This is a country that smiles at death,” Gruener told critic Michael Guillén. “Mexicans know they won’t avoid it by ignoring it.” Death becomes the Nuevo Cine. Gruener is currently prepping a Mexican film of Frankenstein; Del Toro’s next feature is—no surprise here—Hellboy 2.
Before threatening humanity’s extinction in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón snuck a few Day of the Dead sugar skulls into the Honeydukes candy store for his Harry Potter episode in 2004. Not to say that the Grim Reaper has only just arrived on the Mexican set. Indeed, scholar Michael Chanan has traced the history of tragic melodrama in Mexican cinema all the way back to 1919’s Santa, in which a provincial innocent is forced into prostitution before meeting her maker. Some 90 years on, the teen whore Tigrillo in Naranjo’s amped-up, downbeat Drama/Mex (screening November 9) distracts an Acapulco office worker from suicide—only because she reminds him of his own young daughter, with whom he has been having an affair.
Albeit woven tapestry-style a la Iñárritu, Naranjo’s narrative plays like a demolition of Babel with its towering perspective on what it takes to cure the world’s ills, one hanky at a time. As Slant’s Paul Schrodt has pointed out, the film’s key line is “Stop being so international”—Naranjo’s way of saying that Drama/Mex has enough soap opera to deal with on its own shores. Where the so-called three amigos of Nuevo Cine merely distrust convention, their younger hermanos intend to derail it. Indeed, Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también might look like T_hree’s Company_ once Naranjo unsheathes his own teen-sex opus, teased in indieWIRE as “my hate latter to the people who made me suffer when I was a kid.” Mamás , lock up your muchachas.