Heavenly battles and broken skies

Pub date December 26, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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In 2006 the global media blitz continued to focus on the three Mexican directors — Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — who’ve been lured by Hollywood. But a new generation of auteurs, whose approaches to filmmaking range from minimalistic to baroque, are redefining and reinvigorating film and generating debate about a genuinely new Mexican cinema.

Broken Sky (El Cielo Dividido, 2006) proves the Cooperativa Morelos filmmaking team, composed primarily of writer-director Julián Hernández and producer Roberto Fiesco (also a remarkable director of shorts), remains utterly faithful to its contemplative and pictorial film language. The filmmakers are equally dedicated to their die-hard romantic vision of the precipitous highs and lows of young mestizo men in love and lust amid the urban textures of Mexico City. Like their previous projects, Broken Sky — exquisitely shot in color by Alejandro Cantú — works against dominant representations of gay men in Mexican cinema, not to mention the banal, plastic boy-toy tales that dominate many US queer films.

If you can get past bad-boy provocateur Carlos Reygadas’s unsettling sexism and class politics, there is much to appreciate in his just-short-of-astounding urban epic, Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el Cielo, 2005). This audacious second film explores the calvary-like spiritual journey and ultimately futile quest for redemption of an ordinary plump mestizo chauffeur. A maverick, Reygadas again (as in his debut, 2002’s Japón) uses nonprofessional actors and a somewhat grotesque, naturalistic approach to eroticism. He is matched in the sheer irreverence of his perspective on Mexican national icons (from a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe to the unfurling of a gigantic Mexican flag in the Zócalo of the National Palace) only by the likes of Arturo Ripstein and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of both its bare-bones visual style — mostly static, head-on takes — and its simple narrative, is the deadpan black comedy Sangre (2005). The debut feature by Amat Escalante, assistant director to Reygadas on Battle in Heaven, Sangre is an absurdist tragicomedy about family ties.

Fernando Eimbcke’s multiaward-winning first film, Duck Season (Temporada de Patos, 2004), is also unexpectedly quirky. A self-conscious black-and-white homage to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, it is set in the historically charged (and massive) Tlatelolco housing complex, near downtown Mexico City. Favoring a minimalistic aesthetic, the film perfectly captures the rhythms of a Sunday afternoon in the lives of two 14-year-old boys, nicknamed Flama and Moko. Left alone by their divorced parents and armed with Nintendo, an extralarge pizza, and plenty of Coke, Flama and Moko are ready to play — until a power shortage and a sudden visitor derail their plans.

Both Duck Seasons‘s tight eight-hour narrative span and its confined space — all but three short sequences take place inside an apartment — remind me of Red Dawn (1989), the independently produced film that boldly inaugurated the current new Mexican cinema by taking on the notorious military massacre of student and civilian demonstrators on the eve of the 1968 summer Olympic Games. Duck Season is otherwise void of obvious political references, but Moko’s homo fantasy of his buddy Flama is endearing. Moko spells his nickname with a k, not a c, since the latter spelling means booger (bugger?). No matter how you spell it, the word still has the connotation of bodily secretions, sexual and otherwise — as does the pato of the original title.

Some other favorites:

Pink Punch (Puños Rosas, 2004). Beto Gómez’s campy Mexploitation flick packs plenty of fruity juice in a US-Mexico-border action-comedy involving gangsters, boxers, and prison. The delights include always fierce, don’t-fuck-with-me Isela Vega and a knockout performance by Roberto Espejo, again doing drag, as in Gómez’s Caiman’s Dream (El Sueño del Caimán, 2005).

A Wonderful World (Un Mundo Maravilloso, 2005). Luis Estrada’s excellent follow-up to his polemical Herod’s Law (La Ley de Herodes, 1999) arrived just in time to assess how well the National Action Party fared in bridging the abyss between rich and poor after 71 years of uninterrupted, ironfisted Institutional Revolutionary Party political rule.

The Citrillo’s Turns (Las Vueltas del Citrillo, 2005). Veteran Felipe Cazals returns to the abuse of power, this time with a tone of picaresque black comedy. Featuring stellar performances by the ever versatile Damián Alcázar, José María Yazpik, and Vanessa Bauche, it’s set circa 1903 and focuses on characters who indulge in alcoholic libations from a pulquería, which gives the film its title.

In the Pit (En el Hoyo, 2005). Director Juan Carlos Rulfo finally lets his famous father rest in peace while dynamically exploring his own voice. This documentary brings together on-site conversations with workers who constructed the second level of the highway where three million cars circulate daily through Mexico City.

Despite a significant increase in the annual number of feature-length works produced in Mexico since figures plummeted to unprecedented depths in the 1990s, it remains difficult to see Mexican films outside film festivals. Within Mexico, national film protection legislation mandating 10 percent of screen time be allocated to local work remains, to no one’s surprise, unenforced. In the United States, given the interest in Mexican movies since at least as far back as 1992’s Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua para Chocolate, Alfonso Arau), it is perplexing why more films don’t get a commercial run — especially since French films get theatrical time even though they rarely earn much at the box office. Do I have an ax to grind about this? Hell yeah! *