Mexico City

by | Dec 29, 2003

Mexico City is a featured star in a small “boom” in recent Mexican cinema. The award-winning Amores perros and Y tu mamá también—following in the steps of other outstanding films such as Todo el poderSexo, pudor y lágrimas, or La ley de Herodes—have much more in common than the superficial fact of their box-office success or the presence of the up-and-coming young actor Gael García Bernal as the male lead in both films. The two movies also in similar ways talk across classes and across generations—moving back and forth between working-class hardships and mind-numbing wealth, between the worlds of adults who have grown weary too soon and oversexed teenagers who are only barely coming of age.

Mexico’s capital appears in dramatically different guises through the lens of these two movies. A somber urban theatre of violence and persecution permeates Amores perros, whereas in Y tu mamá también the city becomes an anti-utopia, quickly left behind once two adolescent boys embark with their fantasy woman, played by Maribel Verdú, on a road trip that is supposed to lead them to an imaginary beach in Oaxaca. The first movie, directed by first-time filmmaker Alejandro González Iñarritu, plunges the viewer vertically into the depths of the nation’s sprawling capital, the largest and most populated in the world, coming up for air from its grungy underworld only once—in the second of three storylines—for the melodrama of an adulterous businessman and his young lover who lost her job as high-legged model after a car crash. The second movie, by contrast, turns escape by car into an entertaining road trip, tracing a playfully didactic, horizontal line of flight away from family, home, and heterosexual norms. Director Alfonso Cuarón, in a sense, returns to his motherland with this movie, only to take off immediately again in search of what can only be called a lost paradise, the promise of utopia, there where in reality it is the truth of death and separation that lies in wait.

A logic of random encounters defines the powerful intrigue of both movies. This is most visible in the initial car crash that connects the characters from the three storylines and in the wrenching violence that runs through Amores perros, but also in the guise of an unexpected coincidence of desires that brings together two pubescent boys with their too-good-to-be-true older bombshell in a series of sexual initiations and botched attempts at repressing their homosexual undercurrent in Y tu mamá también. Both set a glibly mastered, fast-paced narrative style against a commercial soundtrack mixing the hippest rock tunes and technotronics with the local equivalent of trashy singer-songwriters. In mainstream press reviews, both invite comparisons with the work of Quentin Tarantino in cult movies such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (even by its very title, Amores perros seems to refer coyly to this last film, while Y tu mamá también winks rather at French New Wave products such as Jules et Jim or comedies like Harold and Maud). From a political vantage point, finally, both beg to be read as symptomatic expressions of the enormous sea- change that during the last couple of years swept through Mexico, especially since the end of 71 years of single-party rule with the elections of June 2000. In many other respects, though, these two movies could not be more different.

Amores perros was released around the time of the last elections, and thus can hardly be said to offer an eyewitness account of the end of the PRI’s reign of power. If anything, the movie’s predictions run counter to any premature optimism and, in retrospect, one might even say that the work was able to unmask the euphoria of change, encapsulated in the V-sign shown everywhere during Vicente Fox’s campaign and subsequent victory. Y tu mamá también, on the other hand, explicitly situates itself in the wake of this victory, commented upon by the narrator in one of his numerous voiceovers. Appearances in both cases, however, could be deceiving: in the first, because the political reference seems to me less to the imminent collapse of the ruling party than to the radical legacy from the late sixties and early seventies, when the country saw the rise of armed revolutionary forces that would eventually turn to forms of urban guerrilla warfare, and in the second, because the voiceovers do hardly anything to clarify the link between the film’s main story line and the political events of the past few years.

Gilles Deleuze, in one of his last essays published in Critical and Clinical, discusses the basic difference between two forms of art, which he relates to two fundamental orientations of the unconscious—one hovering around the sinister return of past traumas, with the other reaching out to the future for as yet unheard-of possibilities. The first understanding of art and the unconscious he calls “archaeological,” while the second obeys rather a “cartographic” impulse. It might be useful to compare Amores perros and Y tu mamá también in these terms. While the first movie delves into the scarred depths of violence and the antagonistic struggles that are barely hidden beneath the capital’s picture-perfect surface, the second traces a line of flight away from the city and toward the promise of some half-real, half-imaginary utopia. Except that, in the end, both movies perhaps confront the same anxiety of the real. The events seen at the side of the road such as the peasants and fishermen emigrating to the city, the soldiers checking locals for drugs and weapons in a region historically linked to much guerrilla activity in Y tu mamá también, or the ex-professor turned armed guerrilla fighter and then cold-blooded hitman for hire who seeks to reestablish contact with his long-lost daughter by leaving an emotional speech on her answer machine at the end of Amores perros: These are some of the scenes that confront the viewer with the legacy, not just of neoliberalism today but of the earlier dreams to “put society back together” without seeking refuge in the strictly imaginary. Both movies, in the end, give an account of what is left of the sixties and seventies at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2
Bruno Bosteels is Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Columbia University. He is finishing his manuscript After Borges: Literature and Anti-philosophy, while a second book, Badiou and the Political, has been accepted for publication by Duke University Press.

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