Maid to measure

Mexican film makers finally have the international reputation they deserve. Jason Wood reveals the origin of this creative flourishing and picks his favourite works

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Timing is everything. There are clear parallels between the writing of the Faber Book of Mexican Cinema in 2006 and the completion of this follow-up edition in 2021. As we entered the early 2000s, Mexican cinema was on a creative, critical and commercial roll, spearheaded by the emergence of Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Carlos Reygadas and Guillermo del Toro.

No matter how hostile their environment or who is in power, the film-making community has remained solid

As I began this new book, Andrés Manuel López Obrador became Mexican president in December 2018, leading a left-right coalition. Many were waiting to see what approach this government would adopt in relation to arts and culture. But if the past shows us anything, it is that Mexican film-making and film-makers will continue to flourish, with Reygadas, del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón providing inspiration to a new generation of film-makers.

The quartet have enjoyed unprecedented international success. Reygadas, who many regard as the finest director of his generation, has become a permanent fixture at international film festivals, winning multiple awards.
In 2006, Iñárritu became the first Mexican to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, for Babel, and in 2019 was the first Mexican director to be named president of the Cannes Jury.

Also at the Oscars, Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity in 2013, becoming the first Mexican to do so. Iñárritu won Best Director for Birdman in 2014 and for The Revenant in 2015 – only the third figure in history to win consecutive Best Director awards. Del Toro won Best Director for The Shape of Water in 2018 and then Cuarón won again for Roma in 2019, also becoming the first person to win Best Director and Best Cinematographer. Birdman and The Shape of Water both also won Best Picture. There have also been Best Cinematography Academy Awards for Guillermo Navaro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) and Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman and The Revenant).

These victories show that Mexico, despite its myriad social and economic problems and having to live in the shadow of the United States, produces a prodigious amount of incredibly gifted story-tellers and visual artists. Although Reygadas is the only director of the quartet to remain working in his birthplace, del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu maintain very close links to their homeland and regard themselves as Mexican wherever they may be working. All of them return to Mexico for festivals and, following Cuarón’s return to Mexican production, Iñárritu is also preparing a feature to be shot there. Del Toro, Iñárritu and Salma Hayek have set up a fund to help support Mexican movie industry workers out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fund has raised about $440,000 so far, and will go first to technical workers like set, costume, sound and visual employees. La Corriente del Golfo, a company founded by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, also contributed to the fund.

Our Time directed by and starring Carlos Reygadas (right), “one of contemporary world cinema’s greatest visualists”, with co-star Phil Burgers

No matter how hostile their environment or who is in power, the film-making community has remained solid. Just as established figures have acted as advocates for emerging talent – witness the support of Reygadas for Amat Escalante, prizewinner at Cannes and Venice film festivals – other figures have used their power and position to bring through others aiming to find their visual voice. The recent Workforce (2019) by David Zonana, produced by Michel Franco (New Order), is just one example. This is producer Zonana’s directorial debut. He co-produced Franco’s 2015 drama Chronic, starring Tim Roth.

Recent Mexican cinema is also united in its desire to tackle Mexico’s harsh social conditions and inequality. As Franco points out: “Mexico is a very violent society.” A willingness to focus on social issues through powerful and compelling human stories is what makes The Chambermaid (2018) by Lila Avilés so compelling and engaging, quite apart from the director’s unique visual sensibility. A film that achieved worldwide acclaim, The Chambermaid was Mexico’s 2020 entry to the Best Film in a Foreign Language category at the Academy Awards.

A final note on the figures I interviewed. I wanted to convey the richness of Mexican cinema and the huge range of voices. Mexican cinema is incredibly diverse in terms of tone and aesthetic, with many directors also working between narrative and documentary film-making. I wanted to include a number of film-makers who have excelled in documentary and also a figure like Nicolás Pereda, who is perhaps closest to the notion of an artist film-maker.

Like many countries – one could argue all – Mexico has a way to go in terms of gender parity and the fact that the majority of these interviews are with men is representative of that. There were a number of female film-makers I contacted and would have wished to include but work schedules proved immovable. I hope that as we witness the emergence of more film-makers from Mexico that an equal proportion of them are women.

Jason Wood is creative director for film and culture at Home, Manchester and author of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema: Updated Edition

Top five Mexican films

Our Time
One of contemporary world cinema’s greatest visualists, Carlos Reygadas turns the camera on himself in this tale of a marriage at breaking point. Real-life couple Reygadas and his wife Natalia play Juan and Esther, who live a peaceful yet atypical existence on a Mexican cattle ranch – unusual insofar as they are in an open relationship. Reygadas captures the ecstasy of life in thrillingly beautiful natural sequences, delivering another stunning entry in his already impressive filmography.

The Chambermaid
Eve (Gabriela Cartol), a young chambermaid at a luxurious Mexico City hotel, confronts the monotony of long workdays with quiet examinations of forgotten belongings and budding friendships that nourish her dream for a better life. Lila Avilés’ striking debut employs a quasi-documentary approach as it accompanies Eve on her daily routine to offer a microcosm of contemporary Mexican society.

The Untamed
Amat Escalante follows up Heli and Los Bastardos with the intelligent and unsettling The Untamed. Alejandra is a housewife, raising two boys with husband Angel in a small city. Her brother Fabian works as a nurse in a local hospital. Sex and love can be fragile in certain regions where strong family values, hypocrisy, homophobia and male chauvinism exist and an outsider convinces them that in the nearby woods, inside an isolated cabin, dwells something not of this world that could be the answer to all of their problems. Mixing Lovecraftian science fiction with social commentary, the film takes inspiration from Zulawski’s Possession.

A Cop Movie
The latest film from Alonso Ruizpalacios won him a major prize at the Berlin Film Festival. A Cop Movie centres on two rookie police officers in Mexico City whose idealism is crushed by a dysfunctional system. Mixing fiction with documentary, the film inventively plays with convention (halfway through we realise the two cops we have been following are actors) and is a technical tour de force.

A construction worker in Mexico City falls to his death, prompting his brother and widow to seek justice on their own terms. On one level, Workforce is simply a story about building a house. But a deeper look reveals a whole economic system in microcosm. This sharply observed drama is quiet, precise and crushingly effective. The director reveals himself to be a tyrant of economy, but the precision of the film shouldn’t mask its insights and interrogation of the class divide.

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