Mexican cinema was once at the top of the Latin American film industry during its Golden Age period which spanned from 1936-1959. This saw the commercial and critical peak of Mexican filmmaking and also the rise of influential filmmakers, such as Spaniard Luis Buñuel, and iconic Mexican actors like María Félix, Jorge Negrete and Dolores del Río. To this day, it still plays host to the most prestigious Latin American film festival, the Guadalajara International Film Festival. Here’s our chronological introduction to Mexican cinema.
Worthy of inclusion due to its status as the start of Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age. Starring the prolific, Guadalajara-born Tito Guízar, alongside Esther Fernández and René Cardona, Allá en el Rancho Grande follows the story of two men who both fall unknowingly in love with the same woman. One unwittingly tries to ‘buy’ the girl, unaware that she is in fact in love with the other. This film is perhaps best remembered for the much covered song of the same name, which launched the charro genre of films in Mexico.
Another film on this list that is well-known for its titular song is ¡Ay Jalisco, No Te Rajes! It’s also known as the film that launched leading man, and Guanajuato-native, Jorge Negrete to stardom in Latin America, having already achieved success in America and New York as a singer. Based on a novel by the same name, this is another charro genre film and translates to ‘Jalisco, Don’t Give Up!’. The film follows Negrete’s character as he falls in love with Carmela (Gloria Marín) and seeks vengeance for the death of his parents.
Notable for birthing the almost mythical status that surrounded famed Mexican actress María Félix, Doña Bárbara is based off a Venezuelan novel of the same name. The titular character, Bárbara is a hard headed land owner with a teenage daughter, Marisela. Thing’s come to a head for her when a fellow landowner in the area returns from abroad and accuses her of stealing. This film is a turning point in Mexican cinema, as it sparked the arrival of a new female figure; the strong willed and unattainable woman, rather than the meek and mild mother or girlfriend.
The first Latin American winner of the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, María Candelaría is a classic must-watch example of Mexican cinema during its Golden Age. Starring the iconic and undeniably striking leading lady Dolores del Río, previously a Hollywood star before returning to her homeland and Mexican cinema, this film proliferated and raised the reputation of Mexico on an international level. Following the tale of an indigenous Mexican love story, this is one of director Emilio Fernández’s best works.
Directed by the Spanish-born and extremely famous Luis Buñuel is Los Olvidados. Better known in English speaking countries as The Young and the Damned, this film’s hard-hitting cinematic effort attempts to accurately portray the situation of child poverty in Mexico City. However, the surrealism so characteristic of Buñuel makes an appearance at times. A masterpiece of a film, an alternate ending was discovered in recent years that depicted a somewhat bleaker ending. It turns out that Mexican censorship at the time had forced Buñuel’s hand to release a more conventional conclusion.
Starring the cult figure of Mexican comedy Cantinflas, often considered the Mexican equivalent of Charlie Chaplin, is El Padrecito. This film makes our introduction to Mexican cinema list as a result of its leading man, who was to become a cult figure in Mexican cinema and popular culture as a whole. Known for unfailingly joyful performances, he was never quite as melancholy as Chaplin, but achieved extraordinary success nonetheless. El Padrecito is about a young priest who, amongst other adventures, steps into the role of torero (bullfighter) in a town fiesta, winning the hearts of the village people.
Hasta El Viento Tiene Miedo (Even The Wind Is Afraid) makes for a great introduction to another defining genre of Mexican cinema; horror. Since its release it has acquired somewhat of a cult status, and given that it has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 83%, it’s also critically appreciated. Set in the appropriately horror-inducing environment of an all-female school, this ghostly tale is a classic of the genre and of Mexican cinema as a whole. Although, make sure you’re not alone before settling in for a viewing.
Based on the blisteringly popular Laura Esquivel novel of the same name, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) is the 1992 cinematic version which achieved similarly impressive levels of success. Selected (but rejected by the Academy) as the Mexican Oscar offering, it follows the story of Tita, a woman forbidden to marry, who falls in love with Pedro yet must watch him marry her sister instead, which he only did to stay close to Tita. Elements of magical realism pervade this film, in the same way the emotions of Tita pervade her cooking and impact those who eat it.
Although some undeniably iconic songs featured the earlier films on this list, Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) has perhaps one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, and was the first film in legendary director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s so-called Trilogy of Death. Nominated for an Academy Award, this anthology film follows three concurrent storylines at once and has an almost three hour run time. Having said that, it’s more than worth a watch, even with the controversial inclusion of dog fighting scenes. Notable also is the lead performance by an (at the time) rising star called Gael García Bernal.
Gael García Bernal co-stars, alongside the equally popular Diego Luna, in this road trip drama classic of Mexican cinema; Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too). Telling the coming-of-age tale of Julio and Tenoch (played by García Bernal and Luna respectively), the film’s title makes reference to the unproven assertion that Julio has slept with Tenoch’s mother. However, aside from the humor, explicit sex and drug use, it’s backdrop is one of political and social upheaval in Mexico, and the omniscient narration only serves to highlight this.
Often mistakenly identified as a Spanish film, El Laberinto Del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) may well be set in Spain during the Franco dictatorship, but it is a joint Spanish-Mexican production. Written and directed by Mexican Guillermo del Toro, he is alleged to consider the film a parable, influenced by fairy tales. Upon release at Cannes Film Festival, it was met with widespread critical acclaim and won three Academy Awards as well as three BAFTAs. An unmissable Mexican movie that can (and should be) watched over and over.