Revolution, Discovery, And Surrealist Fantasy: The Best Of Mexican Cinema

Oliver Lewis

Mexican cinema is first and foremost loyal to its country’s history, what it is really like to live there and what it is to be Mexican. From its golden era in the 1930s through to the 1960s, to the Renaissance in recent decades, it has produced a strong mix of historic and social reflection, astounding surrealism, and modern discovery. Oliver Lewis from DEADBIRD Review draws up a list of the most striking films given to us by Mexican cinema over the last 75 years.

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa (1936)

Six men join the legendary General Pancho Villa to fight for the Mexican Revolution of 1910; Let’s Go with Pancho Villa follows these brave men as the horrors of war take over. This film stands out amongst other films portraying Villa because of its focus on the cruelty he inflicted upon his own men. He is shown to care very little for his loyal militia and this dispels the heroic image that comes with the name Pancho Villa. It was an early triumph for Mexican cinema, although not at the time as it was a box office failure and led to the collapse of the film’s production company. Now lauded for its cultural significance and impressive cinematography, with sprawling landscapes that highlight the scale of the war and the great impact such a small group of soldiers had on a series of revolutionary events.

Macario (1960)

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Luis Buñuel wrote and directed this bewildering masterpiece in which guests at an upper-class dinner party become trapped in the music room, not physically but psychologically. They become aggressive towards each other and eventually hysterical. The group eventually discover that they are free to leave the room. However, events that follow their escape throw doubt on whether the force that kept the guests inside, has really left them at all. The Exterminating Angel is notably original and operates in an incredibly subtle way, mixing surrealism and horror with characters and set pieces which feel familiar to us from conventional high society narratives of the mid-20th century. The claustrophobic atmosphere is not forced and slowly builds around the highly charged performances. To see examples of society’s upper class deteriorate in a single space on screen is perhaps a commentary on their perceived superficiality and detachment from real life. The film is also relentless in its gaze, rarely leaving the music room and creating an overbearing sense of hopelessness and confusion until the final scenes.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

The surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky released this film after the success of El Topo (1970) and with it he secured a reputation for experimental, often abstract, visually rich and surreal films with religious and fantastical elements. The Holy Mountain follows a man who resembles Jesus Christ and is known as ‘the Thief’. He navigates bizarre environments and scenarios within a city, accompanied by a limbless midget friend until meeting an alchemist who introduces him to seven powerful individuals who each represent a plant from our solar system. Together they form a set of nine who go in search of the Holy Mountain to discover the secret of immortality. The three sections of the film come to symbolise the soul’s quest for enlightenment and this ends with a suggestion that the entire search was itself an illusion. Perhaps the only way to end a film which travels so high up into the bewildering realms of surrealism, metaphysics and hallucinatory experience. A major criticism of this film and others by Jodorowsky is that they tend to be deliberately controversial and lack real substance, instead simply being freak shows designed to shock. However it is possible to look deeper into this film and see, among the mystical and absurd, some strong and worthy comments and ideas surrounding religion, spiritualism and existentialism. If film is a drug, then this is one of the most visual and divine experiences on offer; an example of the magic that can be achieved with cinema.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

An American bartender and his pregnant prostitute mistress take off on a road trip through Mexico in order to collect a $1 million bounty on the head of a dead gigolo in this Sam Peckinpah classic. Many of Peckinpah’s regular motifs are on display, primarily violent action and death. But for all the gunfire and car chases, this is a film about convention and those that battle against it. A process evident in many of the greatest Mexican films and one that Peckinpah presents entwined with real life concerns. The pace of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia maintains a steady speed, with quick-tempered dialogue and no-nonsense love scenes. Although this film is a Mexican-American co-production, its Mexican location, it’s casting of Mexican performers in over half of the key roles, and the relevance of the struggle against moral convention in Mexico’s society, past and present, qualifies it for this list.

Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

Alfonso Arau’s film adaptation of the novel of the same name tells the story of Pedro and Tita who are in love but forbidden to marry by Tita’s mother who wants her eldest child to marry first. Like Water for Chocolate explores the imposition of marriage which used to be commonplace in Mexico and upon release garnered rave reviews, prompting many critics to declare the film a milestone in Mexican cinema. Its greatest allure is the magical realist form in which parts of it are presented. Although the film does handle some dark subject matter, with death being of particular importance, it handles it lightly and generates an almost fairy tale like atmosphere. On one hand, this does lead many to feel disappointed, however on the other; it does allow it to become accessible to a wider audience.

Y tu Mama Tambien (2001)

A coming-of-age story about two teenage boys who take a road trip with a woman in her late 20s. They begin to compete for the woman, who unbeknownst to them is suffering from terminal cancer. Their encounters with her and their pitfalls help shape them as individuals and the final scene, set a year later during a chance encounter between the boys, shows them to be different people for whom a new chapter has begun. This change can also be interpreted as symbolic when examined alongside the film’s setting of a modern Mexico in which the fortunes of the long-victorious Institutional Revolutionary Party change after 71 years and the opposition comes in from the cold. Y tu Mama Tambien revolves around the themes of liberation, discovery and change, and it is not just for the performances that this film is remarkable, it is for its striking authenticity and genuine feel of adventure and affection.

Amores Perros (2002)

Alejandro Inarritu’s Amores Perros consists of three separate stories connected by a single car accident in Mexico City which briefly brings all of the characters together. Human loyalty and disloyalty feature prominently within each story and the film focuses particularly on animal cruelty. Inarritu creates a unique dynamic among the characters and restrains from presenting a smooth series of plot lines and action sequences, instead maintaining a raw and natural sensibility, with rough, handheld camera work and a pallet of earthly colours. The film’s structure echoes that of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) with its non-linear, multi-narrative. The pace of the edit increases as each story approaches its climax, until a final, shocking resolution of events.

Japon (2002)

This dark and revealing film follows a man as he experiences an existential crisis. He leaves Mexico City for the country in order to prepare for his death and lodges with an old Indian widow in her crumbling home overlooking a deserted canyon. His proximity to the widow causes him to reflect on her humanity and he begins to swing between imaginative expression and cruelty. This causes sensory confusion and reawakens his sexuality and enthusiasm for life; leading to a sexual experience with the elderly widow. Japon is in part a film about the exploration of existence and its meaning to the individual. It is also a film about the unseen in a cinematic sense; particularly with regards to the stunning cinematography showing vast, wild parts of Mexico, in which the protagonist reflects on his own place in this lonely landscape. The sex scene between the man and the widow is a comment on the ‘beautiful’ bodies we usually see engaging in sexual relations onscreen. This scene in the film still presents a beautiful act and it is one that happens all the time in the real world, however it is largely excluded from cinema for aesthetically motivated reasons.

Miss Bala (2011)

Laura is a 23-year-old daughter of a Tijuana clothing merchant who enters the Miss Baja California beauty pageant. Upon meeting Lino, a drug-trafficker, she gets involved in a spiralling drama in which Lino uses her as a decoy for his criminal dealings, leading her to be falsely accused by the media for being a part of the cartel who have taken her hostage. Set over the course of a single day, this intelligent thriller is essentially about a girl who wants to rise up from the slums and become somebody. Miss Bala is based loosely on actual events and boasts a strong central performance by Stephanie Sigman, who encapsulates the desires of this slum-born girl whilst not overplaying the effects of her background. Given the seriousness of the story’s subject, this film nevertheless manages to entertain and is very accessible to mainstream audiences, who may lack the background knowledge about Mexico’s endemic poverty and spiralling drug trade, although the proliferation of similar real life scenes through multiple television and internet news sources perhaps dampens the effectiveness of this tragic story.

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