Often regarded as the “rebirth” of Mexican cinema, the Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement ushered in new filmmakers who produced artistic masterpieces about social and philosophical issues. After years of decline, films from auteurs like Alejandro González Iñárritu gained international recognition and introduced the world to the uniqueness of a new form of Mexican cinema.
One of the leading figures of the Mexican New Wave, Alfonso Cuarón said: “I can see a consistency in the filmmakers that I utterly admire. You can see in Ingmar Bergman, Ozu, Dryer, Godard, Rohmer, etc. their amazing consistency. But I also think the auteur theory manifested from a certain snobbery of the 50s and 60s that I don’t think I’m particularly in need of. It’s a need to differentiate between ‘real filmmakers’ with a point of view and ‘hacks’ that can do plate films and entertaining films but don’t provide a unity of cinematic elements.”
He added: “I just don’t know what an auteur is. I know that I’m a cinephile. So I’m well-read in auteur theory, and I think it’s a nice theory, but it’s not a universal law. It’s like when Chabrol was asked about la nouevelle vague and he said ‘There are no waves. There is only the ocean.’ I definitely don’t have the consistency of a filmmaker like Bergman or Ozu, or even, you know, Guillermo Del Toro. But I have my own consistency in that I can only do things from my standpoint, my point of view. I cannot take on another point of view.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the Mexican New Wave to examine the unique artistic sensibilities of this important movement in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the Mexican New Wave:
Homework (Jaime Humberto Hermosillo – 1991)
Homework launches a memorable meta-commentary on voyeurism and fetishisation, telling the story of a film student who secretly records herself making love to her ex-husband for a school project. It was selected as the Mexican entry for the Oscars and earned a special mention at the Moscow Film Festival.
Hermosillo explained in a 1986 Film Comment interview: “At that time the industry was dominated by a lousy unionised in-group of directors who excluded the new generation of directors. Our Nuevo Cine group of young directors planned films only marginally connected with the existing industry.”
Amores perros (Alejandro González Iñárritu – 2000)
The first addition to the filmmaker’s Trilogy of Death, Amores perros is a gripping crime thriller that features intersecting narratives connected by a car accident in Mexico City. It earned an Oscar nomination and ended up receiving the Best Picture Award from the Mexican Academy of Film.
The director said, “Well, the idea was to make a movie about love, death and redemption, focusing on the painful process of learning to love somebody. So deciding when and how the characters’ paths would cross was a tough decision, because that’s what makes the difference between three short films and a whole movie divided into three stories.”
Dust to Dust (Juan Carlos de Llaca – 2000)
An enchanting road film about two teenagers who set out to fulfil their grandfather’s last wishes, Dust to Dust is a beautiful meditation on youth and the fragility of existence. When the grandfather passes away, it is up to two completely contrasting cousins to honour his death.
Along the way, they manage to look past their differences and find a sense of purpose. For its refreshingly bold artistic vision, Dust to Dust won the Audience Choice Award at the Chicago Latino Film Festival and even scored a special mention at the Havana Film Festival.
Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón – 2001)
One of the best road films ever made which transcends the limitations of genre, Cuarón’s 2001 masterpiece is a coming-of-age tale about two teenagers who embark on a trip with an elder woman. For its unrelenting vision, the film gained international acclaim and scored Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
While taking about his experience, Cuarón reflected: “I learned there’s an amazing unexplored territory in terms of narrative. Before, I thought the unexplored territory was the form, the way you shoot a movie. Now, I’m learning about the beautiful marriage between form and narrative.
“I used to be very controlling with visuals and editing, and I would pretty much craft the performances; now I have learned to trust the material and the actors. On this film, what was so liberating was that everything was on the shoulders of the actors. That was great.”
The Crime of Padre Amaro (Carlos Carrera – 2002)
Loosely based on a 19th century novel, The Crime of Padre Amaro unveils the corrupt machinations of the failing institution that is the Catholic Church. For its attack on the hypocrisies of religion, it faced a backlash from Catholic groups in the country but ended up becoming the highest-grossing film in the country at the time.
The filmmaker recalled: “It was based on a 19th century Portuguese novel. I was intrigued about these strange characters – the priests – and wanted to learn more about them, and the way they used other people’s faith to get more money or power for their own purposes.
It took several years to raise the money, partly because of the controversial nature of the material. The Catholic Church is very powerful in Mexico. One conservative group wanted the film to be banned, and started an internet campaign against it. Another group, The Soldiers of Christ, even threatened to bomb cinemas where the film was playing.”
Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro – 2006)
A dark fantasy masterpiece that transcends the cinematic medium, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of a little girl who finds herself in a mysterious and sinister world during great political upheaval. The film was a huge commercial success and won several prestigious accolades, including three Academy Awards, three BAFTA Awards.
Guillermo del Toro explained: “The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don’t believe, you’ll view the movie as, “Oh, it was all in her head.” If you view it as a believer, you’ll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real. My last image in the movie is an objective little white flower blooming in a dead tree with the bug watching it.”
Leap Year (Michael Rowe – 2010)
A fascinating psychodrama about a 25-year-old journalist who lives in isolation but develops a connection with a stranger. Shot entirely in a tiny one-room apartment, Leap Year translates the intimacy and the claustrophobia of the human condition.
Rowe said: “I write the shots into the screenplay, I mean I don’t write a technical script, a shooting script, but the shots are implicit in the way the sentences progress. Every time I set up a new shot I change a paragraph for example. This is just my personal discipline as a screenwriter, I know not everyone does it.”
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas – 2012)
The Latin title of the film translates to “light after darkness”, signifying the existential framework most of us find ourselves in. Semi-autobiographical in nature, the film follows a rural family who are subjected to a lot of psychological conflicts. For his vision, Reygadas won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The filmmaker elaborated: “The whole idea of ‘light after darkness’ seems appealing to me in terms of intimate experience, of being a human living in a Western world. In a sense we all live in the darkness of our daily frustrations. We manage to be free and pure even though we may lead a dramatic life. Yet, I hope the light would come after us to enlighten the world for our children. However, the title is in Latin, because thanks to that it says a lot about the clash between West and East.”
Heli (Amat Escalante – 2013)
A powerful crime drama about the political landscape in the country, Heli features a factory worker who struggles to protect his sister amidst a drug war. While critics have been polarised about Heli, Escalante won the Best Director Award at Cannes.
Escalante said: “The way I come up with my ideas is usually by isolated images that come to me maybe when I’m walking around on the mountain, or doing something in everyday life. I start to link them together and try to see if I can come up with a story. This is what I’ve noticed when I look back on the process.”
Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios – 2014)
Güeros is an unforgettable look at the condition of the youth in Mexico, presenting the case of a young boy who is sent by his single mother to live with his uncle in Mexico City. Set during the student strikes of 1999, the film conducts a vital examination of what it means to be young and lost.
The director explained, “The origin of the film was the need to make a love letter to Mexico City, which is the city where I’ve lived my whole life. Most people who grew up there spent a lot of time in their cars. We essentially lived in our cars, we eat in our cars, we fuck there, and we get into fights there. The city and cars are very connected. It felt logical. Once I started making the film I also had this need to get to know the city better, because you can’t ever get to know it fully.”