|Scene from “Roma”|
The US’s sunny neighbor to the south Mexico, has been the topic of many a film as well as a popular film location. Here are some that inspired me, with a short summary.
Filmed in monochrome, this slice of life stunner walked away with an Oscar for Best Director in 2018. Alfonso Cuarón delivers an emotional portrait of domestic worker Cleo’s journey set against the prevailing domestic and political violence in 1970s Mexico. Titled “Roma” after the affluent neighborhood Colonia Roma in DF, though not totally autobiographical, Cuarón says it focuses on his childhood growing up in Mexico City.
The film follows Cleo, a live-in maid, who works for a husband and wife with four boisterous children and a live-in mother-in-law. A houseful, even for the expansive upper-middle class setting we find ourselves, the viewer, in.
Trouble begins when the father, Antonio, leaves for a conference in Quebec and never returns. Sofia, the mother, doesn’t deal well with being left, and Cleo picks up a lot of the emotional baggage left to her to explain to the youngsters why dad didn’t return.
Though the family, including parents Antonio and Sofia, love and welcome Cleo into their family, there is a strict dichotomy. At times they shower her with sweet phrases and praise, but she is clearly the hired help and walks a tight rope, being quickly reminded of her position if she steps out of line.
The film, seen through Cleo’s eyes, examines the class divide between races in Mexico, with the upper class whites in charge and people of color as the working class. During a New Year’s Eve fiesta in the countryside that the family is invited to, the ranch host’s hired help indicate their dissatisfaction with how the system works, signifying the realities of real life in a country so divided by class. It’s Cleo’s first view of outright dissension among workers.
“Roma” is set against the real life background of a country on the verge of political turmoil. Director Cuarón steps into the magnitude of the turmoil when Cleo and the mother-in-law, Therese, run an errand in the city. They’re caught up in the Corpus Christi massacre, a real event in 1971 where 120 people—mostly students—were murdered at a political demonstration where Mexico’s president, Luis Eccheveria, had hired armed thug para-militaries, the Falcons, to beat back the students while police turned a blind eye.
In interviews, the director states that he has based the story on many real parts of his life that he remembers as a boy, and he dedicates the film to his real life nanny, Liboria Rodriguez.
The “New York Times” called it “an expansive, emotional portrayal of life buffeted by violent forces. A masterpiece.”
The emotional final scene at the seashore will stay with you for a long time.
|Road Trip Scene from “Y Tu Mama También”|
Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN
In this film, another by Alfonso Cuarón, the background is not something that is separate from the characters—it’s an all encompassing force and something that is an important part of the characters’ collective unconscious. Not unlike “Roma,” it pictures Mexico on the brink of a major political and cultural shift.
“Cuarón gives as much importance to the background as to the foreground,” said one reviewer. Cuarón’s distinctive style is rife with near off-camera scenes that show glimpses of the social environment that surrounds the country. It shows his characters in a world that is much bigger than their immediate world view, and an eye-opener to how society and class in Mexico really work. The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is never more poignant than when Cuarón is behind the camera.
The film tells the story of three characters—two teen boys and a woman—as they embark on an adventure—a road trip. The teens, on the cusp of adulthood, are always striving for the next best thing: the next girl, next party, next crazy road trip. These acts in themselves become their manifesto.
But again, just as important as the characters and their yearnings is the background Cuarón shows the viewer. it’s the story of a country ten years into adulthood and in the early years of democracy, a young adult itself.
At times the camera seems to wander away from the action, giving brief glimpses of people who are all part of a shared identity: an old woman dancing by herself, a waitress carrying a tray. Slices of life. Paralleled by the two main characters—Julio and Tenoch—the background scenes are as much a part of this coming of age drama as the coming of age of a country that ends with the ousting of the long-standing PRI political party and its 71-year reign.
Julio and Tenoch also share a cultural identity that is permeated with classism. And the things Cuaró slyly shows us lets us know they are not aware of or even in control of their habits, no matter how much they might repudiate the fact.
When the riot scene occurs, they are still into adolescent desires. The road trip becomes the message as they’re joined by a runaway bride, Luisa, ten years their senior. The three share a united desire to reach a beach called Boca del Cielo. Cuarón leads us to the ocean—the metaphor for rebirth.
But in narrator overviews, we’re told how even the paradise they found with Luisa, who serves as a fulcrum for their rites of passage, can be lost. The narrator describes the fate of a fisherman they meet at Boca.
“Fisherman Chúy will try to give tours to tourists but a collective of Acapulco boatmen who supported the local tourism board will block his plans. Two years later he will end up without a boat, as a janitor at a hotel. He’ll never fish again.”
Cuarón exposes how unbridled tourism along with corruption are bi-products of a system gone awry and can also displace paradise.
The film is a devastating reminder of the impermanence of youth and how one summer can change everything, turning adolescence into a long-gone thing of the past.
In the end, when Luisa parts from them, she says, “Life is like the foam, so give yourself to the sea.”
|“Against All Odds”|
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Though the film location opens in Los Angeles, it soon drives the storyline to spectacular Mexican locations in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, the colorful resort island of Cozumel, Cancún, Tulum, the Maya ruins overlooking the Caribbean, and the famous pyramids of Chichén Itzá. Also prominently featured are the jungles of Yucatán. This movie was the first time that permission had been granted by the Mexican Government to use these sacred ruins for a theatrical motion picture.
Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward are both fugitives from the corrupt power and manipulation of Los Angeles and for a brief moment, the virgin paradise of Mexico’s jungles and ancient pyramids offer solace and redemption. The romantic, other worldliness of the Yucatán provides a setting for them to find each other, something that would not have been possible in LA due to their respective “emotional baggage and class differences,” said the director.
The plot involves Bridges as a pro-footballer with a trick knee. In need of money, he’s contacted by an old acquaintance, James Woods, a shady night club owner, who needs to find his girlfriend Jessie who stole money from him and fled to Mexico. Though reluctant to take the job, Bridges needs the cash even though he’s aware Woods could be capable of blackmailing him. Things go sideways in an odd turn of events when Bridges is contacted by the girl’s mother, owner of his football team, who promises to double the sum Woods has promised him if he can find her daughter and turn her over to the family, not Woods.
His quest to find the missing girl takes him first to Cozumel where he’s learned the girl is living (Isla Mujeres is the film’s actual location subbing for Cozumel). He finds Jessie; she rebuffs him believing he was sent by her mother or her boyfriend. Bridges prepares to leave, but runs into Jessie who realizes he’s not trying to expose her. She invites him back to her jungle hut and a passionate love affair begins.
If the plot appears too complicated (it is), the filming locations are worth the effort. Based on the original movie titled “Out of the Past” with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, “Against All Odds” is not an exact remake. The similarity between the movies is in the cynical love triangle. This time, the bad guy is a gambler, his girlfriend is the daughter of the owner of a pro-football team, and the guy who tracks her down is a team player who’s just been fired after a knee injury.
Don’t be sidetracked by the plot. Instead become enchanted with the wealth of beautiful locations—Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres—the film takes you to. Though the plot ultimately works in the end, the true star of this movie is Mexico. And if you’ve never traveled to that jewel of a country, believe me, you will soon be booking a flight once you see this film. “Against All Odds” shows Mexico’s beauty at its very best.
At its core, Traffic focuses on three parallel stories interconnected by drugs. One of the stories takes place in Mexico with Benicio del Toro as a police officer entangled in a web of corruption involving high ranking officers and notorious drug traffickers. Across the border we meet Catherine Zeta-Jones, an affluent, pregnant San Diego housewife whose husband is arrested on charges of drug trafficking, leaving her to run the family business.
And across the country, Michael Douglas plays an Ohio judge appointed as new drug czar, not knowing his daughter is a coke addict.
The film is Steven Soderbergh’s tenth, and a nod to his ability to brilliantly represent each character in this movie and their motives, be they user, enforcer, trafficker, lawyer, or politician. It’s a statement on how drugs cross not only border lines but family, social, cultural, and political lines, tangling all into a grand web of deceit, tyranny, and corruption. Soderbergh won an Oscar for Best Director for the 2000 film.
Kicking off the story, del Toro and his partner stop a drug transport and arrest the couriers. The arrest is interrupted by Mexican General Salazar who wants del Toro to work for him and arrest a kingpin of one of the country’s most powerful cartels. It becomes immediately clear that Salazar is corrupt and in the pocket of a cartel competitor, which leaves del Toro hanging. He drags in the DEA and the waters get murkier still.
A high stakes trial is set against Zeta-Jones’ husband, and she takes steps to assassinate anyone who will testify against her spouse. When sniper attempts fail, car bombs are employed, and the viewer discovers that, in the jungle, the female is more deadly than the male. As Zeta-Jones’s husband is placed behind bars, she crosses the border into Mexico to meet his suppliers. And the beat goes on, and on.
Originally based on a true story from Chennai, India, “Traffic” was first made into a British TV series about the Afghanistan opium trade titled “Traffik”.
|Scene from “Night of the Iguana”|
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
Puerto Vallarta will forever be linked to “The Night of the Iguana,” filmed in Mimaloya, a hard-to-access beach ten minutes south and a mere fishing village at the time. Taken from the Tennessee Williams 1963 play, Williams’ plot lines, usually mired in Southern US settings, turns this play into a tale of tourists at a seedy Mexico hotel. At the time of the filming, Puerto Vallarta was unknown, but “Iguana” changed that forever. It was PV’s coming out party.
With Richard Burton as lead, the bad boy seduces a young acolyte, Sue Lyon, on a tour bus. A scandal breaks out, and consequences lie in the offing. Though Burton is a draw, the fact that he is accompanied on location by his vamp of real life wife Elizabeth Taylor brings the paparazzi out in droves. Ava Gardener co-stars, and Sue Lyon, the ingenue, will eventually succumb to Burton’s wiles years later after he and Liz divorce. Of course Williams’ plot line is intense and twisted. But the real showstopper, once again, is Mexico.
BONUS POINTS: THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
|“The Shawshank Redemption”|
Though the story line takes place on the grounds of a Maine prison, Morgan Freeman’s parting words to Tim Robbins will forever cement this film in our minds as a Mexico movie:
“Zihuantanejo. It’s a little place in Mexico on the Pacific Ocean. Do you know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life—a warm place with no memory.”
The final scene showing the two former inmates reuniting on a white sand beach make us yearn to be south of the border, though in fact, that scene was filmed in the US Virgin Islands. But it sure looks like a sub for Mexico to me!
If you enjoyed this post, check out her other works, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya. It’s available on Amazon. And check out her website at www.jeaninekitchel.com. Books one and two in her Mexico cartel trilogy, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival, and Tulum Takedown, are also on Amazon.
Thanks for these recommendations–a couple I haven’t seen and the others worth watching again. I also enjoyed Cinco días sin Nora, directed by Mariana Chenillo.