One might say it all began in 2000 with the unprecedented blasts of frenzy and sexiness that were Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. When before had you felt so moved, aroused and shocked—by Mexican candor, Oaxacan beaches, slow dancing to ranchera music and illegal dog fights?
True: those things have become commonplaces in the years since. But that may be precisely because they kicked off the new golden age of Mexican filmmaking we seem to be witnessing now. At the time of writing, four of the last five Oscars for best director have been awarded to Mexicans. Last year, a Mexican took home Venice’s Golden Lion. A few months before, another Mexican had transcended the limits of film with Cannes’ first virtual reality project. This year, Cuarón’s Roma (2018) garnered ten Oscar nominations. What is going on?
There are a number of unmysterious facts to quote. Just as the original “golden age” of Mexican cinema thrived on the country’s industrial growth spurt of the Forties, so is this new apogee partly a result of steady economic growth. The jump from film to digital has allowed not only for more allocation of resources to large projects but also for more independent productions. And to meet the demand, several new film schools have opened under the wing of various production companies.
But if you’ve experienced González Iñárritu’s Flesh and Sand (2017), or Cuarón’s Roma, you might suspect this momentum has little to do with numbers. In Flesh and Sand, the viewer puts on an Oculus Rift VR headset and gets dropped into a virtual Arizona desert among migrants dragging themselves under the sun. They are mostly women and children. Within minutes, a helicopter’s lights and deafening noise become shouts and guns. Patrol officers’ howls to “get down!” split the group between those who obey and those who run for their lives. Which group should you join? Should you join? Should you just stand there? The sensory turmoil throws your body into a state of emergency. An officer detects your eye level and points his gun at you. You drop to the ground. Down there, you feel, as reviewers have variously put it, “lowered, lessened … subhuman, without even a criminal’s civilian rights,” or more bluntly, reduced to a “piece of cattle.”
Roma’s aesthetic runs in the opposite direction. The film puts you through the ordinary tragedies of an ordinary middle-class family in the company of their maid, Cleo. You experience her devotion to the children she serves, the abandonment of her own child’s father, the unsurpassable wall that divides her world—the indigenous world—from middle-class Mexicans, and even her confrontation with the forces of nature (an earthquake, the raging ocean) as they press themselves against the weak (newborns trapped in a crumbling hospital, imprudent children who stray from the shore). Story is subordinated to feeling: there isn’t so much a plot to the film as there are memories re-rendered from Cuarón’s childhood. Things happen, but they don’t amount to a standard narrative arc. Instead, Roma turns on the way Cleo takes in the phenomena around her through no filter but her lovely almond-shaped eyes. Perpetually on the margins—of her country’s politics, of the household where she lives—Cleo’s grounded perspective allows her—and you with her—to experience everything without judgment, with an open heart. Such vulnerability is dangerous: one minute you’re seeing Cleo scrub floors, and the next, parts of your soul ache that you didn’t know existed.
Not all critics have praised the films for this emotional approach to storytelling. Reviewing Roma for the New Yorker, Richard Brody complained of Cuarón’s failure to give us any historical specifics in the film, favoring mood over context. When Cleo hides from a shoot-out, for example, we don’t learn she’s in the midst of the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971. Nor do we learn where Cleo comes from and what pushed her to seek work in the city, or what her and the family’s ideological sympathies might be: “In the film, politics are strictly personal, de-ideologized, dehistoricized.” Other critics have put a finer point on it: “It’s a movie made to appease the ruling class,” Scout Tafoya writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Along similar lines, Film Comment’s Jordan Cronk says of Flesh and Sand that it “turns the suffering of border crossings into a consumable VR experience.” The films do keep their scope small. But are they really solipsistic or merely sentimental?
It is easy to be misled by the appearance of social realism of these films. It is easy, in particular, to link them to original “golden age” work like Ismael Rodríguez’s We the Poor (1948), a story about a gang of outcasts life won’t throw a bone. Yet, in contrast with their golden-age predecessors, the newer Mexican filmmakers do not romanticize poverty, endorse macho domination urges or reduce their female characters to mere saintly mother figures or loyal fiancées. Through the years, Mexican cinema has dropped many of these tired tropes. The result was the “New Latin American Cinema” of the late twentieth century, such as Arturo Ripstein’s dark fable The Castle of Purity (1973), Paul Leduc’s Frida Kahlo biopic Frida Still Life (1983) or Cuarón’s own Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991). Ideologically and stylistically, “New Latin American” films were as far from We the Poor as, say, Fight Club was from Casablanca.