In the early 2000s, Alejandro González Iñárritu was a developing Mexican filmmaker with two feature films under his belt: his low budget debut, Amores perros (Love’s a Bitch - 2001), and his first English language film, 21 Grams (2003). Although well regarded by critics and arthouse mavens, he was relatively unknown outside of cineaste circles.
Today he’s one of the most highly regarded directors on the planet – twice lauded as Best Director by the Academy (Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance in 2014, and The Revenant in 2015).
He’s not alone there. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Mexican cinema has undergone a renaissance like no other national film industry. Today it stands as one of the most innovative and artistically provocative film colonies around, one that produces world-beating filmmakers who can no only compete on the so-called “world cinema” stage, but can go toe to toe with the best the American industry has to offer and win – commercially and artistically.
The three amigos
Three filmmakers stand at the heart of the New Mexican Cinema – or Nuevo Cine Mexicano in Spanish, if you prefer – and rather charmingly, they’re all friends.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Hellboy, The Shape of Water), and Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Roma) all met early in their careers and collaborated, and they continue to work with and support each other today. Del Toro went out of his way to help Iñárritu edit the multi-narrative Amores perros. Cuarón produced Del Toro’s wondrous dark fable, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). That’s perhaps surprising, given that, 20 years earlier, Del Toro had criticised Cuarón – to his face, no less – for his directorial debut, an episode of the Mexican horror anthology series, La Hora Marcada (The Marked Hour).
Speaking to Variety, Cuarón recalled, “...he asked me why the story was so good, because the episode sucked so much. It was the way that he said it that I couldn’t help but laugh and laugh, because he was right.”
Watch Babel trailer
The dawn of Nuevo Cine Mexico
The three friends aren’t the only prominent figures in modern Mexican film, of course. The precise origins and parameters of the movement are up for debate among scholars, but the international success of Alfonso Arau’s magical realist literary adaptation Like Water for Chocolate, which culminated in a 1992 Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, is generally regarded as a turning point. With the golden age of Mexican cinema having ended in the ‘60s, the country’s filmic output at the time was dominated by cheap “Mexploitation” films (Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) is the most prominent), while the domestic box office was dominated by American product – a situation horribly familiar to Australian filmmakers.
Like Water for Chocolate was the first of a number of films to break that paradigm, although it took time for the creative momentum to build. A decade on, works such as Iñárritu’s Amores perros, Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too – 2001) and Carlos Carrera’s El crimen del padre Amaro (The Crimes of Padre Amaro – 2002) were films for and about modern Mexico, tackling themes of class, religion, and sexuality with frankness and bravado. To be fair, it did take a while for Mexican filmmakers to really grapple with the country’s internal racial divisions, but the recent success of Roma demonstrates that this, too, is now on the table.
Babel changes everything
It was Iñárritu’s Babel that really shook things up, changing Mexican cinema from a niche area of interest to an industry with significant global heft.
Like his earlier Amores perros, Babel is a multi-strand narrative that encompasses several groups of characters struggling with death, guilt, and regret. Unlike that film, though, Babel spills the borders of the director’s home country, with segments taking place not just in Mexico, but in the US, Japan and Morocco. Iñárritu recruited a hugely talented international cast as well, with Brad Pitt as an American whose wife, played by Cate Blanchett, is accidentally shot while on vacation in Africa; Adriana Barazza as a Mexican nanny whose drunk nephew (Gael García Bernal) brings down the wrath of the US Border Patrol); and Rinko Kikuchi as a deaf Japanese teenager failing to cope with her mother’s suicide.
Babel is still a Mexican film, but it’s a film that puts Mexican themes, ideas and values into a global context. The world responded. The film was a huge critical and financial success, picking up a slew of award nominations and wins. Crucially, Iñárritu became the first Mexican ever to be nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards.
Viva El Cine Mexico
He certainly was not the last. In the years since then, Iñárritu and his friends have pretty much owned the category, and their films have picked up dozens of gongs elsewhere. With his wins for Birdman and The Revenant, Cuarón’s for Gravity and Roma, and Del Toro’s for The Shape of Water, it’s inarguable that Mexican cinema has risen to place of extraordinary prominence on the world stage, and that doesn’t look like it’s changing any time soon.
Sunday 6 June, 1:05am on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Language: English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Rinko Kikuchi, Cate Blanchett, Brad Pitt, Adriana Barraza