Three Characters in Search of the Truth

"Y tu mama tambien" is a toast to Mexico, magical, musical

By Ernesto S. Martinez
Published on LatinoLA: March 14, 2002

Three Characters in Search of the Truth

Over the last 11 years, Mexican feature length films number in the hundreds.

That isn?t much compared to Hollywood studio and American independent productions. But the ratio of quality to mediocrity is easily surpassed -- Mexico?s ratio being roughly 3 to 2 whereas Hollywood?s ratio is 1 to 20, and independent productions 1 to 7.

Tongue-in-cheek ratios notwithstanding, Mexico?s cinematic productions in the last decade hold up to any country?s standards of excellence. Among these films are Maria Novaro?s "Danz?n" and "Sin Dejar Huella", Guita Shyfter?s "Novia que te vea", Jorge Fons? "Rojo amanecer", Salvador Aguirre?s "De ida y vuelta", Jaime Humberto Hermosillo?s "De noche vienes, Esmeralda", Arturo Ripstein?s, "El coronel no tiene quien le escriba", Fernando Sari?anas "Todo el poder", Luis Estrada?s "La ley de Herodes", Antonio Serranos? "Sexo, pudor, y lagrimas", Alejandro Gonz?lez I?arritu?s "Amores Perros" and this past year, Marisa Sistach?s "Perfume de violetas, nadia te oye" and Alfonso Cuaron?s "Y tu mam? tambi?n".

These are just a handful of the incredible amazing works by talented Mexican auteurs. These films and others not mentioned are compelling and well crafted stories about the Mexican experience south of the border.

With the exception of a few of these films, most of the films are never picked up for theatrical release in the United States. Some obtain video deals and others, a good deal of them in fact, obtain some U.S. exposure through the Latino film festival circuit (including the San Diego festival beginning March 14).

The latest great Mexican hope is Alfonso Cuar?n?s road movie "Y Tu Mam? Tambi?n" (IFC films is releasing this film fairly wide as independent film release patterns go).

The great deal of festival accolades this film has garnered over the past year, along with front page stories on the LA times Sunday Calendar section and the LA Weekly this past week could very well signal a breakout success for the latest cinematic oeuvre from Mexico.

Does this mean that more Mexican films will likely follow in receiving U.S. distribution? It?s not likely for a variety of reasons that I don?t have space to address in this review of Cuar?n?s film.

Let?s just enjoy these films as they come, because, as one of the characters in the film states, ?la vida es como la espuma, por eso hay que darse como el mar? (roughly translated: life is like the foam from the sea, give yourself to life as though you are the sea.).

In a scene from the film the three protagonists, teens Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garc?a Bernal), and the Spanish wife of Tenoch?s pretentious older cousin Jano, Luisa (Maribel Verd?), are riding in Julio?s beat up station wagon towards a nonexistent beach. Tenoch, the son of a wealthy, corrupt politician, is riding in the back seat. As they pass by a town, a sign by the road informs them that the town is named Tepelmeme.

Riding in the backseat, Tenoch takes notice and looks off towards the town, momentarily slipping out of character and actually becoming a complex teenager with real anxieties, communicating thoughts that are beautifully and poetically juxtaposed to his adolescent assuredness and braggadocio. It never occurred to Tenoch that he would ever visit Tepelmeme, the hometown of his nanny Leodegaria (Leo). Tenoch recalls how he used to call Leo mam? until he was four years old.

What is sublime about this scene is how it takes place in an ephemeral moment when Tenoch is staring out the car window, with his mind occupied with his private sense of self. For a brief moment we are allowed inside the anxiety-ridden mind of a male Mexican youth who is flailing through his adolescence struggling to make sense of the conflict between his individual desires and the desires of a culture that works incessantly to constrain and channel those individual desires towards socially productive ends, i.e. to reproduce Mexican society.

Filmmaker Cuar?n accomplishes this brilliantly through a formal technique of suppressing the soundtrack and inserting a male objective voice-over at different unforeseen moments throughout the film. This teen road movie is interrupted consistently with this voice-over. The narrator functions as the fourth protagonist, commenting on the personal and family histories of the three travelers, and also at times narrating events and histories outside the purview of this rambunctious story of sex -- however brief it may be for these teens and Luisa -- pot smoking, and the search for truth in the form of a perfect beach named Heaven?s Mouth.

And it is through this narration that the road movie is transformed to a larger more humane story about the blindness of Mexican society through a theme of adolescent struggles for an unattainable truth, all the while involved in a subtle yet persistent self-deception.

In the aforementioned scene the narrator articulates Tenoch?s awareness of his conflicted relationship with his nanny/mommy Leo by exposing the melancholic profundity of calling one?s nanny "mam?" until one is four years old, and then managing to ?forget? that fundamental relationship. And then the narrator adds that Tenoch will not share any of this with his road companions.

In narrating this absence through this willful forgetting, this startling Mexican film unveils a subtle and persistent critique of both insipid (American) teen movies and of the rigid class structure of Mexican society and the inequities and blindness that it engenders.

But it does it fleetingly and unobtrusively.

The film mainly trades on the vulgarities between Tenoch and Julio in the resoundingly urbane poetics of chilango cal? -- Mexico City Slang -- and their relationship with the beautiful Luisa. This is the basic premise of this Mexican road movie.

The two youths have invented a beach called Heaven?s Mouth, in a moment of lust and blindness, while previously conversing with Luisa at a wedding. Jano?s confession of infidelity to Luisa is the catalyst that?s sets the story literally in motion.

Towards the end of the film Luisa tells the two youths that Mexico is full of life. Julio and Tenoch, drunk on mescal, shout out in a toast, ?To Mexico, magical, musical.?

In their wonderfully blinded insight, they are right, but the Mexico she is talking about is the Mexico these boys cannot see. Not yet anyway.

About Ernesto S. Martinez:
Ernesto S. Mart?nez is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA

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