At the Venice Film Festival last fall, director Alfonso Cuaron screened his new movie, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (And Your Mama Too), about two teenage Mexican boys on a raucous road trip in search of sex and adventure. A French journalist asked him why he made such a superficial film when Mexico has so many overwhelming problems. Why wasn't the crushing poverty and the social inequity addressed in the film?
The Mexican-born director's answer was typically blunt. "You are a racist. You have the mentality of a classic liberal European. Your own guilt is eased by creating a paternalistic view of what Latin American film should be instead of seeing Latin America for what it is--a very diverse society.... Why is it that when [Italian director Michelangelo] Antonioni deals with issues of the so-called bourgeoisie or when [Spanish director Luis] Bunuel does it, it's OK, but if a Latin American uses characters from the upper or middle classes we are considered sellouts and reactionaries?"
Cuaron is a man with passion and a vision. His exchange of words with the French journalist is just one of a number of justifications he has had to make in defense of his film, which will be released in U.S. theaters Friday. Not only did he have to break down stereotypes about Mexico, but he also had to fight his countrymen when it came to the rating of his sexually explicit picture. (In the U.S., the movie is being released without a rating.) His battle with the Mexican ratings board was one of many occasions on which the outspoken director and the Mexican bureaucracy that oversees every aspect of moviemaking--from funding to ratings to submitting movies for foreign Oscar consideration--have clashed.
And yet Cuaron says making "Tu Mama" was one of the most joyous experiences he has had as a director. It put him back in touch cinematically with his cultural roots after a decade in Hollywood making such films as the critically acclaimed "A Little Princess" (1995) and the disappointing "Great Expectations" (1998). It helps that "Tu Mama" was a huge hit in Mexico. Perhaps most important, it re-sparked the love of filmmaking he had lost.
"I felt like after 'Great Expectations' I was repeating myself," he says. "I needed to find my voice."
Cuaron is one of a crop of Mexican directors--most between the ages of 30 and 40--who have brought a new vibrancy to their nation's cinema. They include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose hard-charging tale of violent, contemporary Mexico City, "Amores Perros," was nominated for a foreign-language Oscar last year; Guillermo del Toro, whose critically acclaimed "The Devil's Backbone," a horror story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, was made in a co-production of Spain and Mexico; and Salvador Carrasco, whose "The Other Conquest," a historical epic about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, made $1 million on a limited release in Los Angeles alone. Their films have, in part, led Mexican audiences back into movie theaters after a decades-long dry spell and opened Hollywood's eyes to the talent south of the border.
But Mexico is not alone in its brazen filmmaking. Directors in Iran, Korea, Taiwan and Argentina, for instance, are also breaking the mold with their stylish and bold movies. More than ever, filmmakers who come from countries suffering through political or economic turmoil are introducing the world to their stories. For instance, Korean director Kang Je-Gyu's action thriller "Shiri," about a renegade group of North Korean commandos infiltrating South Korea, was a No. 1 hit not only in Korea but also in Japan and Hong Kong. Argentine director Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar-nominated "Son of the Bride," a dramatic comedy about a man's relationships and his inability to cope, typifies the kind of original filmmaking in that country.
These directors are not making your typical art-house fare. Instead they are making entertaining, relevant and energetic films, says MJ Peckos, president of First Look Pictures, one of the most active distributors of independent and foreign films in the U.S. In some ways, foreign filmmakers are filling the void left by Hollywood's more formulaic movies, creating their own brand of original and edgy material.
"There certainly seem to be more countries turning out good films," she says. "They are taking on issues that are contemporary and important. I suppose it's people reacting to their environment and making a statement and expressing themselves."
"Y Tu Mama Tambien" began about 10 years ago with a flip suggestion from Cuaron's closest friend, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Ali"): "What if we do a road movie about a couple of dudes who go to the beach, dude?"
Clumsy, full of bravado, clueless, tender, gross and, most of all, horny, the teenage boy has long been the object of ridicule--and affection--in such over-the-top comedies as "American Pie" and "Porky's." Overheated teenage boys are at the heart of "Tu Mama," but Cuaron had a different type of film in mind: He wanted to memorialize those painful moments of self-discovery--most involving sex--that mark adolescence. Indeed, Cuaron's graphic exploration of teenage sex will no doubt shock many American moviegoers.
And so "Tu Mama" began to come together as the story of two teenage dudes, Julio and Tenoch, who take off to the beach with a sexy older woman, Luisa, and find out a lot about themselves, their friendship and sex along the way. The title comes from a Spanish double-entendre used as an insult, similar to the expression "Yo' mama."
The idea floated in Cuaron's mind while he worked on other films, such as his 1991 first feature, "Love in the Time of Hysteria," which was not released in the U.S. but opened doors for him in Hollywood. He continued making movies, this time in Hollywood with "A Little Princess" and then "Great Expectations." But it was not until spring 1999 that Cuaron and his brother Carlos began writing "Tu Mama" in earnest.
The pair hunkered down in Cuaron's Manhattan apartment listening to Frank Zappa's "Watermelon in Easter Hay" on an endless loop, squirting squirrels with their garden hose and using Cuaron's 19-year-old son, Jonas, as a consultant.
Like his films, the 40-year-old Cuaron has a youthful spirit. He refuses to be trapped in societal conventions of adulthood. He has lived in New York City for 10 years and still rents his apartment. He despises wearing suits. He bristles at formality and becomes visibly anxious when asked to hold a question-and-answer session for his movie--he would prefer to make it casual, among friends, like college buddies going out for coffee. He has an air of juvenile carelessness, showing up for interviews with mussed hair, a soft gray cotton sweater, gray nylon sweatpants and white Puma tennis shoes (an outfit he wears two days in a row).
"Losing your virginity is complicated," Cuaron said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "There is a great deal of idealization that is usually shattered when the moment happens. It's like going to Disneyland and figuring out that Mickey Mouse is really a guy in a costume who is fed up because he is hot and he has to take another stupid picture with another kid. You realize that magic is not that magical."
To be true to the story, Cuaron wanted the camera to act like an omnipresent observer. As anyone who has seen teenage boys in action knows, it isn't pretty. You see Julio and Tenoch (played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who also starred in "Amores Perros," and Diego Luna) in their element, getting high, masturbating, using profanity, having sex with their girlfriends and learning the ropes with the older woman, Spanish actress Maribel Verdu.
The film's unapologetic take on teen sexuality begins from the first act, with the opening scene showing a naked Luna in bed with his girlfriend. She is going to Europe for the summer with her best friend, and he is making her swear she won't have sex with "a smooth Italian," a "hippie gringo," a "sissy Frenchman" or a "huarache-wearing Mexican."
The Mexican ratings board gave it a C--the equivalent of an NC-17. Furious that the rating would shut out the very teenage audience intended for the film, Cuaron sued. But the lawsuit is still pending, and the film is already out on video. The rating did not seem to affect the movie's success on the big screen.
The film, which was released last spring in Mexico, brought 4 million moviegoers into the theaters (last year's Oscar-nominated "Amores Perros" brought in 3 million) and raked in about $13 million. It is now the second-highest-grossing Mexican film of all time, just behind the 1999 hit "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas" (Sex, Shame and Tears), which grossed about $15 million.
According to the Mexican Film Institute, only about 25 films a year are produced in Mexico--and most of those are never seen in the U.S., where getting distribution for foreign movies is an increasingly difficult endeavor. Despite their successes in international markets, Mexico's younger filmmakers seem to be at odds with the aging bureaucracy that controls filmmakers.
"They believe in a series of taboos that are remnants from the '60s," says Cuaron, sipping on a glass of Evian water ("no ice, no lemon, no gas--just as God intended"). "It goes something like this: If you are entertaining, then you are superficial; if you are well versed technically, then you must be a Hollywood wannabe; if you deal with themes about the middle class, then you must be a bourgeois or a reactionary; if you leave your country, you are a sellout."
Cuaron's issues with the ratings board--that the ratings are arbitrarily decided by a small committee of government appointees and that it is unclear to filmmakers what criteria are used to decide on a specific rating--are similar to complaints other filmmakers have lodged with the entire Mexican filmmaking bureaucracy. Two years ago, officials from the Mexican Film Institute were accused of sabotaging the release of "La Ley de Herodes" (Herod's Law), a movie that darkly satirized the corruption of the political party PRI. The film's director, Luis Estrada, wrangled for months with the film institute about buying his film back and releasing it independently. Eventually, it was released, and it made a modest profit.
Carrasco, director of "The Other Conquest," says he had to leave Mexico because of the politics involved in making movies.
"If you succeed here [in the U.S.], you tend to attract people like a magnet. They want to be part of your success--not out of any altruistic purpose but to benefit from it," says the director, who now lives in Santa Monica with his family. "But in our countries, for some complex reason that might have a lot to do with the scarred psyche of colonization, success tends to ostracize you. I remember when [novelist] Octavio Paz won the Nobel Prize and his effigy was burnt in a public square in Mexico City."
Cuaron had fought the same battles as Carrasco a decade earlier with the release of "Love in the Time of Hysteria." Back then, he accused the film institute leaders of corruption and ineptitude. Because of his outspokenness, he says he burned his bridges in Mexico. So he moved to New York and began making Hollywood movies. Unfortunately, the complaints never seem to usher major change.
"We were the first people to ever question or challenge the RTC [radio, television and cinematography commission]," he says in rapid-fire Spanish, referring to his recent lawsuit. "[In Mexico] everybody lives in fear. When we filed our suit, we figured all the liberals of Mexican society would back us. No one did. One senator even said, 'Who cares? It's only film. We have bigger problems to worry about.' And others said this was a publicity stunt. But I say it's not about film or even one film, it's about freedom of expression."
Perhaps because of the controversy or because of its content, "Tu Mama" was not submitted by the Mexican Academy as the country's submission for foreign Oscar consideration. Instead, a little-known film that, as of press time, did not have a U.S. distributor, "Perfume de Violetas," was sent in. The move, seen as a slight by some, follows a pattern in which the academy has, in the past, failed to submit hits such as "The Other Conquest" or "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas" for Oscar consideration.
Cuaron believes Mexican filmmakers need to strike out on their own, and that their reliance on government funding corrupts the creative process and results in an unstable industry susceptible to economic and political ups and downs. Unfortunately, he says, the problems faced by Mexican filmmakers are similar to the challenges other Latin American filmmakers face.
"Latin American cinema needs to integrate itself into the international scene," Cuaron says. "If we don't, it will continue to be as fragile as it is. You will just continue to have individual successes like Alejandro Gonzalez ['Amores Perros'], Memo [Guillermo] del Toro ['The Devil's Backbone'], [Brazil's] Walter Salles ['Central Station'] and Andrucha Waddington ['Me, You, Them']." He is hoping Latin American filmmakers will unify as Asian filmmakers have; Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong are sharing directors, stars and stories to create pan-Asian cinema. Cuaron says it's time for Latin Americans to create a pan-American film industry.
He has found a backer for his plan. Using capital from Mexican millionaire and founder of Grupo Omnilife health products Jorge Vergara, Cuaron founded Producciones Anhelo. They have also opened a U.S. office under the name Monsoon Productions to produce movies in Hollywood. "Tu Mama" was made solely with money from Anhelo and with no help from the Mexican government. Cuaron says he was given complete freedom in writing his script, with no strings attached to the financing.
The next two scheduled projects for Anhelo involve a Peruvian director who lives in New York but will shoot in Mexico with a Mexican cast, and a second film from Uruguay with a director who is half Japanese. "This makes me so happy because it speaks to this opening of borders--not even the opening but an erasing of borders," Cuaron says.
Despite the challenges of making movies in countries with few resources, entrenched bureaucracies hostile to young filmmakers and, in some cases, outright government censorship, many filmmakers are taking up their cameras and shooting contemporary stories that are particular to their countries but universal in their appeal.
Cheng-Sim Lim, a programmer who specializes in foreign film at UCLA Film and Television Archive, says that for years, American audiences have been missing out on some excellent foreign filmmaking.
This is partly because of U.S. distributors' lack of interest in foreign films--and a lack of screens to show them on--but also because of their Eurocentric perspective. Lim says this is changing in the last few years, in part because of the rising popularity of Asian films.
For all his success and seriousness as a filmmaker, Cuaron remains at heart a teenager, says the director's younger brother.
"I don't think Alfonso has returned to his normal age," says Carlos, 35. It helps that Cuaron has an exceptionally close relationship with his son, who is now a freshman at Vassar. The two are almost like brothers, with Jonas confiding in his father about everything from girl troubles to drugs to an arrest once for jumping over subway turnstiles.
Cuaron alternately talks like a teenager and reverts to adult mode.
He is unmistakably from Mexico City's upper middle class, with Mexico City slang such as "No seas guey" ("Don't be a jackass"), "Que chido, mano" ("How cool, dude") and unprintable expressions often flowing at the end of superbly phrased sentences.
His directing style reflects his personality. He allows his actors and crew a great deal of freedom--something so unusual in Hollywood that "he scared people," says Mark Johnson, producer of "A Little Princess."
"I remember being in the bathroom and overhearing some of the crew guys saying, 'The Mexicans have gone crazy on Stage 16,'" Johnson recalls, laughing. "You see, Chivo [Lubezki] and Alfonso were speaking Spanish, and nobody knew what they were doing. Some people were worried that some of the stuff he was shooting would not work. But I believed in him."
On "Great Expectations," Cuaron was not so fortunate.
"After 'Great Expectations' he was in a real funk," Johnson says. "It just was not a good experience all around. After that movie he said to me, 'I don't want to go do another big, elephantine movie. I want to go off and get my hands dirty.'"
"Tu Mama" was a cultural touchstone for Cuaron. He longed to write with the richness of his native tongue and feel the familiarity of the country he grew up in. The small, tightknit crew drove from Mexico City, stopping in several small, poor towns as they wound their way south to their destination on the beaches of Oaxaca. They would film in the mornings and late afternoons, with long breaks when they would play soccer and hang out on the beach.
The film was a family affair, with the Cuaron brothers and Lubezki having known Garcia Bernal and Luna since they were babies. The Cuaron brothers' nanny, who raised the boys and their two siblings with their mother, has a cameo in the film as Luna's nanny. Cuaron's father, a nuclear scientist, left the family when the boys were young and doesn't keep in regular contact.
Lubezki, who grew up in Mexico City with Cuaron and has worked on all the director's movies, says his friend needed to return to where he came from, cinematically and culturally.
"I think that the movie is the result of a lot of things that he could not do in movies here," says Lubezki, who was nominated for cinematography Oscars for "A Little Princess" and "Sleepy Hollow." "[In 'Tu Mama'] he could do anything he wanted without having to consult with anybody--no studio, no producer, nothing. It was a totally freeing experience. He needed that. In 'Love in the Time of Hysteria,' he tasted that fruit. And once you have tasted that freedom it's hard to go back."
Cuaron says "Tu Mama" was an important journey for him as a filmmaker. Hollywood was starting to wear him down. Two years ago, at a director's lab at the Sundance Institute, he found himself mentally ridiculing the young filmmakers he was supposed to mentor.
"I thought, 'These guys--this is their first stupid movie. Soon they will realize that making movies is about schmoozing, and it's not all about enthusiasm,'" he says. "And suddenly I realized that I had become jaded. I was really taken aback by the complete faith and dedication these guys had about their work. That was when I said to myself, 'I really need to reconnect with what my work is about.'"
In the end, that reconnection probably paid off. "Tu Mama" was nominated for a Golden Globe for best foreign film. At the Venice Film Festival it won best screenplay and best emerging actor awards for its two young stars. Johnson calls it "a Mexican 'Jules et Jim' for the 21st century."
Cuaron admits that having tasted that sweet fruit of freedom, maintaining his identity within the Hollywood moviemaking machine has been challenging. His upcoming projects include "Children of Men" for Universal, a futuristic thriller based on the novel by Tim Sexton. Ideally, he would alternate making studio films in Hollywood and indie films around the world.
For filmmakers, Cuaron believes, globalization may not be such a bad thing. "It is simply about being pragmatic. Rather than depending on money from corrupt Latin American governments, you find your financing from an international market." he says. "I think it is vital for filmmakers to have their feet firmly planted in their country's cultures. The color is very specific to that country--the language, the feel of the movie. But the theme must be universal."
Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer.