The Importance of Place and Setting in the Narratives of ‘Y tu mamá también’ (2002) and ‘Amores perros’ (2000)

This essay discusses the films Y tu mamá también (2002) and  Amores perros (2000), two films that constitute part of the wave of New Mexican  Cinema, a genre whose emergence coincides with the Mexican Revolution of the  1960s. Charles Ramírez Berg has claims that ‘mexicanidad’ (what it truly means  to  be  Mexicam)  has  been  a  key  concept  in  Mexican  intellectual,  political,  and  artistic  thought  for  most  of  the  century.1 Therefore  through  cinema,  of  which  place  and  setting  are  crucial,  to  we  are  able  to  further  explore  the  question  of  Mexican  identity.  Mexico  is  a  country  with  many  influences:  its  ancient  indigenous communities, its Spanish coloniser, and its affluent border, the USA.2 Due  to  this  mixture  of  different  influences,  it  is  no  surprise  that  Mexico  has  undergone an ‘identity crisis’, whereby many Mexicans do not truly understand  their historical and cultural roots. Many remain unable to answer the impending  question of mexicanidad.3 Nuala Finnegan has spoken of the juxtaposition of the  local and the global, and thus further highlights the ongoing struggle in Mexico’s  attempt to transition towards a more developed and modernised nation without  perpetuating  the  country’s already existing large-scale  poverty.4 Both  films  use  setting  to explore  the nation and its  class  differences, with Y  tu mamá  también  occasionally  showing  hope  for  change,  manifested  in  Tenoch  and  Julio’s  friendship  despite  coming  from  radically  different  social  backgrounds.  Amores  perros, however, is not so hopeful as it exposes a continuously violent and harsh underbelly to the country’s  capital  city.  Both  films  bring  their  characters  of  different  backgrounds  together, emotionally  in  Y  tu  mamá  también,  and  more  physically in Amores perros, in the form of a horrific car crash. In this essay I will  address both interior and exterior setting in the films, and how these spaces help  to  provide  us  with  a  greater  knowledge  of  the  different  aspects,  particularly  flaws, of modern Mexican society. 

I  will  begin  by  addressing  Alfonso  Cuarón’s  Y  tu  mamá  también and  looking at how interior setting gives us an insight into Mexico’s social and class  divisions.  Near  the  beginning  of  the  film,  we  are  presented  with  contrasting  images of both Tenoch and Julio’s homes: an immediate reflection of their social  class differences. A steady-cam shot though Tenoch’s elaborate home reveals the  wealth of his family.5 We also see Tenoch’s Indian servant (and former nanny, as  we later find out, through the non-diegetic narrative voice) as she serves Tenoch  a  sandwich  and  passes  him  the  phone  when  it  rings.  Tenoch  is  extremely  dismissive of her as he grabs the phone, yet despite this she pats him on the head  affectionately.  Tenoch’s  attitude  reflects  the  sense  of  superiority  of  the  upper  middle classes regarding the ‘other’ Mexico; the rural and less developed Mexico.  This theme of ignorance of the other is present throughout the film. It happens to  be  that  Julio is on  the other end of  the phone call, and so  the camera moves  to  Julio’s home, allowing us to observe the huge contrast to that of Tenoch’s. Here  we  see  the  technique  of  the  straying  camera  (or  ‘wandering  eye’6)  used,  a  recurring motif in  the  film,  giving  the  viewer  a  greater  awareness  of  the  place  and setting and how they reflect the characters’ social backgrounds. As Julio goes  to the bathroom, the camera strays into the small living space of the Zapatas’ flat,  displaying  a  crowded  area  with  cheap  furnishings.7 We  are  also in  view  of  the  large  window,  which  puts  in  view  the  many  blocks  of  flats,  highlighting  the  working  class  neighbourhood  in  which  Julio  lives,  in  direct  contrast  to  the  Iturbides’  wealth.  Despite  their  class  differences,  the  two  young  protagonists  appear  to remain  inseparable;  they  do  everything  together.  However,  the  significance  of  these  shots  is  apparent;  Cuarón  is  implying  that  these  class  differences will ultimately overpower their friendship, which turns out to be the  case by  the end of  the  film.8 The  viewpoint of looking out of  the window,  from  the  private  sphere  looking  out,  is  echoed  later  on  when  we  get  a  glimpse  of  Luisa’s modest apartment. This  time, we see  the same shot as  that  from within  Julio’s  home,  but  the  view  is  distinct;  this  time  we  see  instead  a  middle  class  neighbourhood. Ernesto R. Acevedo-Munoz has described this particular shot as  a way of portraying a sense of narrative realism in the film, as the camera’s aim is  to  reveal  the  very  real locations,  situations and people  that  revolve around  the  narrative.9

In a  very early  scene in  the  film, we  see  Julio and  Tenoch  stuck in a  traffic jam,  something  that  these  two  very juvenile  boys  find  frustrating,  with  Julio  commenting  dismissively  that  the  hold  up  is  likely  due  his  sister taking  part  in  ‘another  demonstration’,  highlighting  the presence  of  opposition  party  politics  with  the  aim  of  changing  the  rich/poor  divide in  Mexico. The  non-diegetic  narrator  however,  clarifies  that  on  this  day  there were in fact only three demonstrations, and that the traffic jam was in fact  caused  by  a  road  accident.  The  voice-over  tells  us  that  the  victim  was  a  man  named ‘Marcelino Escutia, a migrant bricklayer from Michoacon. Marcelino was  hit  by  a  speeding  bus…  The  Red  Cross  took  his  unidentified  body  to  the  city  morgue. It took four days for the body to be claimed.’ As Julio and Tenoch drive  past  the  scene,  interested  in  little  other  than  their  own  immature  desires,  the  camera  pans  180  degrees  within  the  car, moving  from  the  boys’  point  of  view  through the  front window to a side view, lingering on the body.10 This is one of  the first instances in the film whereby we see the ‘wandering eye’ of the camera.  This scene is significant as Cuarón points to an aspect of Mexico that these boys  choose to ignore; the struggle of migrants who travel to the capital city in hope of  work and a better life. It is interesting that we as viewers are given the privilege  of  seeing  these  seemingly  ‘irrelevant’  additions  to  the  story,  whilst  the  two  protagonists choose not to see, a metaphorical blindness of their nation’s social  concerns.11 Marcelino,  just  like  the  hundreds  of  Mexican  ‘underclass’  citizens,  becomes invisible in  the  urban  space  of  the  city.  Cuarón  uses  this  technique  of  the non-diegetic  voice  over a  dead  soundtrack  to  to embed  political issues and  emphasise the significance of what is being said. In doing so, Cuarón is criticizing  the  new  generations  and  in  particular  the  elites’  ignorance  regarding  Mexico’s  struggles. This scene also emphasizes  the dangers of urban life, as Mexico City,  and  the  outside  world in  general, is  presented  as  a  constant  threat. The world outside presents reality, something that these two young men have no interest in perceiving.

The boys proceed to set off on their journey of discovery, a contemporary  bildungsroman.12 However,  this  is  not  solely  a  discovery  of  the  self,  but  a  discovery of  “new” Mexico  that needs  to be reinvented. On  their journey  to  the  supposed  ‘Boca  del  cielo’  beach,  the  urban  myth  told  to  Luisa  by  the  two  teenagers,  (which  turns  out  to  be  a  real  place,  worshipped  by  the  cinematography  that  stresses  the  idyllic  glittering  waters  and  bright  blue  skies)13,  they  pass  through  a  variety  of  different  rural  landscapes.  These  rural  landscapes and the people who inhabit them are juxtaposed to the metropolitan  views of these urban protagonists.14 Again, the technique of the straying camera  highlights  the  audio-visual  knowledge  the  viewer  regarding  these  settings  and  places. We  are  constantly made  conscious  by  the  narrative  voice  of  the  people  whom the protagonists pass by, and are given a brief insight into their daily lives  in  poverty,  something  which  the  camera  cannot  resist,  but  which  the  three  protagonists, confined within  their  own  space  of  the car, are  oblivious  to. Slow  pans of the camera offer glimpses into these parallel lives, but these glimpses are  often  short-lived.15 Furthermore,  they  are  rarely  expanded  on;  we  are  teased  with a restricted view of those worlds, which we want to know more about, but  which we are denied full access to. We are aware of the presence of the poor and  rural population, whilst Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa, are not. Y tu mama tambien asks us to take another look – not so much at other, as at the whole question of looking itself’16 Again,  the  question  is  raised  regarding  Mexican  identity;  is  mexicanidad  the  new  and  modernised  urban  way  of  life?  Or  is  it  the  rural  indigenous  aspect?  Or  perhaps  a  fusion  of  both?  This  question  remains  unanswered.

I will now discuss Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros, in regard  to exterior setting. Many scenes in the film are set outside, in the urban space of  Mexico City, a place of encounter. The first (and further repeated) scene is that of  the car crash which takes place at a cross roads in the busy city. Urban space is  significant  because  it  is  the  silent  observer;  it  is  where  all  of  the  characters’  experiences  take  place,  despite  the  fact  that  they  live  parallel  lives.  In  the  accident these people of radically different backgrounds collide, and in this brief  moment,  the  differences  are  temporarily  suspended;  they  are  all  victims,  regardless  of  their  gender,  race,  or  social  class.  It  seems  as  though  González  Iñárritu is making a social comment on the fact that it does not matter who you  are; we are all at the same risk of the dangers that lie in the outside world.  The  film opens visually with a shot of rapidly passing street pavement. We see hectic  cuts of  the street,  traffic, and  the inside of Octavio’s car and  the  truck pursuing  it.17 These  dizzying  shots  then  lead  us  to  the  horrific  crash.  The  car  crash  is  a  manifestation of the view that exterior space is a site of danger and violence. This  is  further  highlighted  by  the  dogfights  that  take  place  within  the  city;  these  dogfights, which are alarmingly vicious, are a metaphor for the savage and cruel  nature of humans in modern culture. Amores perros uses the violence that is ever so present in the film to critique a selfish human nature in a modernised Mexico City. Octavio introduces  his  dog  Cofi  to  these  fights in  order  to  save money  so  that  his  sister-in-law  with  whom  he  is  in  love,  can  escape  with  him  to  Ciudad  Juárez,  a  city  bordering  Texas,  and  thus  a  common  destination  for migrants  to  the  US  or  for  those  wishing  to  trade  illegally  across  the  border.18 Octavio’s  fantasy  of  escape  is  for  him  a  way  of  gaining  economic  autonomy  in  an  ever globalised world, in order to provide for Susan, something that he will never get  the opportunity to do.

The scenes which are set in interior spaces are just as revealing. Interior  space is portrayed in the film as a space of enclosure and confinement, and these  domestic interiors both define class positions as well as point toward their state  of mind.19 We are given a glimpse into the working-class home of Octavio and his  family,  for  example,  whereby  the  rooms  are  small  and  crowded.  Each  room  is  distinct  from  the  next;  for example, Octavio’s  bedroom where  he  broods in  his  own  solitude,  is  blue.  Furthermore,  on  the  walls  of  his  room  are  displayed  stickers  of  cars.  This  perhaps  is  symbolic  of  Octavio’s  immaturity  and  lack  of  awareness of the consequences of his actions. He acts on impulse and desire, for  example when he calls Susana out from her room to answer a fabricated ‘phone  call’ so that he can seduce her. In many ways Octavio is still a boy in his mind. In  contrast, Ramiro and Susana’s room is red, representative of passion, of both a  sexual  and  violent  nature.20 As  Paul  Smith  has  pointed  out,  González  Iñárritu  often begins domestic scenes with an extreme close-up of an object or prop. An example  of  this  is  the  rotating  mobile  on  the  ceiling  or  the  crawling  baby  toy,  reminding us of the social pressures faced by Susana, a vulnerable woman who,  due  to  her  lack  of  financial  independence,  has  no  choice  but  to  stay  with  an  abusive husband and raise their child. Contraception and abortion is simply not  considered an option for many working class Mexicans. Iñárritu’s decision to use  two very different  film stocks – one  fast, and the other slow – helps to map out  the emotional differences between characters. In these scenes featuring Octavio  (and  El  Chivo),  the  faster  stock  produces  a  grainy  image,  representative  of  a  grittier working class Mexico, plagued by poverty and marginalisation.21

Octavio’s  home,  densely  crowded  of  various  objects,  is  juxtaposed  with  Daniel and Valeria’s new apartment, which appears very sterile and impersonal  with  its  open  spaces,  scarce  furniture,  and  pale  walls.22 It  has  no  character,  symbolising the superficiality of Daniel and Valeria’s relationship, based on little  more  than  image.  The  claustrophobic  atmosphere  of  this  apartment  serves  to  further bring out the tensions between the couple.23 As opposed to the hand-held  camera used in the first third of the film, this section is filmed using more static  shots  with  cameras  that  give  crisper,  cleaner  images.24 The  camera  follows  Valeria  to  the windows  that  open  up  onto  the  balcony. Balconies and windows  are significant because they are the point of intersection between the private and  public sphere. As Valeria looks out at her own image on the Enchant poster, her face  is  momentarily  obscured  and  bleached  by  the  light,  a  foreshadowing  that  even  the private  space  of  the  home  is  no  haven.25 Domesticity,  even  this  apartment  so  cool  and  calm,  cannot  resist  the  dangers  of  the  city  beyond  the  balcony; private space is always under threat from outside.26  The seismic city of  Mexico is not safe even below: just beneath Valeria’s  floorboards lies that place  of  horror  and  the  unknown.27 Shots  of  these  floorboards  are  shown  over  a  rumbling, volcanic sound, emphasising the ominous atmosphere to which Valeria  is  confined.28 Again,  we  see  that  dangers  of  the  city  do  not  discriminate.  Even  Valeria’s  ‘safe  haven’ in  her  apartment  cannot  protect  her  from  these  dangers.  She has built her whole world around her appearance and modelling career, only  to have this world suddenly collapse on her, due to the crash. It seems to me here  that González  Iñárritu is criticising a superficiality  that has permeated Mexican  society  in  recent  times,  becoming  more  and  more  like  its  metropolitan  neighbour, the USA.

In conclusion, both Y tu mamá también and Amores perros use place and  setting  to  highlight  the  segregation  of  Mexico’s  social  classes  and  the  divide  between  the  urban  and  rural.  Y  tu  mamá  también tastefully  criticises  political,  social, economic and cultural aspects of Mexican society, whereas Amores perros  too critiques society but with a much more pessimistic  tone, as it continuously  lingers on the sinister underbelly of the nation.

References

1 Charles Ramírez Berg, Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film 1976-1983 (Austin:  University of Texas, 1992), p. 2. 

2 Kemet, Marteen O. [no date] Citing references [online] Available from:  http://www.runawayfilmworx.com/theory/Ytumama.htm [accessed 19 May 2014]

3 ibid 

4 Finnegan, Nuala. ‘“So What’s Mexico Really Like?” Framing the Local, Negotiating the Global in  Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también’, in D. Shaw (ed.), Contemporary Latin American Cinema:  Breaking into the Global Market (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), pp. 29-50, p. 29.

5 Acevedo-Munoz, E. ‘Sex, Class, and Mexico in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también’, in Film and  History, 34:1 (2004), 39-48, p.  

6 Finnegan, p. 38.

7 Acevedo-Muñoz, p. 43. 

8 Acevedo-Muñoz, p. 43. 

9 Acevedo-Muñoz, p. 43.

10 Noble, Andrea. Mexican National Cinema (Routledge, 2005), pp. 139-46, p. 143.

11 Noble, p. 143

12 Acevedo-Muñoz, p. 44. 

13 Finnegan, p. 33. 

14 Noble, p. 139. 

15 Noble, p. 143.

16 Noble, p. 146. 

17 Menne, Jeff.  ‘A Mexican  Nouvelle  Vague:  The  Logic  of  New  Waves  under  Globalization’,  in  Cinema Journal, 47, Number 1, Fall 2007, pp. 70-92, p. 76.

18 Menne, p. 78. 

19 Smith, Paul Julian. Amores perros (BFI, 2003), p. 53. 

20 Smith, p. 53

21 Tierney, Dolores. ‘Alejandro González Iñárritu: Director Without Borders’, in New Cinemas, 7:2  (2009), 101-17, p. 105. 

22 Smith, p. 55. 

23 Shaw, Deborah. ‘Seducing the Public: Images of Mexico in Like Water for Chocolate and Amores  perros’, in Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films (Continuum, 2003), pp. 36-70, p.  61. 

24 Shaw, p. 62

25 Smith, p. 55. 

26 Smith, p. 55. 

27 Smith, p. 56. 

28 Smith, p. 56.

Works Cited 

Cuarón, Alfonso. Y tu mamá también, Anhelo Producciones (2002) Iñárritu, Alejandro González. Amores perros, Altalvista films (2000) 

Charles Ramírez Berg, Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film 1976- 1983 (Austin: University of Texas, 1992) 

Kemet,  Marteen  O.  [no  date]  Citing  references  [online]  Available  from:  http://www.runawayfilmworx.com/theory/Ytumama.htm [accessed  19  May  2014] 

Menne,  Jeff, ‘A Mexican  Nouvelle  Vague:  The  Logic  of  New  Waves  under  Globalization’, in Cinema Journal, 47, Number 1, Fall 2007, 70-92 

Noble, Andrea. Mexican National Cinema (Routledge, 2005), 139-46 Paul Julian Smith, Amores perros (BFI, 2003) 

Shaw,  Deborah.  ‘Seducing  the  Public:  Images  of  Mexico  in  Like  Water  for  Chocolate and Amores perros’, in Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key  Films (Continuum, 2003) 36-70 

Tierney, Dolores. ‘Alejandro González Iñárritu: Director Without Borders’, in New  Cinemas, 7:2 (2009), 101-17

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