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.
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]
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.
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