At the dawn of the 21st Century, two directors emerged out of Mexico City with gruff, intimate films in their native tongue, but each with sprawling stories, symbolism and philosophies.
The first, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, made his debut film “Amores Perros” and has since moved on to Oscar bait with his films “Babel” and “Biutiful.” Critics have noted that his films have gotten grimmer, darker and more depressing as he’s grown as a filmmaker, but his next film, 2014’s “Birdman,” will be an American comedy.
The second, Alfonso Cuaron, had already been established with big budget titles, but returned to Mexico for the frankly sexual “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a road-trip, coming of age story that could’ve never been made in Hollywood. Cuaron has now entered into the upper crust of blockbuster filmmakers with arguably the best Harry Potter movie “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men” and his upcoming space epic “Gravity.”
On paper, the two films are strikingly similar, a good starting point for Mexican cinema in the 2000s. In fact, both launched the career of actor Gael Garcia Bernal. But which is really the more depressing or the tougher sit? Neither film can be easily classified into the indie, foreign art film genre so easily, and although each is a striking example of how each filmmaker would grow and develop, neither can be so easily pigeonholed as equal entries into their broader, on-paper filmographies.
“Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” may sound so similar because on a fundamental level, they’re both love stories. In tragic ways, they depict nuance, naiveté, betrayal and heartbreak.
“Y Tu Mama Tambien” especially is anchored on these themes. The first scene is an intensely passionate love scene between Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his girlfriend, in which he stops her and makes her promise she won’t cheat. Cross that with the frankly hilarious sex scene in which Julio (Bernal) and his girlfriend have sex while her parents wait for them to leave just downstairs. In each instance, sex is built on mistrust, a bad omen for any road trip.
“Amores Perros” is more upfront about its ominous undertones. The English translation of the title is “Love’s a Bitch,” and the unifying scene in which Octavio (Bernal again) crashes his car into Valeria (Goya Toledo) dooms their respective loves from the start, but the infidelity that runs through each love story doesn’t lend much in the way of a happy ending either.
Inarritu’s film was rightfully compared with “Pulp Fiction” in terms of the intertwining stories and highly kinetic cinematography and editing. And although Inarritu’s work is hardly as fun as Tarantino’s, the energy rippling through Octavio’s opening story make the whole film an invigorating sit.
Cuaron is an arresting filmmaker as well; stringing together subtle long takes like when Luisa (Maribel Verdu) first seduces Tenoch shows a captivating mastery of in- the-moment drama, but the narration in his film makes it intentionally flat and anecdotal. In a way, the consequences are already laid out for these characters, and it will all build to Tenoch and Julio’s depressingly cold, cynical, eventless last encounter.
As grim as Inarritu is made out to be, even he didn’t have the nerve to end his film on the low, non-ending Cuaron does. El Chivo (Emilio Echevarria) walking out into the distance after leaving a tearful message for his estranged daughter provides a bit of redemption that Cuaron left behind on that Mexican beach.
A scene such as Tenoch and Julio masturbating on parallel diving boards and ejaculating into the pool below may seem like the more frankly sexual and open movie, but “Y Tu Mama Tambien” takes its time to build its scandalous allure, making Luisa’s position with these boys not entirely clear. There’s a shot near the end where the camera stays back as Luisa fiddles with a jukebox off in the distance. She slowly saunters up to the camera and turns a mundane, ugly shot into a sexy and arresting one. It then suddenly addresses the subtle, smoking gun in the room at the back of everyone’s minds throughout the entire film about Tenoch and Julio’s relationship, but this too comes as a gigantic shock, not an inevitability.
Maybe it’s the style, but “Amores Perros” is much more in your face in comparison. The dog fighting violence is never explicitly shown, but it exists right under our noses. Octavio and Susana spend a lot of time toying with the other before they finally succumb to temptation, but sex and love was always a thought in their minds as Octavio listened in on his brother in the thin bedroom walls. And there’s no question that the introduction of Octavio’s dog into El Chivo’s home is anything but a disaster waiting to happen.
Watching these two films side by side reveals the nuances in each; “Tambien” is hardly the coming-of-age romp it appears to be, and “Perros” is not all doom and gloom either. Cuaron and Inarritu have touched on similar themes with strikingly different visual styles and emotional trajectories. And yet each is its own intimate, personal, mini masterpiece.