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Eye Protein

Visual ingenuity and fierce storytelling mark the films of the Mexican New Wave

Jeffrey M. Anderson

“Did you see Pan’s Labyrinth?” Alfonso Cuarón asks excitedly during a recent conversation, between sips of his favorite drink, carrot juice. Cuarón has come to discuss his new movie, Children of Men, but he’s just as thrilled to talk about Pan’s Labyrinth, which he produced and which his friend Guillermo Del Toro directed.

A few days later, Del Toro tells me, "I look at Children of Men and those three shots, and to me those are pushing the envelope of storytelling. If you love movies, how can you not be absolutely mind-f--ked by that?" Del Toro also takes time out to discuss another friend's movie, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel. "My immediate favorite of the four episodes is the Japanese episode, because it's almost purely cinematic," he says. "It's told with camera and tone and sound. And it becomes intensely filmic."

Many writers have pointed out that the three friends, Cuarón, Del Toro and González Iñárritu—all born in Mexico—have released these highly unique and justly praised films within a few months of one another. But few have noticed that no fewer than half a dozen excellent movies came from Mexico in the past year, each of them from the same group of friends dedicated to finding a new energy in the cinema.

It may be bad mojo to bring it up, like mentioning a no-hitter before the ball game is over, but this smacks of a Mexican New Wave.

The phrase "New Wave" was coined for the group of French film critics who turned to filmmaking in the late 1950s and 1960s. Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette all worked for the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and even enthusiastically reviewed each other's films. Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) was the first major film out of the gate, and it supercharged a lethargic French film industry. Other recent attempts to label and define new waves in Taiwan, Iran and Argentina have resulted in a kind of petering out.

But that supportive attitude, plus a vigorous passion for cinema, has been passed on to the new group of Mexican filmmakers. The 45-year-old Cuarón and the 42-year-old Del Toro met while working on a mid-1980s Mexican soap opera, Hora Marcada. These kindred spirits spurred each other on to greater heights. Within the space of a few years, they made their feature directorial debuts: Cuarón with the colorful sex farce Sólo Con tu Pareja in 1991 and Del Toro with the golden-hued horror film Cronos in 1993. Both films landed their makers jobs in Hollywood, but no one would cry "sell-out." They refused to let Hollywood's bright lights and big money dim their integrity; Cuarón's A Little Princess (1995) and Del Toro's Mimic (1997) kept their personal styles intact.

From there, both filmmakers managed to bounce back and forth between Spanish-language and English-language films with ease. Cuarón directed the gorgeous, underrated 1998 update of Great Expectations, the smash hit Mexican road movie Y Tu Mamá También in 2001, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—the best in the series—and, now, the spectacular Children of Men, a dystopian vision of a future without children or hope (starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore).

Del Toro found himself relegated to the horror genre, directing Hollywood films like Blade II and Hellboy, and Mexican/Spanish co-productions like The Devil's Backbone and the new Pan's Labyrinth (see Page 36). Because of this genre association, high praise eluded him, but his signature style, with its predilection toward clocks, clockwork and underground caverns, became more clearly developed.

González Iñárritu came to films much later, after a career as a DJ and a composer, although he also worked in Mexican television. After meeting the screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, he made his directorial debut with the celebrated Amores Perros. Hollywood called, and the pair answered, with the Oscar-nominated 21 Grams and then last year's Babel, which crosses four stories—set in Morocco, Mexico and Japan—about families, cultural misunderstanding and violence. Earlier this year González Iñárritu and Arriaga had a falling-out (González Iñárritu reportedly forbade Arriaga from attending the Cannes screening of Babel), which has led some critics to speculate which of the two has been responsible for their joint success. Arriaga recently struck a blow for his side with his astounding screenplay for Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

In any case, some have called Babel, Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men a kind of unofficial trilogy.

"It's not a voluntary trilogy," says Del Toro. "We're not phoning each other and saying, ‘How are you doing with your part of the trilogy?' Definitely, I would say that the three movies deal, somehow, somewhat with hope, and the three movies deal somehow, somewhat with children and parents. It's three guys that are in a similar moment in their lives. We have kids. We're in our 40s. We're in voluntary or involuntary exile. We've all experienced two types of production, the studio system and independent. And we're looking for footing in these things and seem to be worried about similar stuff."

Despite this, Del Toro admits that he speaks to González Iñárritu about every two weeks, and phones Cuarón every day. "I call Alfonso more than I call my mother. It's almost like a routine. I wake up, I have breakfast, I get in my car and I dial Alfonso. And I'm always dialing him at the same place in the ramp at my house. It's a great friendship."

This friendship came in handy during the production of Pan's Labyrinth, on which Cuarón served as producer. When funding fell through, Del Toro and Cuarón contributed their own money and eventually even gave up their salaries to ensure its completion. "Because if you're not crazy about it, why am I doing it? If I'm not risking my own money in it, why should you pay your money to watch it?" Cuarón an

d Del Toro have also served as producers on projects by up-and-coming filmmakers. They teamed up to produce Sebastián Cordero's excellent Crónicas (2004), starring John Leguizamo as a TV reporter in Ecuador. Cordero manages to achieve a documentary realism without resorting to news style or twitchy handheld camerawork.

Early in 2006, Fernando Eimbcke's Duck Season, produced by Cuarón, received a small theatrical release. Shot in black-and-white on film, the story takes place over the course of a lazy Sunday as two friends, a next-door neighbor and a pizza delivery man wile away the hours. It's a delightful gem, a kind of Breakfast Club for the arthouse set.

Another friend is Carlos Reygadas, who makes challenging, provocative films like Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven, released in 2006. The first depicts the relationship between a suicidal man and a much older woman, and the second tells the story of a male chauffeur and his much younger, female charge. Neither film shies away from uncomfortable issues of sex or violence, but both contain a careful, observant quality and a dedication to locale. Reygadas once told Cuarón, "I lost interest in films that finish when the lights come on. The only films that matter are the ones that begin when the lights come on."

Indeed, each of these filmmakers has strong theories about the state of cinema today. Del Toro says, "I think there are a lot of movies that are being told visually in a very daring and interesting way. But there is a tendency to judge and qualify a screenplay as only the anecdote and the dialogue and the sum of the structure. What is getting lost in the development of those things is getting so expository, where you have characters with these big monologues about who they are. And in that, Alfonso and Alejandro and I are trying to write half of the movie with visuals. And I jokingly call it ‘eye protein,' because it's not eye candy."

The key to this New Wave, however, is that they're aware of their history. He says that what they're doing is "nothing new. It's a tradition; one of the best cinematic storytelling things is to do a silent film. Go back to Murnau or Dreyer or Lang or any of them and look at The Last Laugh or Sunrise. And they're brilliant. Intertitles come far in-between them. It's beyond pantomime. It's really about telling the story and the mood through pure film. The rest is suspect."

So what does Del Toro think of the comparison of he and his friends to the French New Wave directors?

"I am the Godard," he says, smiling.

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