Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Y tu mamá también

Alfonso Cuarón, one of the so-called "Three Amigos" of contemporary Mexican cinema (the other two of course being his friends and collaborators Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu), is possibly the most balanced of the group: he's able to mix Iñárritu's grasp of character with Del Toro's grand scale. His Children of Men remains the greatest science fiction film of the decade, and the best since 1998's Dark City if not 1985's Brazil, and he gave us the only truly well-made Harry Potter film yet released (and it's likely to stay that way, considering David "Just cut out all that silly character nonsense" Yates is seeing it through to the end).

Y tu mamá también is not Cuarón's first film, but it's the one that put him on the map of the cinephile community and paved the way for his successes this decade. Its premise is simple but, as is the hallmark of all great films, it turns clichés on their heads and delivers a final product unlike any other. Had Cuarón been born an American, he might have taken the road trip of two adolescents on the verge of adulthood and mined it for cheap humor, as we are wont to do. Instead, he presents us with a story of lust, humor, sadness and the losses we incur when we grow up. Along the way, we see it grow into a metaphor for the class gap in Mexico.

Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) bid farewell to their girlfriends, who are leaving for a summer abroad in Italy, in the opening moments of the film in the ay that young lovers do: by getting one last piece of nookie. They have their ladies swear not to bed any men in Europe, only to go skirt-chasing themselves the second the plane leaves Mexican airspace. Their efforts are unsuccessful, and soon they're trapped in the terrible vise of ennui.

The pair attend an opulent wedding -- Julio comes from an upper-middle class family, while Tenoch's father is a high-ranking politician -- and meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), an older woman and wife to Tenoch's cousin Jano. The brash young men try to impress her with talk of a road trip to an exotic beach (a made-up location they dub la Boca del Cielo, or "Heaven's Mouth"), but she's having none of it. Later that night, however, she receives a phone call from her husband admitting his adultery, and she decides to accompany the boys.

As they set out to their imaginary destination, Julio and Tenoch attempt to one-up another in terms of pure braggadocio, each trying to seduce Luisa with tales of their sexual prowess. When they prod her for her own sexual past, she responds in more measured terms, focusing on her first love (who died in an accident) and her crumbling relationship with her husband. While the men's tales only concern the fulfillment of lust, of conquest, Luisa's reflect love, albeit not in the naïve you might expect.

When she calls her husband to bid a final farewell, she breaks down and seduces both of the boys to ease the pain. Rather than give them some sense of satisfaction -- considering how badly they were trying to win her favor -- it brings out mutual resentment and jealousy. Each boy is so thrilled at the idea of having sex with this older woman, but we see how their previous sexcapades did not truly provide any experience, as they seem utterly clueless when confronted with a woman who actually knows what good sex is. Coupled with the jealousy of watching the other man sleep with her, they drop all pretension and reveal themselves for the children they really are.

Only when Luisa threatens to leave them do they calm themselves, and she becomes the instrument of their sexual awakening. The film culminates with a moment of shared passion between the three of them that alters them forever. Too often films of this nature believe that they turn the characters' world upside-down, but Cuarón truly rips apart everything these men thought they knew about themselves, and it understandably scares them.

As they drive across the Mexican landscape, Cuarón beautifully juxtaposes the drunken, pot-smoking antics of the boys with the decaying Mexico just outside their filthy car windows. Beggars surround them at all times, yet they pay little heed to the sea of needy. When the trio stumble across a deserted, exotic beach, they pay a local fisherman to share his food and guide them around the beautiful area; then the soundtrack breaks for one of the frequent narrational asides, mentioning that, in the future, businessmen would destroy this unmarred location to erect a resort, forcing the fisherman to work for them as a janitor. The film as a whole takes places at the end of the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year reign, giving the lads' journey of self-discovery a political undertone and using them as personifications of the nation's transition under Vincente Fox.

Those layers make an already fascinating narrative that much more rewarding. Y tu mamá también combines so many messages and emotions so effortlessly it's a wonder that the film manages to move at such a brisk pace. It certainly helps that Cuarón's camera floats among these characters so gracefully that, as with Scorsese's movements, you're more inclined to view it as another character than an observer.

Hilarious and sad, straightforward and layered, Y tu mamá también is one of the greatest films of the decade. What a shame that films like this cannot even face the MPAA ratings board for fear that it would be given the NC-17 kiss of death, while the trashy violence of the Saw series only rarely has any trouble getting by with an R.

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