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[whitespace] 'Y Tu Mamá También'
Photograph by Daniel Daza

Life in the Fast Lane: Gael Garcia Bernal can't get enough of Maribel Verdu in 'Y Tu Mamá También.'

Road Trip

'Y Tu Mamá También' looks at modern Mexico through a sexy lens

By Richard von Busack

WHO CAN LOOK at Mexico and believe that someday there will be peace there--that someday there will be justice? For too many years, the Mexican cinema reflected such hopelessness by being a cinema of straight escapism, melodrama or religious pathos. Out of this background comes Alfonso Cuarón's witty, peppery Y Tu Mamá También.

This film will sell itself; it's enormously sexy. But let's be plain: Y Tu Mamá También, which laments Mexico's political savagery, brutal class divisions and inane machismo that roadblock social progress, is the most revolutionary film to come out of Mexico since Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados. Audiences have been prepped for a new and bold Mexican cinema by the success of the highly violent Amores Perros, but Y Tu Mamá También is a better-realized film.

All other things being equal, sex is a more precise artistic tool with which to take apart a closed-up society's lying and blindness. The shock of sex has a more dramatic effect on an audience than violence, too. As the Mexican film director Ismael Rodriguez noted 25 years ago, "Violence has become our daily bread. If one sees violence everywhere and if every situation, dramatic or comic, is taken to its ultimate extreme, it is natural that sensibilities should be transformed. The strong scenes of years past, instead of moving us, now appear saccharine." Or slapstick, as often as not.

Though people mourn when they say "sex sells," they forget that sex can sell something really worthwhile--and you're not likely to see anything so worthwhile this season as Y Tu Mamá También.

The film's two anti-heroes are upper-class school kids on summer break. Both are as superficially liberated as young machos of about 17 can be. Julio (Gael García Bernal) aspires to the upper class, apparently surviving on a scholarship. His friend Tenoch (Diego Luna) is born to the PRI purple. Tenoch's father, who gave him an Aztec name to prove that he was a real man of the people, was an aide to a corrupt Mexican president, involved in a scandal that required the family to withdraw to Vancouver for six months until the air cleared.

Julio and Tenoch seem identical, even down to their nearly identical girlfriends, who are on their way to Europe for vacation. With their steady girls gone ("Promise me you won't fuck any Italians," Tenoch says by way of parting), a boring Mexico City suburban summer commences. The two pals kill time drug-bingeing and lolling around the country club; once, they have to attend a dull party in honor with the current president of Mexico. It's a dispirited rodeo, guarded by goons in aviator shades. One supposes these would-be festivities are meant to mock the ranchero trappings of Mexico's current president, Vicente Fox.

While suffering through this afternoon, Tenoch runs into his cousin Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina Suarez), a celebrated novelist. The man's dandy white suit exposes what a whited-sepulcher of an artist this man is--never mind his presence at this party of government stiffs. However, Jano is escorting the very interesting Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a lean woman from Madrid with an overbite that amplifies her Castilian lisp.

Jano turns out to be cheating, and the enticing Luisa breaks up with him. The boys talk Luisa into accompanying them on a trip to a beach they pretend to know about where tourists never go. On the road, the two try to out-seduce each other; they're like downy chickens pretending to be fighting cocks. "Play with babies, you'll end up washing diapers," Luisa complains after tiring of their boasting.

The boys, so charged up and narcissistic, don't realize they really have a thing for each other--a desire that can--and will--be catalyzed by this older woman. While they scheme, fret and twist themselves into jealous knots around Luisa, the decline of Mexico goes on around them--and before them and behind them. These two boys are nothing if not Mexican, yet they're so out of it--such tourists--that they might as well be gringos.

The three head out across Mexico from the mountains to the ocean in a borrowed car. With true Flaubertian impassivity, the narrator points out all the sights the boys are missing: the remote, wretched village where Tenoch's nanny came from, the sight of a chicken farmer's fatal crash 10 years ago, marked by a sad plastic cross covered with artificial flowers.

What he doesn't tell us about, we see for ourselves: the federales everywhere, holding their guns on the poor on the roadsides. Still, director Cuarón identifies with the boys' playfulness. It's as if Tenoch and Julio were swimming their way to the ocean, from a country club pool to a leaf-covered cement pond at a beat-up motel patio and, eventually, the kind of tropical paradise of a beach that they thought was only a ruse. But like so many other Mexican paradises, it's in immediate danger of being fouled and paved over.

While the movie shares the trio's pleasure it doesn't endorse the empty-headedness of Julio and Tenoch. The most ambiguous scene is a drunken night at a poor fisherman's family restaurant, where Julio and Tenoch roar out intense sexual confessions for the world to hear.

The peasant fisherman and his family and friends play cards in the background, occasionally getting up from their game to sell the boys more beer. This scene explains the film's title. The wall of lies breaks down between these two buddies in one of those truth-game sequences that always seem so healing and positive in the movies. And yet they're really acting like rude jackasses, acting up in front of these simple peasant people. You cringe for them.

And here's where Y Tu Mamá También stops being a Mexican movie and turns into something universal. For that matter, Y Tu Mamá También could be just as easily done in America; it's just as possible here to see young bravos in complete ignorance of the poor people who clean for them and serve them. Cuarón's film shows how young men can be cool party-hearties and still passively prop up every conservative system they profess to hate.

A movie poster glimpsed in a bedroom in the opening shot foreshadows the ending. The poster, which doesn't have any business being there, advertises a movie that these boys wouldn't bother with. But this poster for a '70s cult film prepares us for the climax, which seems to be an apology for too much frivolous material earlier. Cuarón needn't have worried. This film--the kind that only an exile could make--is a serious critique of how rich Mexico and poor Mexico coexist.

In an interview with critic John Powers, Cuarón referred to Mexico as "a teenage country." Y Tu Mamá También displays the vividness of teen movies, with the comic rush of first lust and escape from authority. Yet it goes so far beyond anything the youth market gets today in the way of thrills. You can only compare its impact to the early French New Wave films in the context of typical Hollywood fare of the 1960s. Every other movie made today is a teenage wild kid rebel movie. And each one turns out to reinforce all of the most hidebound rules of society. This import blows them all away for adventure, sexual thrill and political satire.

Y Tu Mamá También (R; 105 min.), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Carlos and Alfonso Cuarón, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki and starring Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal and Maribel Verdu, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose and the Park in Menlo Park.

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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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