(2001) dir. Alfonso Cuarón
viewed: 08/02/02 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA
This film had been at the top of my list of films that I wanted to see for months, but I only just now finally got to see it after it had been recommended to me by just about everyone that I know. And it well-deserves such recommendation. It’s an excellent film.
A Mexican “road movie” about two teenage friends and their “older woman” companion searching for a nonexistent beach called “La boca de cielo,” the mouth of heaven, it is a film that is on the surface about sexuality and friendship. But only slightly beneath all of the surface narrative is a critical and broad look at identity and character of contemporary Mexico, from its physicality to its societal problems.
Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal play the two friends, Tenoch and Julio, the former is the son of the wealthy, government-connected elite and the latter is a child of a working-class mother in a tenement. Though they have different economic backgrounds, they are best friends, and in their youth, share a perspective on things. They are sweet-natured, but myopic and self-obsessed with their own pleasures. Bernal’s sister is an activist, but they only perceive the activists as potentially “hot chicks.”
Whether in the lap of luxury or in the seat of poverty, the friends are perpetually unaware of the world around them, either oblivious or unconcerned. Cuarón populates the film’s world with images of Mexico’s culture and beauty as well as its marginalized and poorer sides. He often follows out passing moments in voice-over “asides” explicating people and places that otherwise flash by for the protagonists. Tenoch, who is named (ironically – due to his lack of appreciation for it) for a figure of native culture, glancingly passes by the hometown of his main caretaker, barely moved by his connection to a place that should hold some significance for him.
Interestingly, it is Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a Spanish immigrant, who seems able to appreciate Mexico for what it is. She talks to the local people, appreciates the regional culture, and immerses herself ultimately in the landscape. At the end of the film she is encourages the boys to immerse themselves in their world as they would in the water at the beach. She tells them how wonderful a place Mexico is, though they hardly seem to hear her, drunk as they are on both sex and booze.
Cuarón clearly critiques the boys’ lack of appreciation for the beauty and culture of their world, and for their lack of interest in its social problems and the plight of its “downtrodden.”
Their myopic perception of their home is illustrated in one of the key plot points. In order to lure Luisa to come with them, they concoct a location called “the mouth of heaven,” an ideal, undiscovered and undeveloped beach. It is totally made up. The boys are lost, with a map drawn by someone who is totally stoned, they randomly discover just such a place as they have described, and it is called “La boca de cielo,” and is as beautiful as they could have imagined. Quite literally, the mouth of heaven is indeed in Mexico, something that they never even realized (though, in another aside, Cuarón tells us that it will soon be developed and destroyed — another fact of which they are unaware).
Such criticisms could well be made probably about the youth of many countries, and maybe not simply about the young. In that sense, the subject truly transcends region. However, at the same time, the film is very much about Mexico itself, beautifully depicting its countryside, the towns, and the cities in many long shots in order to offer a strong literal visual “perspective.” The film depicts a complex image of Mexico, as it attempts to represent the different strata of society, and the people and worlds of the country.