If we include the about-to-be-released Roma, Alfonso Cuarón has only directed eight feature films across a near 30-year career. The reason for this relative slimness of output is likely to have many factors in a business as complicated and convoluted as the film industry. But perhaps one of the greater reasons is Cuarón’s unquestionable formal perfectionism. And, if there is a trend across his eight films, it is their cinematographic virtuosity. So with Roma heralding Cuarón’s first return to the subject matter of his native Mexico in over 15 years, it’s worth remembering that previous domestic drama, Y Tu Mamá También (2001) – perhaps his most definitive piece of work to date – to celebrate his directorial ingenuity.
Y Tu Mamá También is so authentically a Cuarón film, and not just because it is visually audacious and beautiful. It highlights his interest in sensuous, tactile stories, it has sly socio-political import, and some might even call it a sexy movie. Although, that said, this “sexy” movie tag was always something of a red herring and perhaps a cleverly designed marketing tool to entice us gringos into the film’s deceptively stereotypical story of two lusty Latin boys, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), accompanying a sultry older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú), on a road trip across Mexico to find the mythical Boca del Cielo (“Heaven’s Mouth”) beach.
The film’s main formal device, and Cuarón’s trump card, is an omniscient voiceover which undercuts the action of the trio’s hedonistic road trip with an overarching social commentary on the Mexican landscape and its people. There’s something both radical and purely cinematic about this conceit – the way Cuarón almost purposely breaks the tyranny of the aural and visual mania of the bourgeois boys’ journey, by literally tuning down their pompous, diegetic voices and changing the panorama to scenes they either look through or choose to avoid, to provide a more telling critique of their fecklessness, privilege and sense of entitlement. Of course, it’s entirely legitimate to question whether the voiceover breaks the golden rule of demonstrating to the audience the underlying polemic, but the technique is, in itself, total aesthetic, providing a necessary ironic counterpoint to the narrative trajectory.
Cuarón’s clever politicking is also apparent in a scene where Julio, Tenoch and Luisa get drunk and lasciviously dance together in an indigenous village en route to their destination. It’s subtly positioned less as a wry celebration of the moment where the three characters begin to cohere as ‘one’, but more a savage critique of the way they intrude so brashly on the indigenous people’s quietude that evening.
If Cuarón is so interested in problematising his teenage characters’ world view, it could be argued he spends a lot of time indulging in and characterising their personalities and predictable teenage machismo. But, again, it’s the near-silent scaffold he builds around their narrative tyranny that becomes the moral of the story. By the film’s closing act, it’s hard not to be drawn into the film’s slow-burn sense of accumulating poignancy as the road trip reaches its end at the Heaven’s Mouth beach. There’s logic and a profound truism in the sentiment that these affluent boys will soon be back off to their adult lives in Mexico City, and that the trip will be subsumed into one of those clichéd ‘rites of passage’ anecdotes that men co-opt in their middle-aged years – although Cuarón does cleverly allude to the fact that Tenoch and Julio themselves lose touch soon after the trip. It’s an acknowledgement of the barely perceptible class tension between them, and a final testament to Cuarón’s skills in Y Tu Mamá También – a rare filmmaker who is genuinely able to combine dramatic sophistication with cinematographic finesse.