The New-New Wave: Contemporary Mexican Cinema

As critics’ circles announce their superlatives of the year, I’m perturbed by the lack of Mexican cinema cited. Not to dismiss the usual suspects in this category, as pictures like Blue is the Warmest Color and A Hijacking have had a strong and deserving presence on the circuit, but it’s a bit disheartening to see so few nods toward a country on the banks of a creative renaissance.

Unfortunately, I’m guilty of failing to highlight the numerous films coming out of this creative period. So before I lambast the critical community entirely, I reckon I should, ya know, talk about these films. Three major works from three varied Mexican auteurs have either screened in a festival capacity or are available for streaming on Netflix. So if the prospect of enduring below-freezing temperature sounds unappealing (and in Chicago, the blustery wind makes the strong case for seasonal hibernation), the opportunity to view some new and exciting cinema within the comfort of your living room ought to sound reasonable enough.

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Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, a recent addition to Netflix Instant’s library, might not be the best place to start, but it’s a certain and challenging piece of art-house cinema. And “art-house” cinema would appropriate Reygadas’ output, which has been a steady stream of oblique and confounding exercises of visual and theological weight. Attempting to provide a synopsis for the film wouldn’t do much good, as it’s largely a film worth viewing for its sensory qualities. In a film that contains shadow demons, inexplicable images of rugby players, and sauna orgies, there’s a lot to piece together and make sense of. Despite its puzzling nature, Reygadas succeeds in achieving mood. There’s a perpetual sense of wonder to be found in the picture’s many long takes, with Reygadas offering a true sense of spectacle. At times frustrating, the film threads between domestic drama and posits existential questions on life and death. For all its strengths and weaknesses, Post Tenebras Lux possesses the kind of visceral engagement that may make it frustrating, but also unforgettable.

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Michel Franco’s work isn’t particularly concerned with spectacle, at least not in the same holistic sense that has defined Reygadas’ work. But with 2009’s Daniel & Ana and especially this year’s After Lucia, Franco has established himself as a director capable of seducing his audience into a trance through shock. Clearly influenced by the work of Michael Haneke, Franco’s work views human behavior as inherently flawed and evil, where people are in their natural state when at their most cruel. After Lucia, a film where a father and daughter move to a new home only for the daughter to fall victim to bullying, is vivid and unrelenting in its observations and cynicism toward human behavior. Like Haneke, I suspect Franco may be too masochistic to appeal to broader audiences, but After Lucia sparks a conversation on the augmentation of  bullying in a digitized world and how it alters our methods of coping. Few films leave you as shocked as After Lucia, though it’s the sort of shock that is immediately followed by lively debate on the brutality of contemporary youth. After Lucia is available for streaming via Netflix while Daniel & Ana is available with a DVD subscription.

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The most accomplished Mexican directorial presence working today would be Amat Escalante. One of the great films of 2013 and the best film still seeking distribution is Escalante’s Cannes-winning Heli. Escalante took Best Director recognition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, an award that only the year before went to Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux. With Heli, Escalante paints a dire portrait of contemporary Mexico, where the illuminating virtue of leading a straight and narrow life is extinguished – or singed, at least. The film opens with a series of static shots depicting a gruesome gangland hanging. But these images, free of context and significance, don’t really register as anything but that: violent and torturous with little meaning behind them. Eventually the picture segueways to the life of a small family as they embrace their familial bond through a series of prescribed routines. The picture is truly touching at this point, clearing the air allowing you to forget the forecast of gloom that Heli announced itself on. Perhaps conventionally, Heli unites its prologue with the rest of the picture somewhere down the middle mark, with what follows as an unconventional and riveting exercise in coping with an increasingly volatile and hopeless terrain. What could have been an empty and hallow exercise in provocation becomes so much more; a series of relentless studies on survival in a land that rejects it at every turn. Heli is still awaiting distribution but it is Mexico’s submission for the 86th Academy Awards. A nomination would be critical to its future success.

The number one independent film of the year based on box office is the Spanish-language film Instructions Not Included. It’s a terribly backwards representation of Latinos, insipidly conjuring images of Latinos as homophobic and philanders. Not to mention the fact that it’s a terribly Americanized image of Latinos, essentially stripping away aspects of class through the lens of its Stepin Fetchit-like character portrayed by Eugenio Derbez. The films and filmmakers outlined here speak in socially-conscious terms: the realities depicted may not invite flowery reception, but they do inspire a great deal of thought that transcends barriers or race and class. The extremely limited distribution of films like Post Tenebras Lux, After Lucia, and Heli don’t inspire much confidence, particularly given the images pushed by something like Instructions Not Included; perhaps that’s all that really matters. There’s a reason why these films come in these titular waves – eventually, after everything is exhausted, the source of that wave depletes and runs dry.