By Pam Grady
SFFILM pays homage to cinema from our southern neighbor with the 2021 spotlight, “Cine Mexicano,” highlighting unique, independent voices that reflect Mexico’s rich diversity.
The spotlight pulls together six films, including four narratives and two documentaries. It is a diverse lot of stories, as indigenous people struggle to hold onto their lands, those who have left return to uncomfortable homecomings, characters hide themselves behind masks – sometimes with tragic consequences, and in early 20th-century Mexico City, a politician is torn between his ambitions and his passions. All the films explore a sense of identity, what it means to belong to or move away from a group or community or family, and what it means to fight for that recognition under impossible odds.
The theme of identity is strongest in the two documentaries in the spotlight, veteran filmmaker Luciana Kaplan’s The Spokeswoman that follows the first woman indigenous candidate for the Mexican presidency on her campaign to make the ballot, and Teresa Camou Guerrero’s Cruz, a powerful and poetic examination of an indigenous family struggling not just to get back their ancestral homeland but to stay alive.
In both documentaries, a people and a way of life are under threat from outside forces. As the spokeswoman for the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) and the party’s candidate for president in The Spokeswoman, Maria de Jesús Patricio aka Marichuy, articulates what is at stake for her and the rest of the Nahua people in every speech she makes. Big business and the government have targeted the Nahuas’ land and resources. Stopping that depredation is a key plank in her platform.
Stakes are even higher in Cruz, where the titular patriarch of a Rarámuri clan and his kin are fighting for their ancestral homeland in the Mexican Sierras against drug cartels and indifferent (and possibly corrupt) government authorities. “We were planted here, here is where are roots are,” Cruz says. “No one will ever drive me out.”
If The Spokeswoman casts a light on Mexico’s contemporary politics with Marichuy making stump speeches and gathering signatures for her presidential run in busy towns and villages, Cruz focuses much more on the pastoral, illustrating what Cruz and his family are fighting for in the beauty and seeming serenity of farm, woods, and the surrounding mountains. Both films are illuminated by their subjects, Marichuy and Cruz, who are steadfast in their leadership of their communities, determined to hold onto not just land and resources, but to who they are.
Ángeles Cruz’s Nudo Mixteco and Alexis Gambis’s Son of Monarchs, similar to the documentaries, focus on the idea of home. But while The Spokeswoman and Cruz focus on a close connection to homeland, the dramas are more concerned with ties that have been severed and the reckoning that comes with reunion.
Cruz‘s film is a triptych, the tales of three people returning to their small Oaxacan village while a town festival and burial of an elder are taking place. Two of the three were essentially forced from their homes by circumstances: Maria is a lesbian in a family that will not accept her, while Toña fled a lifetime of trauma. Returning to the village is fraught for both women, weighed down by their history with the place and anxiety over what awaits them.
Esteban’s story is more familiar. With few job prospects in the village, the husband and father followed the migrant trail to El Norte, only to discover upon his return that life has not stood still while he was away. The three stories lock together as a depiction of displacement and loss. Identities once tied to this place exist elsewhere – or nowhere.
A similar prospect greets Mendel in Son of Monarchs. Gambis’s drama moves back and forth through time, weaving a tale of an idyllic childhood interrupted by tragedy and an adult life that, by necessity, has pushed Mendel far from home. A native of Michoacán, where monarch butterflies end their migration from Canada, the flashbacks portray a delighted child covered in the insects, comfortable in this natural world. As an adult, Mendel lives among the concrete canyons of New York, a scientist sequencing the monarchs’ DNA. When events send him south to the depressed mining town where his older brother, Simon, still lives, like the trio in Nudo Mixteco, he finds himself estranged not just from a sibling bitter at being left behind, but from his surroundings. The butterflies that so established his connection to the place, have now helped sever it, leaving him adrift somewhere along his migratory path.
Like Son of Monarchs, Fauna is set in a fading mining town and involves a family reunion, but the stakes are not so emotionally fraught in a playful film that examines the masks people wear in their daily lives. For one thing, the town holds no particular emotional resonance for the characters. It is simply where the parents of a dysfunctional clan have chosen to retire. Now after several years apart, son Gabino and daughter Luisa, with her boyfriend, Paco, in tow visit the folks. Luisa is an actor and so is Paco, and one who has been on the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico. (Francisco Barreiro, who plays Paco, did, in fact, have a recurring role in the show.)
Fauna is broken into two parts. In the first, Paco, a bit player in the series, is called upon to take on the role of the show’s drug lord. It is kind of a double mask. An actor with a minor part dons the mask of the star who dons the mask of the criminal. The second part takes place wholly in Gabino’s fantasy as he casts himself, his sister, and Paco into a hardboiled story of a town infiltrated by criminals. (The situation is not dissimilar to the reality portrayed so tragically in Cruz: Criminals have infiltrated and people are dying and disappearing.) In both halves of the film, Pereda offers a different kind of identity, one individuals create, while keeping their authentic selves hidden.
Masks are at the hearts of the final film in Cine Mexicano, Dance of the 41, deployed out of necessity to fit into an intolerant society. The one historical drama in the spotlight, it is drawn from turn-of-the-20th-century history when police raided a private party of gay men in Mexico City. Rumored to be among them was President Porfirio Diaz’s son-in-law.
From that bit of trivia springs this opulent melodrama in which ambitious politician Ignacio marries the president’s daughter. Condemned to live his authentic self in secret, the mask Ignacio wears is that of the most toxic of macho males. In his unhappiness, he gaslights and abuses his wife, the blame falling on her that the only way he can further his aspirations and or even remain in society is keep up the appearances of a sham marriage. The mask is suffocating, removed only in the company of other gay men and in fleeting moments with his lover. He preserves his identity under it, but it is eating him alive and becomes harder and harder for him to wear.
Taken together, the six films in Cine Mexicano present a prismatic portrait of a country and its people. From a strong connection to the land to the discombobulation that comes from leaving and returning to carefully presenting a face to others, the scenarios in these films offer a probing and provocative investigation of how people define themselves – through tradition, community, place, memory, even pretense – and find their place in the world.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance writer.