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Gilding the silver screen: Mexico's "new" cinema forges ahead with touchy subject matter and an eager audience.

After enduring decades of government censorship, the Mexican film industry is finally getting a breath of fresh air. Although production has dwindled to about two dozen feature-length movies annually, in recent years filmmakers here have brazenly shifted their focus toward issues once considered unthinkable.

Alfonso Rodriguez, a film researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), says that the penchant for risk-taking has increased significantly due to Mexico's changing cultural climate and the growing tolerance that comes along with it.

"There has been a very strong change here," he said. "(Mexican films) have become more analytical, and that's because there is more freedom of expression than before."

The upcoming release of "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" (Sacred Crime) offers proof of just how far production companies have pushed the limits. Alameda Films producer Alfredo Ripstein says the project, now in postproduction, was shelved for more than three decades due to its strong subject matter. For years, said Ripstein, the film simply couldn't get past government censors.

Based on a 19th century Portuguese novel by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, "Padre Amaro" is the story of a young priest who discovers that his fellow clergymen are receiving dirty money from drug kingpins in order to finance rebel groups and so-called community projects. Award-winning actor Gael Garcia, who starred in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (And Your Mother, Too) and "Amores Perros" (Love's a Bitch), is Father Amaro.

Ripstein said the movie, a French and Spanish co-production, is likely to spark controversy in this predominantly Catholic nation, where for the most part the Church has been off-limits to artistic criticism.


But it is not just religion that has been placed under the microscope in recent years. Filmmakers are also taking unprecedented liberties in criticizing the. Mexican political system. President Vicente Fox's historic election victory, which saw the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) deposed after 71 years, was seen as an event that would pave the way for a new era of democracy. Indeed, nearly two years after his triumph, there has been far more open' criticism.

Even a federal legislator has used the big screen to denounce social and political ills: Just last year, flamboyant, leftist lawmaker Felix Salgado launched an acting career with the lead' role in the Mexican production "Guerrero." Playing a Harley-Davidson riding champion of justice, the congressman-turned-actor describes his character, known simply as Felix, as a rebel with a cause who defends the poor from corruption and inequality.

Salgado, who is often Fox's harshest critic, acknowledges that in the past it would have been next to impossible to release a movie such as "Guerrero." Now, he says he is planning to produce a film tentatively titled "La Sucesion" (The Succession). He describes his latest proposal, which is still under negotiation with distributors, as a drama that makes references to real events.

One of the characters bears remarkable semblance to disgraced former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has been in self-imposed exile since his term ended in 1988. Salinas was forced to flee the country after he left behind a crippling economic crisis and a nation in shambles.

The character in Salgado's film is described as a young boy with big ears, who kills his domestic servant. The story is unmistakably similar to an incident-in 1951 when Carlos Salinas and his older brother Raul allegedly shot and killed their 12-year-old maid with their father's rifle. The published reports, according to Andres Oppenheimer's book "Bordering on Chaos," mysteriously disappeared from Mexican libraries by the time Salinas became an influential political figure. The final ruling was that the execution-style death was an accident. Yet for many Mexicans, Salinas' childhood tale symbolizes decades of impunity and corruption at the highest levels of government.

"Any likeness to real people or events is a mere coincidence," said Salgado with a grin.

"La Sucesion" also speaks out against drug cartels, social injustices and the growing invasion of foreign interests in Mexico. Salgado says he wants to combine the art of film making with politics as a means to break years of silence.


In the past, political criticism would have been a highly unlikely prospect, mainly because the state-run Mexican Film Institute (Imcine), the dominant source of funding for many local productions, was calling the shots. Granted, that still holds true: In 2000, the government financed more than half of Mexico's full-length movies. Moreover, certain members of the Mexican film community insist that censorship is alive and well at Imcine. But spokesman Alfredo del Valle says that the Institute has made strides in recent years to support riskier projects.

Del Valle says the 1999 release of "La Ley de Herodes" (Herod's Law) changed everything.

Oddly enough, it was former Imcine Director Eduardo Amerena who attempted to prohibit the nationwide release of "La Ley de Herodes" because he said it could destabilize the country during an upcoming election year. That decision ultimately cost Amerena his job.

The film is an acerbic critique of the former ruling PRI, and was so polemical that cultural authorities initially intended to limit its release to just a few Mexico City theaters. With Fox's conservative opposition ticket standing a strong chance of dethroning the PRI, the party feared that the film came much too close to the truth in the midst of a heated presidential race.

Directed by Luis Estrada, "La Ley de Herodes" tells the story of Juan Vargas (Damian Alcazar), a sanitation supervisor and loyal PRI member who is appointed mayor in a small, rural Mexican town. Vargas starts off with good intentions, but little by little he realizes that power and corruption go hand in hand. In the end, a thoroughly crooked Vargas succeeds in winning a seat in Federal Congress.

Originally, the film was government funded. But that changed when Estrada decided to give the ending a new twist, suggesting that foul play offered unlimited rewards in the Mexican political system. Del Valle says Estrada had received US$1 million in state financing. After seeing the final product, however, cultural authorities met with the director and said they wanted to distance themselves from the controversial project. Rather than offering direct financial support, they reached an agreement that the US$1 million would better serve as a loan and that the movie would take on the status of an independent production. Certainly, someone must have regretted that decision. The movie was an instant box-office hit, and went on to win 10 Ariel awards, including best picture and director. The Ariel is Mexico's most Prestigious film award.

After "La Ley's" huge success, the film community jumped on the bandwagon. First there was "Todo el Poder" (Give Me the Power), which also did exceptionally well in ticket sales and was another production that shocked moviegoers with its open attack on systemic corruption.

Soon after, sexual themes started becoming more risque. "Perfume de Violetas," this year's submission for foreign U.S. Oscar consideration, includes a disturbing scene in which a Mexico City teen is raped. Rape is a subject rarely denounced in Mexican film, and much less in Mexican society.

And then there was Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuaron's erotic road movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (And Your Mother Too). The story of tow hot-blooded teens that set out on a trip with a sexy, older woman is anything but conventional. With often humorous scenes touching on seduction, masturbation, homosexuality and dope smoking, "Y Tu mama" has all the right elements to make overprotective parents squirm. Needless to say, in a relatively conservative society, the movie was a major breakthrough--even if Cuaron maintains that the government continues to corrupt the creative process.

Censorship is alive and well, an. Mexico's aging bureaucracy continue to control filmmakers, said Cuaron in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. Cuaron said "Y Tu Mama" was possible because he didn't receive any money from the Mexican government--ultimately giving him unlimited freedom to do the film.

"They believe in a series of taboos that are remnants from the '60s," h said. "It goes something like this: If you are entertaining, then you are superficial. If you are versed technically, then you must be a Hollywood wannabe. IF you deal with themes about the middle class, then you must be a bourgeois or a reactionary. If you leave your country, you are a sellout."

Cuaron is one of several Mexican crossover directors who have enjoyed success on both sides of the border. These include Guillermo del Torn (Blade 2, The Devil's Backbone), Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate), and Salvador Carrasco (The Other Conquest).

Though Cuaron may well be right, the creative process, whether it is privately or publicly financed, has gradually become more defiant. For moviegoers here, that means they can expect more productions with biting political and social commentary, steamier sex scenes and more violence.


Domestic fare has become very popular in Mexico, but there is a limited crop to choose from because production output continues to drop. According to the Mexican Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, the industry saw a 25% decline in production last year; Mexico produced 28 full-length films in 2000, compared to only 21 in 2001. And nearly halfway through this year, the industry has produced only six feature-length movies, says Academy President Jorge Fons.

Lack of distribution has also been a big problem. Rarely are U.S. distributors willing to take a chance on a Mexican film, and even local distributors have shunned national productions. In May, "Cuento de Hadas para Dormir Cocodrilos" (Fairy Tales for Crocodiles) won seven Ariel awards, but at that time most Mexicans had never even heard of the movie because distributors were simply not interested. Imagine the impossible: a Hollywood film wins seven Oscars and will be released nationwide just as soon as a distributor picks it up. Oddly enough, "Cuento de Hadas" also won the Critics' Choice award this year at the Guadalajara Film Festival, Mexico's top movie showcase.

Local productions draw a total of 10% of nationwide admissions. The Academy says that percentage would increase significantly if production output were higher. For the time being, however, it appears to be moving in the opposite direction. If anything can be said about Mexicans' taste for local flavor, they like what they see but they just can't get enough of it.

John Hecht is a Mexico city-based freelance writer and a correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter.
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Author:Hecht, John
Publication:Business Mexico
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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