So many Mexican filmmakers are now making highly regarded Hollywood films, that it’s easy to forget the raw, devastating beauty of their early work produced in their home country. What makes Mexican cinema special is the way it tends to absorb a strong American influence, and subverts genre tropes to make films that are honest and urgent in tone. Here are five of the finest Mexican films that perfectly encapsulate the country’s distinctive cinematic identity.
Los Olvidados (1950)
Before director Luis Buñuel left his home country to make movies in Europe with the likes of Salvador Dalí, he made films like Los Olvidados (“The Forgotten”) that present a sensitive and spiritual portrait of the downtrodden. Set in the slums of Mexico City, the film is centred on a group of wayward youths, in particular the naïve Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) and the impetuous El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo). Los Olvidados is an unflinching and confronting look at the lives of these under-privileged boys and their families, and while these characters are not completely sympathetic, Buñuel infuses the film with a searing, sometimes frightening spirituality that makes it a profoundly affecting film experience.
El Topo (1970)
El Topo is one of the most radical takes on the Western ever. This surreal and psychedelic vision stars director Alejandro Jodorowsky as the titular character, whose name translates as “The Mole,” a keen-eyed gunslinger and protector of the meek who is not opposed to questionable tactics to achieve his goals. Intricate, stylised, spiritual and intensely violent, El Topo is a dream disguised as a genre film. Its story lasts many years, and takes its hero from the arms of a bandit’s concubine to the very bowels of the Earth. You may come away from this film feeling confused, but the journey you take alongside El Topo is one of the most unique and startling in all movies.
The gothic film Cronos takes on and subverts the myth of vampires, stripping all the romance from the blood-sucking figures and tapping into the dark reality of parasitism. In this film, Federico Luppi plays Jesús Gris, an antique dealer who discovers a centuries old mechanical device that has the power to grant eternal life – at a cost, of course. Director Guillermo del Toro is also responsible for the hugely acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as big budget American films like Hellboy and Pacific Rim, which should offer some idea of his adeptness at building absorbing and symbolically rich mythologies. Cronos is a dark, stylish and original film that remains stunning more than two decades after its release.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Alfonso Cuarón would go on to direct highly acclaimed, award-winning films like Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013), which may surprise some given the low-key, earthy story of Y Tu Mamá También. In this film, the title of which is essentially a crude reference to one’s mother, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna play Julio and Tenoch respectively, who are both well-off Mexican teenagers whose fathers are important government officials. After convincing Julio’s attractive cousin Luisa (Maribel Verdú) to take a trip with them to a beach that may or may not exist, they become more aware of the world around them, the people in their lives, and themselves. Y Tu Mamá También is explicit and often vulgar, but its last act is one of the finest depictions of self-actualisation in all of cinema.
Silent Light (2007)
Carlos Reygadas’ masterpiece Silent Light was deservedly awarded the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Reygadas, unlike many of his Mexican contemporaries has a muted, gentle style heavily influenced by European cinema, making his works enigmatic and striking. In Silent Light, the patriarch of a North Mexican Mennonite family finds his faith and devotion tested when he falls for a woman who is not his wife. This slow-moving, delicate film uses non-professional actors and actual Mennonites speaking their Low German dialect Plautdietsch, making for a film that feels unbearably intimate. One concession to cinematic license is made, and it makes the film’s conclusion a transcendent and unforgettable one.