Charles Petzold

Visionary Directors from Mexico

January 22, 2007
New York, N.Y.

Probably most moviegoers have noticed that some of the more interesting films in recent years have been made by directors who come from Spanish-speaking countries, some of whom feel quite comfortable also directing movies in English. Although this trend has been evident for a few years, the difference right now is that there are four such movies currently in the theaters (at least in New York City).

Babel is the third collaboration between Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and novelist Guillermo Arriaga. Like their previous films — the extraordinary Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) — Babel weaves together several disparate stories, but much more ambitiously than the previous films. This time the stories span the world, from Morroco to California to Mexico to Tokyo. What I find so interesting is that there are no bad characters in this movie, but just a few flawed decisions that cause the world to rock out of kilter.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón achieved international recognition for his film of sexual awakening among teenagers, Y tu mamá también (2001). Possibly as a result of his skill in working with young people, he was invited to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Oddly enough, his new film Children of Men, based on a novel by P.D. James, has no children in it at all! The movie takes place in the year 2027, and for reasons noone understands, no woman has given birth for 18 years. Recognizing their inevitable slow descent into a drawn-out death, the people of the world have degenerated into warring factions. England, where the movie takes place, has turned against its immigrant population, and spends much of its authority rounding people up and deporting them. Children of Men may be set in the future, but the images remind us of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, insurgencies, street wars, and refugee camps.

It is interesting to compare Children of Men with a recent moronic science fiction movie like The Island, directed by Hollywood hack Michael Bay, which also attempts to tackle a big theme but flubs it entirely. The Island has plenty of carefully orchestrated chase sequences, but ultimately they're tedious and boring, and not one comes close to the visceral impact of a few minutes of Children of Men.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is probably best known in the U.S. for his action/horror/thrillers-with-a-difference like Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), and Hellboy (2004). But he is also capable of more subtle work. In 2001 he made a wonderful movie entitled The Devil's Backbone, which takes place at an orphanage in Spain in 1939 towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, and centers around a 10 year old boy. His new film, Pan's Labyrinth, also takes place in Spain but several years later when a few determined defenders of Republican Spain are still battling the victorious fascists. A young girl travels with her pregnant mother to meet up with their new father, a capitán in Franco's army. While real-life battles and horrors rage around her, she retreats into a fantasy life and is called upon to perform some special tasks. For much of this movie, it seems that these two narrative strands — the brutally real and the fantastically imagined — can never meet up, and yet they do (of course) in a quite satisfying and haunting way.

Still on our "to see" list is Volver, the most recent film form Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Judging from his recent string of successes — All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), and Bad Education (2004) — our expectations are high.