TORONTO 2001 REVIEW: Three's Company; "Y Tu Mama" has Sex, Style and Politics
by Peter Brunette
(indieWIRE/09.13.01) — It’s here at last — a slacker movie with intelligence, social analysis and real political bite. Alfonso Cuaron‘s riotously funny, yet artistically ambitious “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a Mexican film showing in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto International Film Festival, is a delight from beginning to end. Even when it goes over the top — which is often — its excesses are a function of a pardonable youthful exuberance rather than commercial calculation, which is more usually the case. And to those benighted moviegoers not particularly interested in trenchant sociopolitical commentary, let me just say this: It’s also one of the few genuinely sexy films I’ve seen in years.
Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal, the superb young actor from “Amores Perros“) and Tenoch (Diego Luna, who more than holds his own here) are best friends. Though the recent high school grads are from different classes (Tenoch is the scion of a rich and powerful family, and Julio is lower-middle-class, with a sister connected to the Chiapas guerillas), they have a great time together smoking grass, farting, jerking off, and getting laid. At a ritzy wedding reception attended by the president of Mexico, they run into a 28-year-old female cousin of Tenoch’s named Luisa (Maribel Verdu), who’s visiting from Spain. Half jokingly, they invite her to come along with them on a quest for a perfect, perhaps mythical beach called “Heaven’s Mouth,” but she refuses. When her drunken husband calls one night to confess his marital infidelity, however, in a fit of pique she suddenly changes her mind. With this decision commences a journey that, in classic road movie style, will change all their lives forever.
The two boys are obscene motormouths, and their frentic, irresponsible cavorting is indulged by Luisa, who questions them closely about their sexual relationships with their girlfriends. Quickly enough, desire rears its predictable head, the peace and tranquility of the trio is disturbed, and the boys’ friendship is deeply threatened.
The film is thoroughly enjoyable, if not particularly groundbreaking, on this uncomplicated level of slacker road movie. And the sex is sexy indeed; by going a little farther than usual, Cuaron makes it feel new and powerful. The youthful participants throw their inexperienced selves into it with such gusto, and the actors who embody them are so fresh and spirited, that we can’t help but go along with the fun. There’s also at least one scene in which the female gazes at and commands the naked, vulnerable male in a way that will set feminist film theorists’ hearts aflutter. Another salutary difference from the standard-issue road movie is that the countryside the three move through is marked by colorful and authentic expressions of Mexican culture, such as when they are stopped by villagers who ask for a donation to honor the village queen, whom they cradle, dressed in a white gown, in their arms.
But though Cuaron has had a great deal of experience making films that are meant to appeal to mainstream American taste (he directed the under-appreciated “A Little Princess” and “Great Expectations“), he is not interested in that here. And though he depends heavily on generic conventions, he refuses to be limited by them. The principal way in which he liberates himself is through the use of a dryly-ironic narrator who, in unseen voiceover, comments throughout on things seen or not seen, thought or not thought, but which are never verbalized by the characters. Film students learn (and, unthinkingly, film critics repeat, like a mantra) that one must never use a voiceover in a film, because that means one has failed to tell one’s story visually and dramatically.
Here, however, Cuaron’s infrequent narrator comments upon the fate of poor people who have come this way before, for example, only to be killed by a car or upon Tenoch’s unspoken thoughts when he passes the village of his peasant nanny. At other times, the voiceover reveals the future fate of the various participants, thus serving a function not unlike that of the wonderful flash-forwards that were the best thing in “Run, Lola, Run.”
In “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” these haunting ruminations usually serve a political purpose in that they point to inequalities in Mexican society (though in a way that is not at all heavy-handed), or deflate optimistic illusions (for example, that the recent election of President Vicente Fox is really going to change anything in that country). On a purely practical level, the sober narrator also mitigates the slacker frenzy of these two boys that would otherwise quickly become too much. The spoken narration is also accompanied by occasional, unconventional camera movements in which, for example, the camera wanders away from the putative narrative focus, the expensive wedding, to follow the doings of chauffeurs, maids, and the like, on whom the lives of the rich depend.
But one needn’t get too serious about all this. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” succeeds on so many levels that, happily, you get to take your choice.
[Peter Brunette, who contributes frequently to the Boston Globe, is at work on a book on Wong Kar-wai.]