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What’s the Secret to Mexican Cinema Today? The Morelia Film Festival Has the Answer

What's the Secret to Mexican Cinema Today? The Morelia Film Festival Has the Answer

The 11th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (or FICM, to use its Spanish acronym), came to a close last weekend in the picturesque town in Michoacan that gives the festival its name. Even though the festival is relatively young, it has managed in its decade of existence to build up a solid international reputation and has also created strong links to the local industry that it tries to promote. Indeed, it would not be amiss to suggest that as it enters its second decade, it has started maturing into adulthood.

The festival opened with the Mexican premiere of “Gravity,” the box-office smash hit from former indie darling Alfonso Cuaron, who was in town to promote his film. His brother and “Y tu mama tambien” co-writer, Carlos Cuaron, was also in town to promote his own latest work, “Sugar Kisses” — which, like “Gravity,” screened out of competition. A sweet children’s tale set in Mexico City’s poorer neighborhoods, “Sugar Kisses” is about as different from “Gravity” as you can get, offering a snapshot of the interests and range of current Mexican cinema in a nutshell.

The presence of both films underlined the talent pool that’s available locally and has the potential to work internationally. More specifically, it’s a good indication of Morelia’s strong ties with local filmmakers and the nurturing function festivals can have on local talent, who won’t forget where they came from even after they’ve hit the big time.

Morelia has an international outlook and growing reputation that’s steadily overtaking that of the Guadalajara Film Festival in March, which also showcases Mexican talent (some films, including the eventual winner of both festivals this year, “Workers,” screen at both). The international press, festival programmers and filmmakers in Morelia are first and foremost present to acquaint themselves or catch up with the new Mexican productions and mingle with the Mexican filmmakers, which can in turn only help increase their network and, potentially, their future productions.

While still a relatively young festival, its opening film and carefully curated competition suggests Morelia is becoming an increasingly important player in not only the national but also the wider international field. For the first time this year, the festival’s main competition, until then dedicated to first and second Mexican films, opened up to other films as well, essentially because the festival wanted to keep following talents it had unearthed and showcased in earlier editions, such as “Duck Season” and “Lake Tahoe” director Fernando Eimbcke, who presented his third feature “Club Sandwich” in competition, and Michel and Victoria Franco’s “Through the Eyes,” another soberly observed mother-son story that’s Michel’s third feature (though it’s the first time the director of “Daniel & Ana” and “After Lucia” co-directs a film with his documentary director sister).

Morelia got off the ground around the same time that a new group of filmmakers started making their first films some 10 years ago, and even in this year’s competition, a lot of the films featured young people and focused on their growth and well-being — something that seems typical of a cinema in which many of the directors are themselves very young (“film what you know” is a well-known motto for young filmmakers). It’s a testament to the relationship between the festival and the directors that both felt the need to continue building after a first helping hand from both sides.

The 11th edition’s jury, composed of Anglophone critics Todd McCarthy and Jonathan Romney (the latter a last-minute replacement for ace German cinematographer and occasional director Fred Kelemen, who fell ill just before the festival) as well as Portuguese actress and occasional director Maria de Medeiros (“Pulp Fiction”) managed to give the top award to the best film in the Mexican competition: “Workers” by Mexican-Salvadorian director José Luis Valle Gonzalez.

The film, which had its word premiere at the Berlinale in February, tells two parallel stories of elderly, working-class people who used to be married and who both have to face the cruelty of their rich employers, which causes them to fly off the rails. Impeccably composed and acted, the slow-moving film is indeed an impressive calling card for Valle Gonzalez, making his first fiction feature after the documentary “The Pope’s Miracle”; he’s a voice we’ll hopefully hear a lot more from in the not-too-distant future.

The Best First Feature deservedly went to “La Jaula de oro,” from Mexico-based Spanish filmmaker Diego Quemada-Diez. The film, which premiered in Cannes this year in the Un certain regard section, tells the story of four kids who try to get to the U.S. from Guatemala. Though story-wise it has a lot in common with indie smash hit “Sin nombre” from Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Jaula” nonetheless manages to impress with the careful direction of its non-professional child actors and with its emotional honesty, laid bare by the often dire circumstances in which the kids find themselves. They have to grow up real quick and realize that together they’re probably stronger than on their own; the shifting allegiances between the group of four, of which finally only two will remain, feel authentic and lived-in.

The best actor kudos went to the two leads of “Gonzalez,” Harold Torres and Carlos Bardem (Javier’s older brother and an impressive character actor in his own right). The duo play, respectively, an unemployed and heavily indebted young man in Mexico City and a Brazilian televangelist in early middle age for whose church the title character starts to work as a call-center employee, though it quickly becomes clear that the church is less interested in the spiritual well-being of its flock than in making sure they keep donating their cash, a discovery that the penniless protagonist tries to use to his advantage.

Best actress went to Venezuelan powerhouse Adriana Paz in “The Empty Hours,” one of this critic’s favorite films in competition alongside “Workers” and “La Jaula de oro.” Like Eimbcke’s “Club Sandwich,” which screened earlier at the New York Festival, “Empty Hours” is set almost entirely in an empty holiday resort, which acts as the unlikely stage of a tentative if initially unlikely friendship that slowly evolves into something more. Whereas “Sandwich” focuses on a teenage boy whose relationship with the young daughter of one of the few other visitors sets off all sorts of alarm bells for his mother, who’s not ready to let her son go, “Hours” sees the 17-year-old janitor of a seaside motel used by people for their extramarital affairs fall into a friendship with a beautiful woman, played by Paz, who spends most of her time waiting at the motel for her lover to arrive for a quick session of lovemaking, though she’s often stood up, which creates an interesting dynamic with the young janitor.

Both films expertly suggest how off-season holiday venues are rather sad places that inspire tedium but at the same time offer opportunities for encounters that would probably be impossible in the hustle and bustle of high season. Like the protagonists in “Jaula,” the teenagers in both these films are perfectly cast, suggesting either the directors all lucked out or, more likely, the combination of a good casting director and very hard work from the director and his actors resulted in performances that feel lived-in and true. Certainly, the fact that the directors are novices or still young filmmakers will have made it easier for them to empathize with their young protagonists — though, thankfully, in none of these films is there a sense that opportunities have been missed because the directors lacked the cinematic or technical experience to pull them off.

“Sandwich” focuses on a young mother’s minutely observed reactions to her adolescent son’s efforts to tiptoe into adulthood, which invites comparison to the premise of David Pablos’ “The Life After,” in which a depressed mother of an 18-year-old son and his younger brother suddenly leaves her kids behind to go back to her late father’s house in another town; it also bears a resemblance to “The Amazing Cat-Fish” from Claudia Sainte-Luce, in which a terminally ill mother of three daughters and a young son strikes up a friendship with a young adult woman who conveniently turns out to be an orphan without a family.

The subject of being young and part of a family are constantly juxtaposed and often crystallize into the idea that the young characters’ infatuations can be construed not so much as the simple result of an adolescent’s hormonal rush but rather as a young adult’s first hesitant step to let go of his or her parent or parents and (even if it’s theoretically or in an embryonic state) start a family of his or her own.

It’s quite a delight to notice how many of the female mother (or substitute mother) roles are meaty, complex parts for the actresses that play them, from  the maternal instincts of “Sandwich” that find it hard to let go to the monstrously unconditional mother love in “Eyes”; from the desire in “Cat Fish” of a mother to leave her entire brood in good care to the irrational desire of a mother to be close to her dead father in “The Life After,” which means abandoning her own children in the process.

Even in “The Well,” the second feature of “Leap Year” director Michael Rowe (Cannes Camera d’Or in 2010), the protagonist may be a little girl who feels lost in the new home of her newly divorced mother who has moved in with her boyfriend in another town but the mother’s actions — or rather the lack of them — can be just as telling as those of the little girl. And even in stories that don’t directly seem to address motherhood, such as eventual winner “Workers,” the director suggests the importance of the family unit in smaller details, such as the fact that two protagonists are divorcees who had a child together that died very young, a fact that probably led to their separation.

A more mainstream than arthouse inclusion in the competition, “Paradise” from Mariana Chenillo, also underlined the importance of family in its rather clichéd story of two fatties who are married and have to move from the countryside to the city for his work, a place where casual body fascism is much more prevalent, which sends the couple straight into the arms of a heavy-duty (no pun intended) diet, which tests their resilience in more ways than one. The film, an uneasy mix of melodrama and light comedy, was produced by the production company of popular actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, Canana, which was also a producer on “The Well,” as well as Chilean Oscar submission “Gloria,” which also screened at the festival and offered another plum female role for its protagonist.  

In a further sign of the exponential growth of local filmmaking, the separate section for local films, the Michoacan competition, comprised a feature for the first time this year, as well as the customary shorts. “January,” from Adrian Gonzalez Camargo, whose first short played in the first Michoacan competition, tells the story of a man who kills his wife when she walks in on him and his lover, and again a theme seems to be how the destruction of traditional family units can have far-reaching consequences.

Camargo’s film is especially strong in its opening moments; the killing actually occurs only on the soundtrack, with the screen simply black, and the subsequent series of carefully composed shots only gradually reveal what has happened. This attention to mise-en-scene isn’t sustained, unfortunately, and the acting also leaves something to be desired, though Camargo’s film does suggest he’s a name who’ll go on to make something that might play in the main Mexican competition in the future.

Also in town was “Y tu mama tambien” star Diego Luna, a regular at the festival who dropped by to promote the itinerant documentary festival Ambulante that he co-founded with Gael Garcia Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz in 2005 and that will finally cross the border into “El Norte” in September 2014, when it will present some 15 films in the Los Angeles area.

Christine Davila, a programming associate of the Sundance Festival and independent curator, will head the program of free screenings at several venues, with filmmakers expected to attend in order to foster debate and start a dialog with the local communities, just like in its Mexican counterpart. Clearly, a lot of exciting things are happening right now in Mexico — and it’s only right they get to show and share it with the rest of the world.

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