Perhaps this year's biggest cinema story, and my favorite, is the three Mexican directors?Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro?who have been dubbed the "three amigos." All produced major films achieving widespread critical success in America. "Children of Men," "Babel," and "Pan's Labyrinth," respectively, rank among the year's best.
These directors do not merely share the same cultural background and artistic successes. With references to each other in acceptance speeches and credits in each others' films, the connections between these friends and filmmakers go deeper than the content of their movies.
This success doesn't come out of the blue. Cuarón is best known to American audiences as the director of the art house smash "Y Tu Mamá También" and the third film in the Harry Potter series, "The Prisoner of Azkaban." González Iñárritu guided Hollywood stars to Oscar nominations a few years ago in "21 Grams," and del Toro has directed mainstream films like "Blade 2."
Increased funding within Mexico has also helped revitalize cinema at the grassroots level. Also, successful stars like Salma Hayek (who played iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in an American film), and the American-award winning telenovela "Ugly Betty" have increased the quality and awareness of Mexican films and actors.
Coupled with the growing commonality of Spanish on many goods and foods Americans buy, it is tempting to say Mexico is achieving an American cultural appeal that it has not had before.
This success, though, did not assure anything for the three amigos.
"Children of Men," based on a novel, is a dystopia in 2027 Britain where all women in the world have gone infertile. Theo (Clive Owen) divorced Julian (Julianne Moore) after the death of their son, but she calls him to help get a woman through government checkpoints.
Like other dystopias, the world of "Children of Men" seems eerily close to that of our own, perhaps too close. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and kept in cages on London sidewalks, and transit papers are necessary to travel anywhere. The government's ideology gap is only slightly more egregious than our own, purporting a Britain that is peaceful and under control while only barely holding on to it.
Despite the superficial bleakness, Cuarón instills a humor and vitality in the relationship between Theo and Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the woman he is protecting. Their banter may at first seem out of place, until one realizes that humor is one of the few ways to escape the bleakness of their current situation. This humor enables these two very different people to connect and strive for their cause.
"Babel" tells four interconnected stories taking place in Japan, Morocco, California, and Mexico. The main event in the film occurs when Susan (Cate Blanchett) is shot while vacationing in rural Morocco with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt). Though it seems evil and premeditated, the shooting is a young boy's accident. That doesn't stop the American government from calling it terrorism and sending a massive, vengeful crew to find the perpetrators.
Throughout "Babel," González Iñárritu weaves images of modern alienation and the divisions that exist between people who are actually connected. This is more vividly portrayed by Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi), a mute Japanese teenager. Standing essentially unconnected from all of the film's other characters, she allegorizes the desire to connect and be loved with heartbreaking strength. It ranks as one of the year's best performances.
Misery does not stem from the events themselves, but from the lack of understanding that precipitates blind reactions. Watching Richard and Susan's children interact at a Mexican wedding, with the joy and excitement of a cross-cultural connection permeating the screen, you believe that even with different languages and political ideologies, interconnectedness is still possible to achieve.
"Pan's Labyrinth" agrees that belief and vigilant persistence matter. The film takes place in the early 1940s in Spain after the Civil War. After her father's death, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother move to a military outpost where her new father is a Fascist captain. Though the progressive Second Republic has fallen, resistance fighters still remain in the woods surrounding the house, vowing to hold out against Franco's repressive government.
Desperate to escape her reality, Ofelia meets Pan, a faun (a man with the hind legs of a goat), who offers her a way out if she completes his assignments. Drenched in magical realism, "Pan's" has much visual imagery to offer viewers. The movie also preaches that while good may not always triumph over evil, in the end it is the desire to affect the world and the effort you put in that matters.
All three films are the product of confident directors working at the top of their craft. Though different in tone, all are emotionally powerful films with relevant social and political messages.
Some may wish these amigos left their messages south of the border. Me? I'll welcome them back anytime, eager to see what they come up with next.
Remember the Oscar contest! Ballots are online at orient.bowdoin.edu in the archives under my name, or you can simply write down your choices for Best Picture, Director, the four acting and two writing categories, and Foreign Film as a tiebreaker. They are due February 22. The ballot box is at the Smith Union Info Desk. Good luck!