Mexican cinema and Mexican filmmakers took a giant leap in the 2000s (one that back to back best director wins for Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in the last two years hopefully means isn’t over). Y Tu Mama Tambien, directed by Cuaron and co-written with his brother was the perfect film to usher in this new cinematic age.
On the surface, it tells the story of Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna). Julio’s family is middle class, but Tenoch’s family is elite. His father is a high ranking member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (can you be an institution and revolutionary? – I love how Orwellian that sounds). At the time the film was set (1999), the IRP had ruled Mexico for an uninterrupted 71 years.
As summer begins, the boys are seeing off their girlfriends who are going to Italy for a summer trip. Freed of their respective romantic obligations, they spend the summer with each other. They drink. They get high. They go to parties. Tenoch’s familial duties eventually compel him to attend a family wedding that doubles as a political function. There, the boys meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu). She is the Spanish wife of Tenoch’s philandering cousin Jano. They clumsily hit on her, and tell her about an entirely fictional road trip they plan to take. She visits a doctor. Jano confesses his indiscretions to her, and she calls the boys and asks to go along.
They boys hastily throw together a road trip, pick up Luisa, and set off for the coast. The trip has the effect of revealing each of the characters’ sexual histories and desires – leading to conflict among the boys.
Alfonso Cuaron presents the old Mexico as dying, strangled by the corruption of Tenoch’s family’s ruling party. But, even as that old Mexico is falling away, a new one, based on the same and older traditions may be taking its place. An omniscient narrator, provides us with footnotes, giving us an idea of the political and historical setting in which this all takes place. Cuaron mirrors the changing of Mexico with the changes taking place in his protagonists. The innocence of youth is falling away from them, and they are coming to terms with themselves and with each other.
Make no mistake, this film is raunchy. Especially the boys’ dialogue is explicit, sexual, and dirty. The title means, “And You’re Mother, Too,” if you’ve got any imagination you don’t need any more explanation where that title comes from (though watching the movie, you will get it). But it’s also funny, uplifting, and has a strange beauty. If the guys in American college comedies talked like this, I’d watch them.
I really liked the way that Cuaron depicts sex. So often, sex in the movies is expressly erotic, built for the puerile and masterbatory fantasies of young men. The sex in Y Tu Mama Tambien is neither voyeuristic, nor dirty. It is embarrassingly, sometimes painfully, earnest. The game cast gives their all in these scenes, investing them with passion and emotional connection. Bernal and Luna give performances here that presage their later performances in interesting work both in their native Mexico and beyond, but it is Ms. Verdu who gives Y Tu Mama Tambien both its vibrant life and its pathos. She evokes sadness, serenity, and sanguinity in a beautifully understated (and underrated) performance.
Like last years’ Boyhood, the theme here is that life is always changing. Because life is sometimes beautiful, like Y Tu Mama Tambien is, sometimes we wish it wouldn't change. But all our wishes are useless against those forces that remake our lives, so the best way to live is to give in to them.
Y Tu Mama Tambien was chosen as one of the ten best films of the decade by four members of the critics’ panel. It shares that same honor with nine other films including Zodiac, which I most recently reviewed, and my next feature, The Incredibles.
From Out in the Void