How Mexican Directors Conquered Hollywood

From left, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu at the Gotham Awards in 2006. Credit Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for the Independent Filmmaker Project, via Getty Images
From left, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro G. Iñárritu at the Gotham Awards in 2006. Credit Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for the Independent Filmmaker Project, via Getty Images

In 1960s America, a cleaning woman who can’t speak and lives next door to a gay artist falls in love with a humanoid sea creature held in a government lab for Cold War experiments. It sounds like a pitch that would make Hollywood producers screw up their faces and scream, “Next!” But the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro not only procured a $19.5 million budget for “The Shape of Water” but also made it into a commercial and critical success, in the running for 13 prizes at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday.

If Mr. del Toro wins the best director award at the Oscars, it will be the fourth time a filmmaker from Mexico has taken the prize in five years, all with unconventional films. Alejandro G. Iñárritu won in 2015 for “Birdman”, the bizarrely hilarious tale of an aging superhero actor trying to get serious on Broadway, and he did it again in 2016 with “The Revenant”, a radically different western focused on a quest for revenge in subzero temperatures. Alfonso Cuarón triumphed in 2014 with “Gravity”, a sci-fi story that many said was impossible to make, before it made over $723 million at the worldwide box office.

Referred to as “The Three Amigos”, the title of a book about their transnational cinema, these directors are not the only Mexican filmmakers who have won recent accolades in Hollywood. There is also the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has three Oscars; Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Argo” and “Brokeback Mountain”; and another Oscar winner, the production designer Eugenio Caballero.

The Amigos’ success shows the strength of an artistic circle; they are longtime friends who have encouraged one another to take risks. They began making their films when the Mexican industry was at a low in the 1980s, dominated by raunchy movies about escort bars and overshadowed by telenovela soaps. The Amigos bucked the trend with dark stories about H.I.V., inner-city dogfights and historic horrors.

Their early Hollywood movies, such as Mr. Cuarón’s “Little Princess” (1995) and Mr. del Toro’s “Mimic”, (1997) had moderate success. In the 2000s, their triumphs got steadily bigger, as did their budgets; “Gravity” cost $100 million.

Most of their major films have not been explicitly about Mexico, but their background comes through in subtle ways. “Del Toro’s films show a belief that people have in spirits and demons that you find in small Mexican pueblos”, said the film journalist Salvador Franco. Mr. del Toro’s style can also be compared to the literary magic realism of Latin America as he mixes serious dramatic moments with sea monsters and fairies.

The films of Mr. Iñárritu break from the moral optimism of Hollywood to portray a more dysfunctional world. In “The Revenant”, this comes out in a reimagining of the western to show how tough life really was on the frontier of the 1820s. Mr. Cuarón displays Mexico’s sharp class awareness, looking at intersections of the rich and poor in films such as “Great Expectations”.

In contrast, the Pixar film “Coco”, nominated this year for best animated feature film, is a wide-open celebration of Mexican culture directed by an American, Lee Unkrich, with a Latino cast. It broke box office records in Mexico.

The Amigos directors have not turned their cameras on a topic that telenovelas, Netflix series and movies on both sides of the border have focused on — the drug trafficking that contributed to a record 29,168 homicides in Mexico last year.

Mr. del Toro himself suffered from violent crime when gangsters kidnapped his father for ransom in 1997, making him and his family leave Mexico. His hurt and struggles come out beautifully in his own distinct style of cinema, in stories that flip between real life and the magic of fairy tales.

Even as this circle of filmmakers has triumphed, however, Hollywood has yet to embrace Latino actors. A study by Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found only 3 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 movies of 2016 were Latinos, a result that prompted protests by the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

“We’re not asking for equity anymore”, said the president of the coalition, Alex Nogales, in a January news release. “We’re demanding it”.

The remarkable successes of these directors — and the ways in which they’ve made their heritage part of more-universal movies — is a reminder of how ethnic and cultural diversity can enrich the movie industry.

Hopefully by next year’s award season, audiences will see it in front of the camera as well.

Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.

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