Film/TV » Film Features

In Deep

Y Tu Mamá También isn't merely an engaging or compelling film; it's a full-blown great one.

by

comment

Named for a taunting Mexican epithet ("And [I *@#!ed] your mother too") that figures casually in the film's best scene, the south-of-the-border import Y Tu Mamá También is the kind of miracle movie that makes common cultural distinctions irrelevant. It's raunchy and sensitive, freewheelingly instinctive and carefully analytical. The film works beautifully as a layered, complex, rigorous art movie and also as a simple, easily grasped, deeply pleasurable movie movie (the film has already set an all-time box-office record for the Mexican film industry, so it's clearly seen as a mainstream entertainment in its homeland). At first blush, it's something akin to a Jean-Luc Godard adaptation of "Penthouse Letters" or a new-wave deconstruction of the American teen-sex comedy (think Jules and Jim meets Bill and Ted).

The film opens with a bang (so to speak). New high school grads Tenoch (Diego Luna), the son of a prominent politician, and Julio (Amores Perros star Gael García Bernal), the son of a single secretary, bid adieu to their girlfriends and set out on a summer of shiftlessness and the idle pursuit of sex and other stimuli. At a wedding, the boys meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), perhaps a decade older and a total dream babe. Luisa happens to be the wife of Tenoch's cousin, a fact that doesn't keep the horny boys from absurdly inviting Luisa to party with them on a made-up beach they call Heaven's Mouth. After at first demurring, Luisa calls the boys a couple days later and accepts the offer, thus setting up a road trip that forms the bulk of the film. The boys' motive for proposing the trip is readily apparent, but the reason for Luisa's acceptance is a secret fully revealed only in the film's final moments.

Y Tu Mamá También has garnered a lot of attention for its sex scenes or, rather, its sexual attitude, which is direct and frank in as healthy a way as imaginable. The film presents sex among the inexperienced as awkward and fumbling, and the (brief and less revealing than you've probably imagined) sex scenes in the film are likely to register with audiences, young and old, as recognizably true. The film is not rated, probably because the filmmakers (correctly) believed that the MPAA would slap the film with an NC-17 rating, thus making it harder to get shown here. The American film industry apparently feels that the snickeringly juvenile attitude toward sex in most R-rated domestic teen films is better for adolescents than the straightforward appraisal found here. And those fearing that the film will be nothing more than male wish-fulfillment can rest easy -- Tenoch and Julio show more skin than Luisa, who is always in an appropriately dominant position, a wise mentor negotiating two overeager pups.

But, as directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Y Tu Mamá También is, more than anything, a triumph of pure filmmaking -- every bit as ecstatic an experience for how it communicates as it is for what it communicates.

The film succeeds magnificently as a succession of individual scenes, moments, or gestures, as a sexed-up coming-of-age story, and, perhaps most of all, as a series of richly fleshed-out juxtapositions: modern Mexico City versus the third-world rural countryside, upper-class Tenoch versus middle-class Julio, immature boys Tenoch and Julio versus grown-up woman Luisa.

The film is startling both for the staging and execution of individual scenes and for their free-flowing yet carefully mapped-out, subtly dialectical linkage. Lubezki's camera and Cuarón's directorial audacity are frequently stunning: There's the extraordinary timing of a tracking shot in which the camera shows Luisa leaving her apartment then slowly wanders through it to an open window through which we see Luisa arriving on the street to meet the boys; there's the promiscuous moment when the trio have dinner at a roadside café and the camera spots a passerby and follows her into the kitchen, where a group of women are preparing food and washing dishes; and then, in simply one of the most bravura stretches of filmmaking I've ever seen, there's the long (10 minutes, maybe) one-shot scene late in the film in which Luisa, Tenoch, and Julio sit at an outdoor restaurant getting drunk on tequila and healing recent emotional wounds. The scene is swooningly funny and joyously ribald, steadily picking up momentum and building bonhomie in a tour de force of uninterrupted acting until the moment the camera follows Luisa to a jukebox far in the background then tracks her as she dances back toward the table. Pure magic.

And Cuarón's mapping of scenes is so sure in its ability to communicate multiple levels of information without detracting from the basic storyline that it blow-by-blow illustration. One scene, shortly after the boys meet Luisa, finds them lying atop adjacent diving boards at the country club Tenoch's father belongs to and masturbating while calling out the names of various lust objects ("Salma Hayek! Ah, Salmita "). This segues into a wrenching scene in which Luisa receives a drunken, tearful call from her husband, who confesses to cheating on her. And this leads directly to a scene at Tenoch's home in which he lies on the couch watching television and ignores the phone ringing beside him (Luisa calling to accept the beach invitation), and a maid scurries upstairs to deliver him food and answer it. And this scene leads into another series of scenes (from Tenoch's mansion to Julio's grubby apartment to a stoner friend's flat to Luisa's spare, tasteful apartment) that comments on the characters in terms of class, intellect, and temperament via their living spaces without getting in the way of the narrative.

Yet another juxtaposition in the film is that between the world Tenoch and Julio see and the one that actually exists. Cuarón communicates this by repeatedly and obsessively putting the brakes on his overheated narrative with an off-screen voice-over that chokes off the rest of the film's sound. The voice doesn't seem to come from the future -- there's no glow of nostalgia or sentimentality -- and clearly is not the voice of any character in the film. Rather, it's an omniscient voice that rockets the film into the future and balances against the youthful fervor of the film's action a clear, even tone that emphasizes the transitory nature of the boys' adventure. The voice-over reveals that there are things in this world that Tenoch and Julio don't know -- about each other or the country they live in or life itself -- but which impact their lives nonetheless and which deepen our appreciation of the film's primary story.

One example of this technique occurs early in the film when Julio and Tenoch are caught in a traffic jam they blame on left-wing demonstrations that have been going on ("Left-wing chicks are hot, dude," Tenoch insists). But the voice-over explains that the actual cause of the traffic jam is the death of a migrant bricklayer, that the man had cut across the highway to save time on his journey to work and was hit by a car, and that his body will go unclaimed for four days.

Similarly, the film supplies, but rarely highlights, a wealth of background activity that the boys barely register, such as an arrest, a funeral procession, and other depictions of life in impoverished rural Mexico.

But however much the film underscores the callowness and naiveté of Tenoch and Julio (along with Tenoch's class privileges), it doesn't pass judgment. In fact, the film (as well as Luisa) takes great pleasure in the boys' heedless exuberance. There's a great scene (an unassumingly virtuosic one-shot, tracking the trio's car along a curving road) in which the boys excitedly explain to a captivated Luisa the "manifesto" by which they and their friends profess to live (sample tenets: "whacking-off rules," "pop beats poetry," and "whoever roots for Team America is a faggot"). There is also a kinetic, gleeful scene in which the boys go on a pre-trip shopping spree, loading up on essentials (beer, potato chips, condoms) and riding shopping carts like surfboards.

And so much more: the way class differences between the boys are delineated without being dwelled upon; the brevity and deftness with which the film contextualizes the boys and their relationship within the socioeconomic framework of modern Mexico; the uniformly perfect acting; the great shot of a hurt and confused Julio dangling his feet in a hotel pool filled with leaves; the organic split-screen shot in which Luisa makes a final, painful goodbye call to her husband while the boys are seen playing foosball in the reflection of the adjacent telephone booth; the hilarious and somehow touching symphony of facial expressions Verdú unleashes during Luisa's separate sexual encounters with Tenoch and Julio; the deliriously funny moment of borderline magical realism when a frank sexual comment made by a knowing Luisa so shocks the heretofore swaggering boys that their car literally overheats

After my first viewing, I liked Y Tu Mamá También a great deal, but I wasn't sure exactly how much. By the end of my second viewing (this time surrounded by paying customers clearly as enthralled as I was), it left me with the feeling of overwhelming admiration I usually get at the movies only two or three times a year. It's clear that this isn't merely an engaging or compelling film but a full-blown great one. If you're interested enough to have read this far, you owe it to yourself to go see it on the big screen while you still have the chance.

Add a comment