Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
Good Machine International, 2001, Mexico
Starring: Maribel Verdú, Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal
“Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.”
Non-English-language movies naturally underperform in English-speaking regions, becoming mostly forgotten or dismissed unless they’re notorious, award-winning, or enlivened by the Hollywood remake machine. But although director Alfonso Cuarón has three very formidable English-language accomplishments under his belt – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003), Children of Men (2006) and Gravity (2013) – there appears to be a discerning lack of attention paid to his incredible Spanish-language road movie, Y Tu Mamá También. Shot in his native Mexico, the film’s awkward title (and its similarly awkward, unofficial English title “And Your Mother Too”) makes it seem prohibitively inaccessible to English-speaking audiences, even in spite of its promise of sun-drenched sex, go-for-broke filmmaking, and its beautiful, life-affirming narrative.
Those who dare venture beyond a phrase they can’t pronounce will be rewarded with awe, comedy and exhilaration, as well as an ending that inspires the resonating sensation of a weight being lifted from one’s chest. The Cuarón brothers’ script is focused on the world at large, but the camera itself follows Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), two seventeen-year olds striving to fill their lives with women, booze and drugs (but mainly women). Tenoch is from a wealthy family and acts suitably snobbish, whereas Julio is comparatively grounded as a result of his more humble background. At a bourgeois party, the pair meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, whose beauty entrances the sex-hungry teenagers. They invite her on a road trip to a possibly fictional destination named Heaven’s Mouth, and after Luisa decides to leave her husband, she accepts.
What happens next is an extension of the very first scene of the film, in which Tenoch and his girlfriend Ana (Ana Lopéz Mercado) are introduced while having monumentally graceless sex. Immediately after finishing, Tenoch begs Ana not to cheat on him during her impending trip to Italy, and desperately runs down an exhaustive checklist of people she is not allowed to sleep with, just to ensure that his mind doesn’t run amok with potential horrors during the period he can’t control her. His facade is thus undermined before we even see what that facade is supposed to be, and later, as he pretends to be some brand of sex god in conversation with Luisa, the viewer is pushed to consider the way he constructs his social exterior, in which there are inevitable punctures along the way. This is aided by voiceover narration, which interrupts the action frequently to explain the thoughts and feelings of the three central characters, but more importantly, to draw the attention away from them and to illustrate the larger issues facing the surrounding world.
And so, Julio and Tenoch take Luisa on an unforgettable trip of sex, jealousy, and betrayal, while viewers (and eventually the characters) are reminded that there’s more to life than tits and tequila. But while Y Tu Mamá También is occasionally blunt and sobering, it never ceases to be a blistering headrush, aided massively by Emmanuel Lubezki’s kinetic Steadicam which often captures entire sequences in single takes. Cuarón’s direction is so masterful, however, than even in the movie’s roaring pace, he manages to find space to wrangle alarmingly human turns from Luna, Bernal and Verdú. As such, global themes are only alluded to here unlike in Cuarón’s later works (particularly Children of Men, which balances the macro and micro more efficiently), but that hardly matters; the bigger picture looms over a compelling personal mission in Y Tu Mamá También, eventually swamping the heated rush of teenhood by the time Frank Zappa’s breathtaking “Watermelon in Easter Hay” plays over the end credits, which arrive immediately after a properly crushing finale.
The film mines its energy from wrecklessness and self-destruction, establishing seventeen as a transformative age for the lives of Julio and Tenoch, a notion anchored by the undercurrent of cultural unease that runs throughout, and confirmed by Luisa’s story of how her first love was killed at the same age in a motorcycle accident. And on the topic of love: it’s largely unclear whether Julio and/or Tenoch truly love Luisa, or even their girlfriends, or whether they’re purely marking their territory in a blind panic so as to maintain their phantom masculinity. But as certain truths come to light towards the end, stunned expressions say more than mouths dare, and despite how forbidding this Mexican independent film may seem on the outside, it’s a story that transcends language in a searing intensity equalled by few others. All is accomplished in a remarkably unpretentious fashion, and between grim musings on mortality and hedonistic binges on vice and virility, Y Tu Mamá También is ultimately an invigorating urge to live every day as though it’s your last.
- L. G. Ball