“Prayers for the Stolen” (Tatiana Huezo, 2021)
Heavy breathing is heard over the opening credits. Sound gives way to an image: a little girl digs a large hole in the ground with her bare hands. It looks like a grave. Her mother’s voice tells her to step into it and she obeys. This is the beginning of “Prayers for the Stolen”, the film by director Tatiana Huezo that Mexico hopes will compete for an Oscar nomination.
As the story develops, we see that it’s not a grave, but rather a hiding place for Ana, the protagonist, to hide when the bad men, the drug traffickers, show up. And thus, avoid her being taken away like many other girls in the village. A heartbreaking reality that the Salvadoran director based out of Mexico has ventured to show with authenticity and cinematographic excellence.
The Mexican film industry has given much to talk about in recent years. Before Chinese director Chloé Zhao won the Oscar for Best Director in 2021 and South Korean Bong Joon-ho won it the year before, of the last six Oscars for best picture, five have gone to Mexicans. Twice to Alfonso Cuarón, twice to Alejandro González Iñárritu and once to Guillermo del Toro.
However, beyond the well-known features films like those “the three amigos”, as Hollywood calls them, have made, the film industry in Mexico has been gaining steam and showcasing more variety, not to mention a deepening alliance with streaming platforms, a phenomenon largely fast-tracked because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
New Mexican Cinema
The popularity of Mexican cinema is not something new. Its golden age was possibly around the 1940s, coinciding with the fact that the American film industry had taken a hit from the country’s participation in World War II. During this time period, when Mexico became a cinematographic reference for the entire Spanish-speaking world, illustrious directors and movie stars emerged that still hold a place in the minds of many Mexicans. We need only mention Pedro Infante, an unmistakable icon that even the Pixar film “Coco” (2017) used in the creation of its character Ernesto de la Cruz, the tawdry singer.
Mexico is one of the countries with the most viewers and serves as home to the headquarters of one of the largest international movie theater chains, Cinépolis
The 21st century has witnessed the birth and robust growth of a “new Mexican cinema”, —an expression that’s been around since the 1960s— after the industry experienced an earthshaking crisis, both creatively speaking and in terms of its audiences. After this golden age, the country’s industry regularly put out low quality films, conceived as mere tools for popular entertainment. This was later combined with a lack of protection for the industry, giving way for the hegemony that is Hollywood. The North American Free Trade Agreement that Mexico signed in 1994 with the United States and Canada, positioned the film industry not as a cultural good worthy of protection, but as a commercial product that could be imported, mainly from the United States. Entire generations in Mexico grew up watching American cinema, and Mexican cinema was dying out due to the lack of audiences, investors and talent.
At the end of the 20th century, production was extremely low for a country of 120 million inhabitants, with an average of 17 films a year in the last five years of the century. Although 28 films were produced in 2000 – including “Amores Perros”, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut film that was the recipient of the Critics Week award at Cannes and nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film – that number decreased in subsequent years until a 2006 fiscal incentive known as EFICINE was created, which boosted private investment in productions. This stimulus, as well as other measures, sparked production, and in 2019, 216 films were produced and 111 in 2020, an especially difficult year for the industry due to the pandemic.
It’s all about audiences
In a similar way to what occurs within Spain’s film industry, Mexican cinema comes down to a question of audiences. And it’s because Mexicans most certainly go to the movies… and a lot at that. Mexico is home to one of the world’s largest movie theater chains, Cinépolis, which has 871 cinemas in 179 countries, adapting in some places to already well-known theater brands and buying them, like with what happened to Cine Yelmo in Spain, and Hoyts in Chile.
Mexico is also one of the countries with the most moviegoers, with 341 million moviegoers in 2019. However, only 35.2 million went to see Mexican productions. Thus, while Mexican films are produced, not all of them have a profitable return at the box office, and some don’t even get released despite having had some form of official support from the State’s cultural programs.
Recent years have seen the emergence of an industry eager to claim its own identity, depicting the serious ongoing conflicts within the country
When it comes to Mexican cinema, it’s also a question of identity and how it’s perceived by audiences. The most profitable Mexican films today are mostly light comedies, produced mainly by Videocine (Mexican giant Televisa’s film company), and which follow the same formula as “We Are The Nobles” (Gary Alazraki, 2013), a comedy which deals with social classes, and which was just recently remade as “Spoiled Brats” by Netflix France. With few exceptions, the majority of productions are quite unmemorable, aimed purely to entertain and plated with local humor.
On the other spectrum of filmmaking, the film festival niche also has its favorite Mexicans. Such is the case of Carlos Reygadas (“Silent Light”, “Post Tenebras Lux”, “Our Time”) or Michel Franco (“After Lucía”, “April’s Daughter”, “New Order”), cinematic creators with more artistic depth, although sometimes bordering on provocative for provocation’s sake and always too sordid for the general public. Closer to reaching the balance between art and entertainment, we have directors such as Alonso Ruizpalacios (“A Cop Movie”) and Sebastián Hoffman (“Time Share”), among others.
The portrait of a country
However, recent years have seen the emergence of films aimed at establishing their own identity, depicting the country’s serious ongoing conflicts. With filmmakers coming from the field of documentary making, their hallmark approach is appreciated in the way they do fiction, in particular, “I’m No Longer Here” (Fernando Frias, 2019) on the life of the “cholos” subculture in the slums of Monterrey, and this year, the feature films by two directors: “Identifying Features” (Fernanda Valadez, 2020) and “Prayers for the Stolen” (Tatiana Huezo, 2021), both deal with the disappearance of people at the hands of drug traffickers in rural Mexico. The Mexican Film Academy has supported these productions, backing them in their treks towards an Oscar nomination.
As for Netflix, the company has firmly committed to the Mexican market (before the pandemic it already had more than 6 million users in the country), as well as its productions. The streaming giant has produced 29 Mexican series, such as “Club of Crows”, “The House of Flowers” and “Luis Miguel: The series”, some of which are internationally famous. It’s also produced 17 Mexican feature films – such as the aforementioned “I’m No Longer Here” – and among which the sensation “Roma” (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón stands out. The film, based on the Mexican director’s childhood memories, was, at the time of its production, Netflix’s bid to enter the “Major League” of film. And it certainly succeeded to quite an extent, with ten Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
Former Mexican President Porfirio Díaz is credited with the phrase: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” If today the national film industry of any country at all has to fight not to be in the shadows of Hollywood’s hegemony, perhaps its influence weighs especially heavily on Mexico. However, several Mexican filmmakers have made their way onto the international scene and today the number of productions is growing and, above all, finding their own voice.
It’s not irrelevant that, after the return of Alfonso Cuarón to his home country to make “Roma”, a film about Mexico and produced by a Mexican team, Alejandro González Iñárritu followed in his footsteps and returned to the country in 2021 to shoot a Mexican film whose title is still unknown (though it’s been leaked it’ll be “Limbo” or “Bardo”), starring Daniel Giménez Cacho. And as for Guillermo del Toro, who like Iñárritu has only worked in the United States since he made his debut feature, he’s also stated that he wants to return to Mexico to film, and that he’d like to make a movie about wrestlers, a classic genre of the country’s national filmography. These are certainly symptoms of an industry that is connecting more with audiences, more with investment and, above all, with variety and maturity. Will the viewers, inside and outside of Mexico, be willing to give it a chance?
Translated from Spanish by Lucia K. Maher