From the golden age that began in the 1930s to the new wave of the 21st century, the Mexican film industry has consistently produced some unmissable movies.
Many of Mexico’s most powerful and entertaining motion pictures have had a major social and political impact, perfectly capturing a moment in time while simultaneously captivating audiences all around the world.
Moreover, watching foreign-language flicks is a great way to improve your language skills, so anyone that wants to get their Spanish up to scratch in preparation for a trip down south should hunt down some classic Mexican cinema. Here are five movies that anyone interested in Mexican history or culture should not miss:
Rojo Amanecer (1989): A tragic and deeply moving production, Rojo Amanecer (Red Dawn) is based on the true story of the hundreds or even thousands of leftist student protesters who were massacred by the Mexican government in Tlatelolco, Mexico City on Oct, 2, 1968, just days before the Olympic Games began in the same city. Based on testimonials from witnesses and victims, the low-budget film focuses on a middle-class family living in one of the apartment buildings overlooking the square. Viewers should be prepared to well up as this powerful historic drama reaches its climax.
The action all takes place inside the apartment and the movie had to be shot in secret because the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico with an iron fist from 1939 to 2000, had done its best to cover up the massacre and would not permit explicit criticism of its actions. Indeed, the premiere of Rojo Amanecer was delayed until 1990 as the government sought to censor the film, but Mexico’s union of screenwriters eventually obtained an injunction securing its release.
La Ley de Herodes (1999) : The first of a trilogy of black comedies made by Luis Estrada and starring Damian Alcazar, La Ley de Herodes (Herod’s Law) tells the story of a naive but initially well-meaning PRI politician who is sent to govern a rural indigenous town in the mid-20th century and grows increasingly corrupt and authoritarian as he struggles in vain to introduce modernity, law and order.
A biting political satire, this was the first Mexican movie to explicitly criticize the PRI by name, and again the government sought to limit its release. Government censors attempted to limit its distribution to a handful of theaters in Mexico City and pulled it from an international film festival in Acapulco. But this heavy-handed response generated so much bad publicity that the government was forced to relent and La Ley de Herodes was released nationwide. The film went on to become a big box office success, while the PRI lost its first election in 71 years within a year of its release.
Amores Perros (2000): Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) was the movie that really reinvigorated the Mexican film industry as the new, post-PRI millennium was dawning. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, it is a lengthy but gripping drama featuring an aging assassin, a crippled supermodel and a young man in love with his brother’s wife (and their respective pet dogs). Their stories are tied together in three interlinking plots that revolve around a car crash in Mexico City. The film formed the first part of Gonzalez’ acclaimed “trilogy of death” – which also encompasses 21 Grams and Babel – and helped launch the career of Guadalajara-born heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal, who has since become a bona fide Hollywood star.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001): Garcia Bernal followed up his international breakthrough in Amores Perros with a wonderful performance in this classic road movie, alongside his close friend Diego Luna. The pair star as two horny and self-obsessed teenagers from Mexico City who take a road trip to an invented beach with the aim of bedding an older woman from Spain. Along the way, they drink, smoke pot and remain largely oblivious to the social injustice all around them.
Director Alfonso Cuaron employs characteristically long and complex takes and coaxes fantastically natural performances out of his talented cast as he explores the themes of sex and death and challenges Mexico’s culture of machismo through the movie’s homoerotic subtext. Y Tu Mamá También (And Your Mother Too) became an international box-office hit. Cuaron would go on to achieve more mainstream success with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and last year’s critically acclaimed lost-in-space drama Gravity, for which he won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director.
El Infierno (2010): Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of independence from Spain, El Infierno (Hell) follows on from La Ley de Herodes and 2006’s neoliberal-baiting Un Mundo Marravilloso (A Wonderful World) to close out Estrada’s satirical trilogy. This time around, Estrada tackles the violent world of drug trafficking.
Alcazar returns as the protagonist, Benny, a migrant deported from the United States who becomes a big-shot narco working in a northern town for the iconic kingpin “El Cochiloco” (The Crazy Pig). Full of dark humor, sex and violence, it drew universal acclaim and served as an indictment of all involved in Mexico’s war on drugs.
This article first appeared on Nearshore Americas’ sister site Global Delivery Report.