Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial career has already spanned 30 years, in which time he’s made franchise movies, reinvented children’s tales, and created one of the most technically advanced films of all time: Gravity (2013). The first Latin American to win the Academy Award for best director, Cuarón is widely recognised and acclaimed in the highest echelons of mainstream filmmaking. Considering his CV, therefore, it may come as a bit of surprise then that what may be considered his best film is largely unknown to American audiences: the 2001 Spanish language film Y Tu Mamá También.
With the exception of Gravity, which focuses on only one character for the majority of its running time, Y Tu Mamá También is in many ways also Cuarón’s smallest film; and may still be, given that unlike Gravity it is confined to the terrestrial earth. There are only three real characters: Luisa (Maribel Verdú), Tenoch (Diego Luna), and Julio (Gael García Bernal). Cuarón, however, makes full use of these three as a lens through which to view class, relationships and Mexico as a whole. The story revolves around Tenoch and Julio’s boredom over the summer; their girlfriends have gone on a trip to Europe and they can’t think of anything to do besides hang out, party and masturbate. They first meet Luisa at one of Tenoch’s (son of a government official and Harvard educated economist) family weddings, she is his cousin’s Spanish wife. Immediately Tenoch and Julio are, like moths to a flame, drawn to Luisa. The two of them barrage her with questions and propositions to accompany them on a trip. It is only after the wedding, and Luisa’s husband’s subsequent admission of his infidelity, that she takes the two boys up on their offer to travel to the beach, a journey which will take up most of the film.
If someone wanted to make a quick and dirty summary of Y Tu Mamá También, they could do worse than suggesting The Breakfast Club meets The Graduate in Mexico, but Cuarón paints with a finer brush than either of those films. Many commenters on the film focus in on the sex; and yes, there is a lot of it. The film certainly earns its 18 certificate. But with that being said it is important not to conflate this sexual content with the usual titillating fare of many mainstream films. Cuarón captures the encounters with his characteristic long shots; the camerawork is sparse and unassuming. The film depicts its sexual encounters not as the mini climaxes of the typical Hollywood variety, but instead as natural facts of life. There is no need for sensationalising here, just an honest portrayal of the intimate interactions between characters. Additionally, it would be remiss not to mention the narrator whose voiceover punctuates much of the film. The sound regularly fades away to be replaced by natural calm voice filling the space, the narrator explains some of the background of Tenoch and Julio, or of the other people met by the trio along the way. It is through this narration that the audience begins to understand Cuarón’s vision for his film as a small exploration of larger space.
Cuarón manages to say plenty about the world outside the trio through the aforementioned long shots and narration, but it is in the boys’ interaction with Luisa, a role carried with grace and mystery by Verdú, that Cuaron adds nuance. What becomes glaringly apparent as Tenoch and Julio stumble through conversations and failed seductions is that Luisa is a woman, while their experience is limited to girls. Luisa is quick to chastise them for their juvenile advances, but not unkindly; her ownership of her womanhood makes her magnetic to watch on screen and the audience are as enraptured as the boys. There are quiet moments too, when the audience receives cutting insights into Luisa’s mystery, and it will suffice to say there is a revelation at the film’s denouement. One such moment is when Luisa is in a phone booth speaking with her estranged husband. She explains that everything is over and instructs him to take care of himself and his mother while pointing out that she has not taken any of his money. Julio and Tenoch are reflected in the phone booth’s glass window playing table football out of frame, but our eyes are fixed on Luisa throughout these moments. What emerges from the phone booth and throughout the course of the films is a fully three dimensional woman, and one who declaring herself fully realised.
It is not until the final moments of the film that the audience fully understands the scope of Cuarón’s film. There is an underlying structure that serves as the basis with an ever shifting, liquid landscape that flows around the surface. The surface of the film is held together by the structure underneath and the exploration of one will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the other. I will not spoil any more of the plot here, but it is enough to say the film bears repeat viewings. It is not a long movie, clocking in at just over an hour and half, but the amount which it manages to say during that running time is nothing short of remarkable. Y Tu Mamá También is a movie about change and evolution; it shows that sometimes change is permanent, that revisiting the past is impossible and as human beings we have to move forwards. It’s a message Cuarón delivers with fragile clarity. It is for this reason that it is this week’s Pick of Online film here on culturised.
Y Tu Mamá También is available on Netflix in the US and available on Amazon Video and iTunes in the U.K.