Fault lines: cinema, class, Mexico City

Since the early days of cinema, film in Mexico has explored tensions between the city's social groups. By Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

Text by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

cinema-1El automóvil gris (1919) directed by Enrique Rosas

In 1919 Enrique Rosas, the early director and pioneer of Mexican cinema, released his crime thriller El automóvil gris to universal acclaim. Based on the true story of the Grey Car Gang, who had terrorised the city’s elite during the instability that followed the Mexican Revolution, the film was one of the country’s first blockbuster hits, helping ordinary Mexicans make sense of the new, urban realities of the post-revolutionary period. Mixing documentary with fiction, the film casts criminality at the heart of the urban experience, and is self-conscious about the role of film itself in capturing the city.

In Mexico City, as in many other great capitals of the world, cinema and modernisation came hand in hand. As, in the course of just three decades, Mexico transformed from a predominantly rural country to a decidedly urban one, cinema took on the role of digesting the social and personal consequences. Cinema gave audiences in places not yet touched by urbanisation access to the exciting new experiences and vistas that came with the city. It introduced them to the new cast of urban characters who came to define the metropolis: the factory workers, police officers, criminals, the new bourgeoisie, the professional class, and so on. Yet cinema was more than just a way of seeing the city; film helped reflect the fault lines and separations between those new social groups. In Mexico City, cinema became a way of seeing social space in both senses: the visible geography of the city and the symbolic cartography of its citizens.

Audiences, meanwhile, grew exponentially. The creation of an urban middle class generated a leisure economy that allowed movies to become central to the everyday experience of privileged Mexicans, while aggressive government subsidies and promotion allowed many in the lower classes to enjoy them as well. Between the increasing income of those participating in the new capitalist economy and the state’s support for those who were not, cinema became a central experience for city residents, and films, accordingly, became even more engaged in debating new social realities and social spaces.

This was most evident during the “Golden Age” of the 1940s and 1950s, during which Mexico became one of the leading film industries in the world. The city was featured in genres as diverse as noir, melodrama and comedy, while filmmakers across the aesthetic and ideological spectrums produced major works that redefined Mexico City’s cultural identity. Ismael Rodríguez’s melodramatic paean to the working classes, the Pepe el Toro trilogy, for example, presented the moral dilemmas and conflicts in the city’s new slums and turned its star, Pedro Infante, into a legend. The many films starring comic Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno, whose onscreen persona helped define a subversive image of the working class, showed a picaresque character traversing new neighbourhoods full of mansions, cabarets and other locales of urban life. 

cinema-2“Jaibo en San Juan de Letrán” from Los olvidados (1950), cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. © Gabriel Figueroa Collection

Perhaps the most memorable film of the period was Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950), which presented with unrelenting harshness the contrast between a rapidly developing city and the lower classes left behind in the process. It features remarkable scenes showing Mexico City’s slums and the construction of the avenues and infrastructure projects that would redesign urban space leaving poor people behind. Buñuel’s influence has loomed large in Mexican cinematic history. After Los olvidados, the fault lines of class and race became one of the central tropes in films from and about Mexico City, creating a long tradition of fictionalising the clashes and flows among different urban geographies and identities defined by class segregation and friction. Juan Ibañez’s Los caifanes (1968), based on a script by Carlos Fuentes, reveals the tensions that arise when the upper class has to share urban space with the emerging working classes, while Luis Alcoriza’s Mecánica nacional (1971) provides a scathing indictment of what the director perceives as the working class’s depoliticisation and decadence. These two films emerged in the early years of a decades-long crisis in which Mexican film was eroded by growing imports from Hollywood, which drew audiences seeking a more cosmopolitan cultural experience away from the home-grown film industry. As the industry moved towards social issues as a way to compete with the foreign invasion, Mexico City appeared frequently as a site of social difference and tension.

In 1992, the Mexican government began to sell off its nationwide network of cinemas, as part of a wider programme of deregulation and privatisation. This precipitated a major shift in the representation of the city in Mexican film. Until the early 1990s, most Mexican cinema had been consumed in government-run theatres where a regulated ticket price favoured lower-class audiences. With neoliberal deregulation, these theatres gradually disappeared, many closed and demolished, replaced by cineplexes in malls that catered to the middle and upper classes, who could afford tickets that cost the equivalent of two to three days’ minimum wage. During this transitional period, some landmark films were already reconstructing the urban space to better fit the rising neoliberal culture. The most important of these was Alfonso Cuarón’s first feature, Sólo con tu pareja, a romantic comedy centred on a womanising publicist, Tomás Tomás, who is led to believe that he has contracted AIDS from one of his former conquests. The film foreshadowed the later triumph of the romantic comedy in Mexican cinema, which by the 2000s had become its predominant commercial genre, typically representing the aspirational middle class’ desire to participate in creative professions. Films like Ladies’ Night, Cansada de besar sapos and Vivir mata would chronicle the love ordeals and joys of an array of publicists, graphic designers, radio hosts and other characters. If one looks at the professions chosen by screenwriters and directors in the construction of the characters, it is easy to see that they are defined by their unapologetic upper-class whiteness and their participation in an economic life impossible in the real world. Commercial cinema began to cater to the cosmopolitan and creative dreams of the middle and upper classes whose privilege was rendered possible by free trade (the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, came into force in 1994) and increasing social inequality. It is a cinema that, instead of focusing on the fault lines and tensions of an expanding metropolis, chose to create imaginary visions of the city and its upper classes as a way to fuel the fantasies of those privileged by neoliberal reforms.

The epitome of this kind of cinema arrived in 2013, with Nosotros los nobles. The film, directed by Gary Alazraki, a member of one of the most prominent entrepreneurial families in Mexico, with a fortune built on advertising and marketing, is a paean to the inherent nobility of Mexico’s dominant elite. It is the story of a businessman who decides to teach his three adult children a lesson by pretending he has lost all of his wealth in order to force them to learn how to make a living. As the plot unfolds, we discover that, deep down, the trio of rich, spoiled heirs have hearts of gold and the ability to bring the working class into their world. After shaking off a gold-digging suitor, Barbie, the family’s daughter, ends up marrying the maid’s son, who teaches her how to be a waitress. The eldest son, Javi, finally achieves his dream of starting his own business – after sharing an endless number of pipe dreams with other rich heirs – by teaming up with a bus driver to open an automobile repair shop. They bond because they both read the work of a business self-help guru: a neoliberal fantasy if ever there was one. The fact that this upper-class fairy tale became one of Mexico’s biggest ever hits shows the true nature of the cinema that has dominated the commercial box office over the past two decades: a celebration and promotion of the structures of neoliberal development that conceals its inherent inequalities. It is telling that Javi has become a role model for Mexico’s middle-class youths. His upper-class style, defined by tight dress shirts from expensive brands, became a subculture, the “mirrey” (“my king”), a term that implies wealth and good looks, and thus the authority to rule both symbolically and materially.

Nosotros los nobles is just the tip of the iceberg. Celebrations of wealth define the current cinema of Mexico City. The city itself is subject to constant manufacturing, with films at times blatantly hiding or ignoring the class and social diversity of the city. Since Cuarón’s Sólo con tu pareja, Mexico City has frequently been represented as a bubble for the bourgeoisie to enjoy. In that film, we see the city mostly at night or hidden behind closed spaces. In more blatant cases, such as Cansada de besar sapos, the bustling city centre is presented as an array of beautified and peaceful streets where advertisers and aspiring actors can drink coffee and fall in love. Cuarón himself, in his perspicacious Y tu mamá también, captured this mentality brilliantly, using the voice-over to narrate relevant social contexts that escape the hedonistic perspective of his protagonists. In telling us, for instance, that an accident the boys barely notice was in fact the death of a hardworking labourer, run over as he struggled to cross a chaotic and dangerous avenue on his way to work, Cuarón emphasises the disconnect between the elites and the social realities of the city that other films simply choose to ignore.

cinema-3From left: Mecánica nacional (1971) directed by Luis Alcoriza. Batalla en el cielo (2005) directed by Carlos Reygadas. Courtesy of Carlos Reygadas and Mantarraya

Some of the most interesting films to come out of Mexico in the past decade are precisely the ones that highlight the class fault lines that films like Nosotros los nobles or Cansada de besar sapos choose to whitewash or ignore. Perhaps the most notable, and certainly the most provocative, is Carlos Reygadas’s Batalla en el cielo (2005). Reygadas, one of the country’s most prominent art-house directors and winner of best director at Cannes for his most recent work, Post Tenebras Lux, directly challenges how the lower classes in contemporary Mexican cinema have been made invisible. Batalla en el cielo focuses on the conflicted relationship between an upper-class girl, Ana, and her driver, Marcos, in contemporary Mexico City. Their social class is clearly marked on their bodies: Marcos’s dark skin heavily contrasts with Ana’s whiteness, his obese build with her athletic physique. In one scene, Marcos is waiting for Ana in her upper-class neighbourhood. A vehicle pulls over, delivering a group of visibly intoxicated teenagers, dressed in private-school uniforms, to the house next door. The privileged obliviousness of the teenagers contrasts with Marcos’s aware, defensive state. He becomes invisible, trivial, to the rich young people in front of him. Marcos inhabits the underworld of the subway, where his wife, also dark-skinned and obese, sells trinkets and toys. The underground and dark spaces of the working class (the subway, their house) exist in stark contrast with the illuminated spas and rich neighbourhoods of Ana’s world. Marcos and Ana are connected solely by the public, regulated space of the nation (represented in detailed depictions of the flag-raising ceremony in Mexico’s central space) or in the private spaces they sometimes share.

The main mechanism of shock in Batalla en el cielo is sex, more precisely, graphic depictions of oral and vaginal sex between Marcos and Ana, as well as full-frontal nudity. The visual depiction of Ana’s body, completely representative of the standards of beauty of the elite, is desired and penetrated by Marcos, a man physically undesirable and nauseating within Mexican media and class standards. The sex scenes effectively create a critical distance between the audience and the film in order to attack the classist imagination of its spectators. The reason behind Ana and Marcos’s bond is equally significant: they share sordid secrets about their lives, which are concealed under the apparent normalcy of their relationship. Ana works surreptitiously as a high-end prostitute in a massage parlour, while Marcos and his wife participated in the botched kidnapping of a baby that led to the child’s death. The profound violence of their secrets, particularly Marcos’, is the only thing that can temporarily suspend the fault line that divides them.

Batalla en el cielo belongs to a cohort of films that go against the grain of Mexico’s classism and that constitute some of the most exciting work in Mexican cinema today. Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos lo que hay, for example, has a working-class family of cannibals falling into disarray after the death of its patriarch. The film skilfully depicts the cultural degradation by Mexico’s elite of that ultimate monster, the lower classes. This is seen in the contrast between the illuminated shopping mall, an upper-class space in which the family patriarch dies at the beginning of the film, and the dark, gritty, working-class neighbourhood where the family lives. In a tribute to Buñuel, Grau takes us to the same bridges built in the 1950s and shows us the poor homeless kids living beneath them, who become failed targets of the cannibals. The film is a contemporary version of Los olvidados; instead of just showing us the marginalised, it reveals the fear they inspire in the city’s elite.

Another prominent work is Michel Franco’s Después de Lucía, in which a young middle-class girl is brutally bullied by her peers, showing the perverse logic of power underlying the social networks of Mexico’s privileged. And, in a more commercial register, many Mexican moviegoers fondly remember the romantic dramedy Amarte duele, a Romeo-and-Juliet story about the impossible love between a teenage girl from the upper class and a boy from the slums. The film intelligently shows the way in which the worlds of the two young lovers exist in close proximity in the neighbourhood of Santa Fe, a neighbourhood where skyscrapers for Mexico’s business class sit on top of slums and garbage dumps. Exploring such contradictory realities of the urban fabric, all of these works belong to a specifically defeño tradition that challenges its audience to examine the fault lines defined by Mexico’s class relationships, and forces us to confront the fluid, chaotic and exclusionary geographies of Mexico City. §

  • Mexico City Cinema