No one can deny the impact that Mexican cinema has had on the rest of the world in the 21st century. Four films by Mexican directors were in competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, all of which massively overshadowed their big-budget US counterparts, and now there is a six-week season of Mexican movies at London's National Film Theatre. How could such a country, once regarded as an unsophisticated Third World backwater, suddenly upstage its reputedly super-sophisticated superpower neighbour?
"In Mexico everybody makes movies for all the right reasons, none of which are to get rich," says the director Alfonso Cuaron, whose latest picture, Children of Men, is hotly tipped to win the coveted Golden Lion at the current Venice Film Festival. "In America there is so much money and it is a film industry. In Mexico it is not. In Mexico we make cinema because we love it."
"We tend to make films because we believe in the project and not the pay-cheque," said the actor Gael Garcia Bernal this year. "Money has never been there so it is not a consideration. And that is why we make films that mean something or say something worthwhile. It is not only about the box office."
Cuaron and Bernal are two of the major players in what has been termed the buena onda, or new wave of Mexican cinema that, ignited by director Alejandro Inarritu's Amores Perros, has captured the imagination of European cinemagoers and press alike.
"There is an honesty about Mexican cinema that you just cannot fake," attests Jason Wood, the curator of the NFT festival and the author of The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema. "Mexican directors tell stories that everyone can relate to in an interesting and kinetic way."
"A lot of Latin American movies succeed because we have so many real social issues to deal with," contends Inarritu, whose latest film Babel, starring Brad Pitt, Bernal and Cate Blanchett, was shown at Cannes to rave reviews. "And, because we have to address these problems, our films will always kick you in the balls. Our films are more connected with the visceral side of life and not the money side, and we shoot from the pelvis and not from the intellect. Our films are more relevant because, even though our work might not be so technically perfect, it comes right from deep in the gut. I sweat and bleed my country and no matter what I do I cannot escape that and even though Mexico can give me a lot of pain it is in everything I do."
Amores Perros, a complex tripartite character-study of love, despair and the severely unexpected, starring Bernal, came at the right time and in exactly the right place for a new generation of directors cinematographers, sound engineers, production designers and actors. "We were all dreaming and doing the same film for the same reason and it wasn't for money," says Inarritu. "But what was completely amazing," he adds, "was that my film was released on the same day that the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) was deposed after 70 years of corruption and dictatorship. Suddenly we had a new government and an explosion of consciousness that we coincided with."
Throughout the Eighties and early Nineties Mexico suffered a cinematic drought when most domestic product was state-funded nonsense that aped America.
"When Amores Perros was released," says the actress Vanessa Bauche, who starred opposite Bernal in the movie and is now making her London stage debut in On Insomnia and Midnight at the Royal Court, "it was if the whole of Mexico was waiting for a film that they could relate to."
"I really didn't expect it to do so well," said Bernal, the universally acknowledged face of Mexican cinema who has his very own season starting at the NFT in October. "It was one of those films that filled a necessary gap and didn't pull any punches."
"Amores Perros was financed independently so didn't have to kiss arse," concurs Wood. "It caused a sensation at Cannes, chimed with cinemagoers the world over, and was a film that everybody wanted to see. It was the pivotal moment in the rebirth of Mexican cinema."
If Amores Perros opened the door to international acclaim then Alfonso Cuaron's, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) kept it open. It is the story of two teenagers, played by Bernal and Diego Luna, who take a hilarious road trip to the beach with an older woman whom they both share, and discover exactly who they are. "Of all the characters I've played, Julio in Y Tu Mama is the one I have most affinity with," said Bernal. "And I think the film hit a chord with many young Mexicans as no other film had done before."
"Curiously, a lot of conservative Mexican critics who loved Amores Perros hated Y Tu Mama," says Wood. "But Cuaron intended the film as an allegory for Mexico as a country growing up. It was a sexually charged film that treated its audience as adults."
"It is so amazing that the NFT is showing a series of Mexican films," remarks Cuaron, sitting in a London editing suite. ""But Mexico has always had a great cinematic history. In the Forties and Fifties we had an industry that exported films all around the world."
Mexico in the 1890s was one of the first countries outside of Europe to embrace the Lumière brothers' early projectors and films, and by the Thirties the country was producing its own cracking product. "Vamonos Con Pancho Villa, directed by Fernando de Fuentes, is featured in the season and is a brilliant film," says Wood. "And although it was made in 1935 it is an immensely powerful film about a gang of farmers who join the Zapatistas." Another of the season's gems is Salon Mexico. Made in 1949 during el cine de oro (the golden age of Mexican cinema), it is an adept chunk of film noir set around a seedy dance-hall-come-brothel that could give many of its American noir counterparts a run for their money. Also featured in the season is the legendary surrealist director Luis Buñuel's magisterial Los Olvidados of 1950, which centres on a gang of feral teenagers that roams the streets of Mexico City like a pack of dogs preying on the innocent. After fleeing Franco's Spain in 1946, Buñuel settled in Mexico and showed no mercy in his brutal depiction of a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As a result he is one of the major figures in Mexican cinema.
The season opens with the black-and-white El Violin (2005), from Francisco Vargas, which earned its septuagenarian star, Don Angel Tavira, the Un Certain Regard Best Actor award at Cannes. A beautifully crafted but characteristically tough picture, it is testament to the fact that the buena onda is not a flash in the pan. "Every year a great new film-maker emerges," says Cuaron proudly. "And what you've seen is just the beginning."
Feel the Heat... Mexican Cinema Now, NFT, London SE1 (020- 7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk), to 18 October; 'The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema' is £15.99Reuse content