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Great Expectations 

Alfonso Cuarón hits the road

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
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Portraits by Slobodan Dimitrov

"YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE?" LAUGHS DIRECTOR Alfonso Cuarón. "Teen movies."

We're sitting in the Four Seasons restaurant along with his screenwriter brother, Carlos, and the two young actors, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, who play Tenoch and Julio in Cuarón's latest picture, Y Tu Mamá También, which is (you guessed it) a movie about teenagers. Two nights earlier at the Golden Globes, it lost the Best Foreign Language Film prize to a facile crowd-pleaser about Bosnia, but if anything, rejection has only goaded the group to even more feverish carousing. Thirty-six hours later, on this fine Tuesday morning, they inhabit a stunned quietude, like survivors of a train wreck.

"I'll be right back," the director says and drifts off. Five minutes go by. I order coffee. Ten minutes. I drink it. Fifteen. The actors are ready to leave for LAX, and there's still no sign of Cuarón, who'd earlier been watching over them like a benevolent scoutmaster. Luna gives me a sweet smile:

"Now you know Alfonso. He is always finding many distracciones."

Is he ever. A man of countless distractions, Alfonso Cuarón has never learned to sit still. He was born in Mexico City, lives in New York and works in Hollywood -- although, with luck, his next film will be a futuristic tale set in the British Isles. At 40, he's not simply one of the leading Mexican directors of his generation, but the standard-bearer for a new wave of internationalized Mexican filmmakers, a group that includes his friends Guillermo del Toro, whose Blade 2 opens March 22, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, now working on Hollywood projects after his success here last year with Amores Perros.

Of course, it's a piquant irony of NAFTA-era cinema that one of Mexico's hottest filmmakers should be best known for the movies he made in El Norte -- A Little Princess and Great Expectations. But all that should change with the release of Y Tu Mamá También, which finds Cuarón returning in triumph to his native soil. Sexy, funny and ultimately quite moving, this adolescent road picture was a huge hit at home, becoming the second-highest-grossing Mexican film in that country's history, after Antonio Serrano's 1999 Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (Sex, Shame, and Tears). And rightly so: It offers a bulletin from the frontlines of the struggle to define Mexicanidad, or Mexicanness.

Of course, when most of us think of Mexican cinema, we probably think of dogfights or something even grimmer -- you know, murdered maquiladores, peasants being ground to dust by History. Y Tu Mamá También is not a movie like that. Rather, it's a lovely example of what Valéry meant when he said that art should be light like a bird, not like a feather. Luna

Working in a style reminiscent of the French New Wave, Cuarón tells the story of two 17-year-old Mexico City dudes -- Tenoch, the son of a rich, crooked politico, and Julio, who lives humbly with his single mom -- who think of smoking dope and getting laid as a form of anti-bourgeois idealism. Their wildest fantasies seem to come true when they get a sexy older woman, Luisa (Spanish actress Maribel Verdú), to travel with them to a mythical beach known as Heaven's Mouth for what they dream will be an orgiastic fiesta. Then, as they drive from their sprawling home city through the heart of the country, they discover that there are forces in life more powerful than their own small drama. Without ever underlining it, the movie uses Julio and Tenoch's journey to offer a portrait of an entire culture -- its machismo, its reflexive dishonesty, its political corruption and its crippling sense of social class.

"I don't hate all teen movies," Cuarón corrects himself when we finally sit down for an interview. "I hate the crappy ones by Hollywood. They're so romanticized and exploitative. Y Tu Mamá is about two teenage boys trying to discover who they are, about a liberated woman trying to find out her identity, and about a teenage country, Mexico, that is trying to grow up and find its identity. The conflicts are those of a corrupt country, corrupt in part because of people like Tenoch and Julio. They even lie to each other." Bernal

In person, Cuarón is a compact, energetic man with dark, intense eyes and a short beard that today resembles a 5 o'clock shadow with delusions of grandeur. Although he can seem elusive, he's a gentle charmer; once you have his full attention, he'll even turn off his cell phone, which for movie people is a sacrifice akin to becoming a kidney donor. For a man with a son old enough to attend Vassar, he exudes a striking, almost innocent boyishness, greeting even feeble jokes with a generous laugh and drawing you into his boundless enthusiasms -- from Naomi Watts' amazing performance in Mulholland Drive ("I called her to tell her how brilliant she was"), to Nanni Moretti's recent speech, at a huge public gathering, savaging Italy's Communist leadership while the party's leaders sat stony-faced behind him. "We need someone to do that in Mexico. And here, too. No director here ever says anything political."

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