South of Your Border

There’s nothing like ruin for inspiration. After Mexican moviemaking collapsed in the wholesale economic crisis of the last decade, the country’s cinema necessarily found itself dependent on those whose drive to make movies superseded the lack of means. Now, as new production companies emerge from the ashes, supplementing the state funding entity Imcine (Instituto Mexicano de Cine Mexicanotografía), artistic determination is at long last getting a financial boost, and filmmaking in Mexico is in rebirth. In the United States, that rebirth has been exemplified by the recent breakout success of Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s Amores Perros; as the American Cinematheque’s four-day sampler “Jornadas de Cine Mexicano: Contemporary Mexican Film Series” attests, Amores Perros is just the tip of the iceberg, the international herald of a re-burgeoning national art form.

Signs of Mexican cinema’s renewed vigor are evident in the Cinematheque’s collaboration on “Jornadas de Cine Mexicano” with a new cultural attaché at the city’s Consulate General of Mexico, Alejandro Pelayo, who formerly headed not only the Mexican National Cinematheque, but also Imcine, from whom many of the series’ films received funding. There’s been talk that “Jornadas” was programmed in response to last month’s Latino International Film Festival, at which protesters vehemently rejected the idea of Mexico as part of Latin America. Organizers dismiss that idea and say the series complements events such as the Guadalajara Film Festival and the formation of a Latin-American Cinematheque of Los Angeles. Whatever the case, one thing that the series makes clear is that, regardless of genre, today’s Mexican films are fiercely determined to establish identity, independence and singularity.

“Jornadas” launches with a blunt example of that fierceness, De la Calle (Streeters), the feature debut of film professor, poet and journalist Gerardo Tort. At once cerebral and raw, the film opens at night with a pack of street kids who, for the childish fun of a ride on a Ferris wheel, stalk and pounce on its napping operator. Cinematographer Héctor Ortega’s camera stalks and pounces, too, nervously taking in the lay of the land (Mexico City slums), reducing it to its most basic components, and purposefully circling the action as 15-year-old Rufino (Luis Fernando Peña) sets out on a 24-hour journey — part walkabout, part odyssey, part life of Christ — to find the father who abandoned him, elude a corrupt cop, and score enough money to take his girlfriend and her baby away to Veracruz.

Meticulously crafted and stunningly well-acted, De la Calle is a labor of love (in press notes, personal statements from the filmmakers are almost embarrassingly lyrical), but sentimentality is measured out in mean doses that do little to ameliorate a blandly unforgiving world where even the crazy holy man tells Rufino he’s screwed. The film has been likened to Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, and it’s a valid comparison. Yet, as it ruminates on notions of surrogate families and personal fulfillment, De la Calle is preceded more immediately by the affectionately clear-eyed short feature by French filmmaker Eric Zoncka, Le Petit Voleur. Indeed, the series as a whole makes a strong case for the affinity of Mexican filmmakers with the frank, less confiningly codified approach to the human condition found in European cinema, an affinity that necessitates, if not a thorough rejection of Hollywood, then at least a refusal to recognize it as the kingdom looming overhead.

Among the other pleasures in “Jornadas de Cine Mexicano” is a minitribute to director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, who, along with the divinely mad Arturo Ripstein, is counted as one of the country’s pre-eminent auteurs. Also noteworthy are De Ida y Vuelta (Back and Forth), the debut feature of Salvador Aguirre (a former assistant of Ridley Scott and Paul Leduc), and Armando Casas’ directorial debut, Un Mundo Raro (A Strange World), a big-buzz satire that’s been called “a Mexican King of Comedy.” Most of the films will be introduced by their makers, making the series a rare and vital opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing.

JORNADAS DE CINE MEXICANO: CONTEMPORARY MEXICAN FILM SERIES | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.; (323) 466-3456 | Through September 9

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