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Great Expectations

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."

 

One morning on the phone, he tells me how, the day before, he'd been arguing with a prominent New York critic who called Moretti's The Son's Room a TV movie. "Go see the film," he ordered me, "and call me when you see it. If I'm not in, just leave a message saying, 'TV movie yes' or 'TV movie no.'"

The filmmaking world thrives on seduction, and Cuarón has the director's essential talent -- he can get you to believe that anything is possible. Just as he suffused the world of A Little Princess with a thrilling sense of magical realism, so his exuberance has a way of making the world around him seem carefree, enchanted, inspired. It's easy to see how actors and studio execs would find him irresistible.

Still, getting inspiration onto the screen, whether in Oaxaca or Soho, requires blacker magic than mere charm, and behind Cuarón's easygoing manner you feel the lurking presence of something dark and ferocious, a ruthless streak often captured in photographs of him.

"Alfonso is very driven," says Emmanuel Lubezki, known as "Chivo," a friend of 20-odd years who has shot all four of Cuarón's films and, like his pal, scored big in Hollywood. (His most recently released film was Ali.) "He is very hard to work for, and in previous movies a lot of the people didn't like him. He's very demanding. When it's two minutes before wrapping, he always wants to shoot 54 setups and bring in the crane."

He laughs. "Alfonso has the appetite of genius. He always wants more and more."

CUARÓN IS THE WELL-EDUCATED SON OF A BROKEN middle-class home, and in the brief glimpse he'll give you of his family mythology, you can already find the themes of magic and loss: His mother, he says, is "a witch" -- a term he does not use metaphorically -- and his father is a doctor whom he hasn't seen for 20 years. Along with "Chivo" Lubezki, he studied film at the National University in the late 1970s, and both were booted from the school for disdaining what was expected of them. "We were supposed to do documentaries about demonstrations and stuff," he says, still a bit scornful, "and we wanted to do features and stories."

Although Cuarón doesn't exactly strike one as an avatar of patience, he did spend 10 long years working as an A.D. on American films shot in Mexico ("a lot of monster movies") and directing TV, including several episodes of Hora Marcada, a show he and his friend del Toro dubbed The Toilet Zone. It might have been even more years before he was able to make his first feature had history not smiled upon him. It was just at this point that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari decided to use artists to prove that Mexico was no longer a backward country.

"We always talk about the dirty dancing that exists between the government and intellectuals," says Cuarón. "That happened in a big way through the Salinas period. You'd see all these neighborhoods developing with all these fashion shops in Mexico City a la americana, and all these new buildings and malls, giving the perception that Mexico was going into the First World. That way, you wouldn't see that more people were getting poor. He also created all these grants for intellectuals and got interested in the production of film -- to be Mexico's window to the world. The perfect Salinas film was Like Water for Chocolate, which was quite successful and presented a comfortable vision of Mexico for him. My first film was part of that process. At the time, I just wanted to make my movie, and if I could get the money, great."

Cuarón's 1991 debut, Love in the Time of Hysteria (Sólo con Tu Pareja), was something of a family affair. Written by brother Carlos, it's a stylish, carefully orchestrated ä sex farce about a yuppie womanizer who's tricked by an ex-lover into thinking he has AIDS, then falls in love with a suicidal Continental Airlines hostess. Although many of the film's hijinks now feel labored, the sheer talent on display made it a sensation at the Toronto Film Festival. Suddenly, Cuarón was being pursued by Hollywood production companies, including Sydney Pollack's Mirage. He was also plunged into what would become an ongoing battle with the Mexican film bureaucracy, which was mired in a kind of cultural self-hatred.

 

"I'd tell them I wanted this movie to be sold outside Mexico, and the bureaucrats would tell me -- and these are the people who are supposed to be supporting Mexican cinema -- they said, 'Don't be arrogant. Nobody gives a shit about Mexican cinema in the world, not even in Mexico.'"

So Cuarón went to Hollywood. There, along with the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Tom Hanks, he worked on the 1993 TV series Fallen Angels, winning the Cable ACE award for best director for an episode called "Murder Obliquely." He was equally lucky in what he did not make. He pulled out of the dreadful The Perez Family, whose Ricky Ricardo­ish take on Cuban-Americans might have condemned him to a career in the ethnic-film ghetto that Cuarón mockingly terms the "Latin American Panorama" (the kind of phrase used by film festivals to lazily lump all Latino pictures together).

Two years later, he made an instant children's classic. A Little Princess is the story of a young girl, Sara, forced into servitude at a boarding school when her father is presumed dead, who manages to turn her misery into compassion. Although this seemed a counterintuitive choice for a man whose previous feature had centered on the hero's unwillingness to use condoms, the movie showcased Cuarón's extraordinary ability to capture subjective experience, and on Lubezki's exquisite photography. Otherworldly in its beauty, yet deeply rooted in childhood fears and the realities of social class, A Little Princess was a great Hollywood debut. Cuarón calls it, simply, "my most personal film -- so close to me that it's organic."

Despite Warner Bros.' best efforts, A Little Princess never found the audience it deserved. But Cuarón was showered with critical hosannas and the love of an industry whose embrace can sometimes be a death grip. He was signed on to update Dickens' Great Expectations, starring Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. The project adapted another English novel, charted another spiritual journey from childhood innocence, and told another story about the pain of social class as Hawke's character, Finn, goes from a blue-collar life on the Florida Gulf Coast to the high life of the '80s Soho art world.

Great Expectations could charitably be termed a disappointment, neither a box-office winner nor a succès d'estime. Critics compared it unfavorably to the David Lean original (to say nothing of the novel), whacked it for looking like MTV, grumbled about its coldness and ridiculed the duff performance by slack-jawed Hawke. Still, Cuarón's style was so lushly inventive that Fyou could almost forgive the fact that (aside from a touching turn by Chris Cooper) the story felt dead at the center. Almost, but not quite. The movie created a glorious imaginary world; unfortunately, nobody lived there.

WITH GREAT EXPECTATIONS, CUARÓN and Lubezki felt they'd reached a stylistic dead end. Even as they finished that film, they were already discussing how to shoot Y Tu Mamá También, a movie that's freer, simpler and more anthropological than anything they'd ever done. They stripped away the luxuriant visual schemes they'd built up over the years -- including Cuarón's trademark affection for ravishing greens -- and adopted a kind of filmmaking he'd adored during film school, the objective style used by Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine-Feminine and, especially, Jacques Rozier's little-seen 1962 classic Adieu Philippine, which Cuarón says was his inspiration.

The new movie didn't just mark a radical transformation of Cuarón's technique. It gave him a chance to work on the screenplay with his brother Carlos (apparently the real writer of the two) and let him rediscover his home country.

"I always go back and forth to Mexico," he says. "I need to be in touch with holy ground. It was the first time in years that I spent a long period in Mexico and traveled the roads. You could see the damage modernism and liberalism have done to the country. You could see new construction and shopping centers, but things were as socially bad as before, if not worse. And when I first went to the beaches, they were all virgin. Now they're being developed. They're still beautiful, but . . ."

While this journey sharpened Cuarón's sense of the changes in Mexico, one of Y Tu Mamá También's virtues is the way it tosses off its political ideas rather than hammering them home. In fact, people don't come out of the theater talking about its portrait of Mexican society at all. They come out excited by the movie's openness about teen life -- its ä acknowledgment that kids love to get high, its willingness to show teen nudity, its amusement in the face of Tenoch's and Julio's propensity for coming too soon: Y Tu Mamá's the sexiest movie ever made about premature ejaculation.

 

When I mention this, Cuarón, joking about how he might use the line in the movie's ad campaign, rewards me with that overgenerous laugh:

"I'm glad that people find the movie sexy, because, except for the end, the sex in the movie is really bad." He pauses. "You know, what people like about sex is not so much the act itself but the feeling of desire, the dance of desire and seduction."

FOR MOST OF THE PAST 30 YEARS, THERE'S BEEN very little seduction by Latin American cinema. Aside from the odd gay Cuban comedy or Brazilian sex romp (Sonia Braga baring her breasts above faded subtitles), Latino filmmaking has barely registered in the U.S. That's one reason why it's so striking that today there are three Mexican directors -- all around 40 -- currently making a Hollywood splash. While Cuarón initially scoffs at the notion that we've entered a new era in which Mexican filmmakers will freely work on both sides of the border ("I've been hearing that since 1991," he sighs), he doesn't deny that things are opening up.

It's one of his missions to push this process along. For him, much of the task lies in changing the mentality of Latin American filmmakers, getting them to make films the world might actually want to see. Their cinema still suffers from what he terms an "ideological hangover" from the politicized 1960s, which left behind a suffocating set of unwritten rules that Cuarón ticks off in a scolding litany: "If you're entertaining, you're no good. If you're technically polished, you're trying to be Hollywood. If your characters are middle-class, you're bourgeois. If you don't do straight ideological productions, you're a reactionary. If you travel, you're a sellout."

He shakes his head. "The problem with this is provincialism. I see films in Mexico that I can enjoy as a Mexican. I get the joke. I get the political resonance. But to grow into the international film community, you need to be more universal. I don't mean sell out. You can be very specific, have local color, like Amores Perros. I wish we could learn from Asian films, Zhang Yimou or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They keep their own culture but manage to be universal."

To support such internationalized films, he's formed a two-company partnership with a Guadalajara entrepreneur, Jorge Vergara, whose vision of the business is, Cuarón says, "amazingly humanistic." Their Mexican company, Producciones Anhelo, has so far launched Y Tu Mamá También and del Toro's recent horror film The Devil's Backbone. The American one, Monsoon Entertainment, is headquartered in L.A. (with a New York branch housed in the Good Machine offices) and is slated to back the indie film Speed Queen, the directorial debut of Christina Ricci.

This doesn't mean that Cuarón has given up on Hollywood. He expects his next project to be a "big-budget, big-star" adaptation of P.D. James' 1993 novel The Children of Men. Radically unlike anything he's done before, the story takes place a quarter-century from now and posits a world in which men have lost their fertility, there are no more children -- the youngest human being is 18 -- and life on Earth has gone into a tailspin.

"It's about what happens when there are no generations after yours. What's the point of doing anything?" I can feel Cuarón starting to get revved up. "The movie is about hope and all that stuff, but what I like is that I also get to play with a lot of contemporary icons -- everything from terrorism and globalization to refugee camps."

The Children of Men means working in Britain, and I imagine he wouldn't mind that at all. Everything about Cuarón makes it clear that he likes to keep moving. He sees his own life as a journey built on impulses, if not as a full-fledged road picture.

"Traveling is kind of second nature to me," he says. "Now I'm trying to settle down a bit. Even when I go someplace, I usually never end up at the destination of the flight. I was in Madrid once, and I thought, 'Okay, I need to get out of here.' I just put everything in a little bag and went to the airport and saw that there was a flight leaving to Cairo with a stop in Tel Aviv.

"I said, 'Great. I want to go to the pyramids. I've never been to the pyramids.' So I flew to Tel Aviv, and then I thought, 'Hey, Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is one hour away and I've never been to Jerusalem. Might as well go to Jerusalem.' So I did. I got off the plane. And three weeks later, I was still in Jerusalem." He booms a laugh. "I still haven't seen the pyramids."


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