This film represents the entirety of my Mexican film collection, and this morning is only the second time I have watched it.
It’s a strange film, for all that it adopts the conventional form(s) of the coming-of-age story and the road movie. It’s also deliberately explicit in depictions of sex, conversations about sex, and drug usage, to an extent that would be unacceptable in Britain, let alone a conservative, Catholic country like Mexico. But though the film is intentionally transgressive in this approach, it’s never defiant. It’s just a rich, realistic portrayal of the trio at the heart of it.
These are Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna), Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Luise Cortes (Maribel Verdu, a Spanish actress playing a Spanish character). Tenoch and Julio are best buddies despite their differing social backgrounds. The film starts with each of them enthusiastically screwing their girlfriends, Ana and Cecilia, who are about to leave for Italy on a summer trip.
Other than this, and the fact their girlfriends are eager for farewell fucks that are ever so slightly awkward and hasty, we don’t get to see the boys’ relationships beyond this, though the course of the filmgives us plenty of material from which to draw conclusions, starting with the boys’ joint dismissal of farewells as bullshit.
That’s just the first in a long line of things this pair of seventeen year olds dismiss as bullshit, or if it’s people, as assholes. Yes, these are seventeen year olds at their worst: stupid, ignorant, obsessed with sex and spliffs, permanently competitive, finding farts a source of massive humour (that one is an infallible guide): in short, assholes, and wankers (they even compete at that). In real life, you’d look at them with disgust as complete wastes of space, not to mention protoplasm.
Indeed, for large stretches of the film, I found myself doing that, but I never once thought of switching off. In part, that was because of the strength of the performances by Luna and Bernal (who were good friends in real life), and in part because of what else was going on around them.
Much of that was Luisa. She enters the film after we’ve spent about ten minutes getting to know the boys, a slim, dark woman with a wide mouth: aged 28, she is married to Tenoch’s older and more than somewhat self-satisfied cousin, Jano. They’re all at a wedding party, honoured by the presence of the President (Tenoch’s father is a senior official in the ruling party: the story is set in 1999, just twelve months before this party will loe power for the first time in 71 years).
Tenoch and Julio try to pick Luisa up, inviting her to join them on a spurious trip to a perfect, remote beach, Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). Recognising their gaucheness – they might as well have neon lights over their heads – she declines, but after a sequence of unexplained events, the most overt of which is Jano’s drunken telephone confession that he’s slept with another woman – she phones up Tenoch to ask if the invitation is still open.
So the boys take her off for an impromptu trip to a beach that doesn’t exist, with nowhere in mind to go. In the final third of the film, they will find an absolutely perfect beach, remote and unspoiled: it is, of course, called Boca del Cielo.
But that’s for later. Right now, the most obvious question is why on Earth Luisa would decide to accompany two such lame kids, whose combined maturity wouldn’t fill a thimble even if you spat in it afterwards. That’s a question that’s never answered explicitly, but it’s answered in full at the film’s end, a revelation that strings together several actions on Luisa’s part, most notably her propensity to burst into tears when she’s alone.
Ah yes, the road-trip. The film takes itself off into rural Mexico, endless shots of the car rolling along long bare roads, in country blasted by incessant heat, with few or none other vehicles in sight, all of which are travelling more slowly. The background unfolds, in the background, over which stories are told by our travellers, the boys boastful and stupid, competing for Luisa’s attention, whilst she speaks of her first boyfriend, her only real love, dead in an accident.
But the background is constantly there. It’s a world away from these self-entitled kids, and they pay it little attention – if they can’t wank off to it, it’s not there – but the audience can’t escape it. Little details, the presence of Police and Army, the obvious poverty, and not just economically, are constantly passing before our eyes in a way that we can’t ignore, because despite the stupidity of this pair, constantly encouraged to talk without inhibition by Luisa, we have sunk into this film. The journey is without purpose or end, the journey is the journey, and we share it.
Luisa isn’t there to screw either of the boys but she ends up screwing both. First Tenoch, catching her crying when he enters her room in search of shampoo. Luisa gets him to drop his towel, plays with him, fucks him, if you can call something that lasts literally seconds before he obviously comes a fuck.
This is the act that changes everything. Julio sees the tail-end of it, and retaliates by telling Tenoch that he has screwed Ana. Tenoch’s fragile self-confidence collapses and he rages at Julio. The next day, the tension palpable, Luisa tries to even the score by fucking Julio in the car, in front of Tenoch. Julio doesn’t last any longer, whilst Tenoch flies off into a petulant rage that makes him look more like a twelve year old than seventeen.
So, as soon as they’re under way again, Tenoch drops the bomb that he’s also had Cecilia.
The tension’s rising like mercury. Luisa threatens to abandon the pair over their behaviour, and only agrees to return if they accept her rules for the remainder of the trip, which start with her not screwing either of them.
Accidentally, they discover Boca del Cielo, a place of beauty that calms the nerves. They fall in with Chuy, a local fisherman, and his wife Mabel. Their daughter adopts Luisa as a second mother. The idyll is interrupted when the beach camp is attacked by a herd of pigs, escaped from a nearby farm. The trio go into town, staying at Chuy’s bar.
They get incredibly drunk and start dancing together as a threesome. This continues into their quarters, into an extraordinary scene where, after the boys have stripped her naked, Luisa kneels to stimulate both. Above her head, they sway towards one another, and begin to kiss. They wake in the morning, naked in bed, unable to look at each other. Both decide they have to get back to the City. Luisa stays behind, to explore further.
From here to the end of the film is only a few moments. The trip back is eventless. In the city, Ana and Cecilia dump them on their return from Italy. Both eventually find other girlfriends. They no longer see each other. A year later, they bump into each other by accident, go for a coffee because it’s easier than coming up with a reason not to. Both have changed. They will never meet again.
And Tenoch tells Julio that Luisa died a month after they left her. She had cancer, had known about it. All the pieces fall into place, little dominoes clicking as they come down. Because.
Yet this is a film of enormous life. You may despise Tenoch and Julio for most of it, and you may perversely decide that, for all they needed to just grow up, the selves they briefly show themselves as having become are mere negations of life, and that Luisa, who was ultimately more nihilist than both of them put together, had more life in her than anyone. The film does not lead you. It makes its road trip into its metaphor, and its ending into a dividing line. This trio found paradise: two left.
It’s a remarkable experience, and it has to be said that Maribel Verdu was lovely throughout, or at least I have to say it, but the true mark of her success was that she transcended her sexuality and made even the most explicit moments look human and not mechanical. These people lived and breathed: if you’re going to do sex and nudity on screen, this was a perfect example of how to do it.
Mention must also be made of the use of a narrator, interjecting asides about people, places, times and, in the case of Chuy, and Tenoch and Julio’s final meeting, fates beyond the film. In each case, the narrator is isolated: the soundtrack grows silent, and into that silence, as the film continues, he speaks, drily, dispassionately, sometimes with irony. What at first seems slightly awkward soon becomes a commentary telling us pertinent stories.
I’m sure that, not being Mexican or understanding their politics in 1999, there are many subtleties I’ve missed, but what’s up front for we Anglos to see is more than enough on a wet Sunday morning.