On Film: Discovering Mexican Cinema’s New Golden Age

People watching a film in a movie theater.

The Mexican film industry is flourishing, but most of the world is missing it. Here’s a look at the leading directors, actors and screenwriters who are behind the country's cinema rebirth.

April 28, 2020

Mexico’s film scene is booming, with a record 175 films made in the country in 2017. And in Hollywood, Mexican directors continue to win big at the Oscars every year—four of the last five directing Oscars have gone to Mexican filmmakers—but beyond the award-winners, the bulk of these films go largely unnoticed.

“There are amazing Mexican filmmakers—producers, directors, actors—winning awards internationally,” says Vicky Westover, program director of the Hanson Film Institute at The University of Arizona. “But we’re not seeing them; the movies aren’t showing in local art-house theaters or available on streaming platforms.”

Today’s era of filmmaking is reminiscent of Mexico’s first golden age of cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, when Mexico first arrived on the map as one of the world’s top producers of film. The industry began to fade in the 1950s and by the mid-1990s, fewer than 10 films were being made each year, in large part because there was little access to private financing.

Life for filmmakers in Mexico began to improve in the early 2000s, when the government-sponsored Mexican Institute for Cinematography, known as IMCINE, began financing films. The organization now spends around $44 million a year on film productions and over half the films produced in Mexico last year were subsidized by the government.

Around the same time, in an effort to increase the visibility of Mexican films, the Hanson Film Institute established Tucson Cine Mexico, which is now the longest-running festival of contemporary Mexican cinema in the United States. “These are movies that people will talk about for years after,” Westover says. “If there’s all of this amazing work being made, we’d like to be a platform for it.”

New Era, New Exposures

The Mexican film industry’s lack of visibility isn’t solely an issue related to international representation. “Even in Mexico, they aren’t aware that Mexico is an epicenter of world cinema,” says Carlos A. Gutiérrez, co-director of Tucson Cine Mexico and founder of Cinema Tropical, a Latin American film programming, publicity and distribution organization based in New York City.

As Gutiérrez explains, most Mexican theaters opt to show Hollywood blockbusters instead of any of the hundreds of titles produced domestically each year, in part because of challenges related to promotion and distribution. “Until recently, Mexican cinema was foreign cinema in Mexico, too,” he says. “But it’s always been a major player, and it’s currently going through a second ‘Golden Era.’”

Many players in the Mexican film industry who’ve recently achieved fame at an international level are part of this Nuevo Cine Mexicano movement, particularly the Academy Award-winning directors Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) and Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water).

“Beyond the ‘Three Amigos,’ though, there’s a host of Mexican filmmakers who are making movies that are equally good—and from a curatorial perspective, sometimes even better,” Westover says. “Great new stuff is constantly getting made.”

While the range of topics and styles of modern Mexican film is broad, below Gutiérrez and Westover identify and explain a few of the more notable thematic trends.

Diversity of Characters

“This is the process of a country recognizing itself as more diverse than it was,” Gutiérrez says. “For years, the stars of Mexican film and television were white or very fair-skinned—it was practically like watching Norwegian programs—and this was presented as being aspirational, in terms of race.”

Now, filmmakers have begun to focus on people who’ve long been underrepresented on the big screen. In 2019, Tucson Cine Mexico screened features such as La Camarista and Guie'dani’s Navel, which share the stories of single-mother hotel maids and indigenous families, as well as documentaries about Afro-Mexican communities and an Oaxacan society that welcomes and accepts transgender people.

“One of the reasons I was interested in Guie'dani’s Navel—in which a maid who comes to work for an upper-middle-class family brings her 12-year-old Zapotec indigenous daughter—is that I see it as a corrective of sorts to Roma,” Westover says. “Instead of a rather romanticized idea of a maid, this movie does a great job of letting you see the uncomfortable realities and conflicts of this class structure. It’s not all roses and being happy to clean up your messes, which to me was emotionally hard-hitting.”  

Plumbing the Past

“Particularly in the past two or three years, filmmakers have been going back to the 1970s and ’80s—less for nostalgia’s sake than in an attempt to understand and explain modern Mexico,” Gutiérrez says. “A lot of the politics and problems the country has recently experienced can be traced to the neoliberal policies that shaped the country for nearly half a century, and so filmmakers are trying to revisit the past to explain the present.”

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ debut feature Güeros, which screened at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2015, examines the effect of a more recent seminal moment in Mexican history: the 1999 student strikes at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, which themselves evoked comparison to the 1968 riots that redefined how Mexican citizens viewed their political rights and leaders. The film went on to win Best Picture, Best Director and Best First Feature at that year’s Ariel Awards, Mexico’s equivalent of the Oscars.

“People loved this film so much,” says Westover. “It was so amazing we showed it twice, which we hardly ever do. There’s a sly humor to it—an homage to the road-trip genre, but the humor is that you’re not actually going anywhere. However, there’s also quite serious critique of the political situation.”

Nonfiction Narratives

“We’re beginning to see some great films trying to decipher the human crisis from the war on drugs,” Gutiérrez says. “I don’t think even we as Mexican citizens fully understand what’s going on, what people are going through—the various powers, the narcos, doing the dirty laundry for the local, state and federal governments. There’s a giant gray area that the mass media isn’t really reporting. Mexico’s one of the most difficult countries to be a journalist in, so filmmakers have been able to create the narratives.”

The documentary Tempestad by Salvadorean-Mexican director Tatiana Huezo, which screened at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2018, recounts two terrifying tales of government corruption and ineptitude, including a woman who was arrested and spent a year in jail as a pagador (“payer”)—a scapegoat for when law enforcement authorities need to promote the illusion of progress in their fight against crimes like drug and human trafficking.

“Any completely innocent person could be arrested and sent to prison just so the justice of the peace could say they ‘solved’ that series of crimes,” Westover says. Then, once inside the cartel-controlled prisons, they’re told their families must pay to keep them alive.

“This is a serious subject matter, and the director educates us in the most artful, lyrical way,” she says. “It completely breaks with all conventions for documentary: You never see one of the people, for example, and often when someone is talking, the camera isn’t on the subject; instead, they’re showing you all sorts of things. You go along on this journey where you become immersed in a way that feels like you’ve entered their world. Mexican filmmakers are making really interesting, artistic choices.”

Going Up-stream

Streaming services like Netflix have become game-changers as developers search for unique, exceptional content, Westbrook says.

“They’re going to every country investing in local talent,” she says. “There’s suddenly so much opportunity to make films in Mexico that they don’t have enough crew members to fulfill demand, and I’m curious to see how that shakes out: Will Americans who can speak Spanish go down there and work? It’s an interesting dynamic with a big opportunity for cultural conflict, because here things are much more ‘stay in your lane — that’s my job,’ but in Mexico there’s more fluidity on set.”

Streaming services have also begun to import Mexican directors to helm productions in America. In May, Netflix signed Guadalajara native Manolo Caro to a multiyear contract to develop new television projects, including the series House of Flowers; Westbrook says that writer-director Beto Gómez, whose Cinderelo made its U.S. premiere at Tucson Cine Mexico in 2019, was also just tapped by Netflix for directorial services.

“It’s interesting to see these filmmakers make it big,” she says, “which, we’ve learned over 16 years of doing this, means we’re going to have to keep looking for the next crop.”