Real Cinemas Are Controversial

Mexican cinemas rises, Chicano cinemas falls

The Mexican film El Crimen de Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro) debuted last month to sold-out theaters and laudatory reviews. It was no easy achievement: outraged by the film's blistering portrait of the country's powerful, corrupt Catholic Church, Mexican church and government officials pushed back the picture's release date so it wouldn't screen while Pope John Paul II was in the country. Meanwhile, last month's Chicana coming-of-age drama Real Women Have Curves angered no one. It got pleasant if not enthusiastic reviews and paltry ticket sales.

The story of Real Womenand Padre Amaro is the story of two countries. After years of narcopelículasand sexycomedias, the Mexican cinema is now one of the world's vital movie movements. Whereas Mexican films boldly expose their country's myriad problems, Chicano filmmakers mask the difficulties of their community, presenting Chicanismo as a middle-class wonderland.

It wasn't always thus. Chicano cinema arose during the 1980s with the purpose of documenting its people's struggles in an oppressive American society. The protagonists in the best Chicano films—the defiant pachucos of 1981's Zoot Suit confronting a racist court system, Cheech Marín's pocho in 1987's underrated Born in East L.A. defeating a byzantine immigration system, the inner-city students who smashed their school's victim-class expectations in 1988's Stand and Deliver—embodied the battles and triumphs Chicanos experienced in asserting themselves in the United States. Because Hollywood did not view Chicano-themed films as bankable at the time (at least not if actual Chicanos played prominent parts), these films smoldered with the personal-vision urgency characteristic of shoestring budgets.

Mexican cinema, on the other hand, actively collaborated with the government from the 1930s until the 1960s in what cinephiles refer to as la Época de Oro (the Golden Age). This partnership allowed artists to create aesthetically stunning portraits of their patria, while it ensured that film painted an idyllic Mexico. A Mexican new wave rose during the late 1960s to challenge these images, but the short-lived movement quickly disappeared beneath the newer wave of machine-gun fire, buxom babes and dwarves in narcopelículasand sexycomedias. But after the Mexican government severely cut film funding in the early 1970s, Mexican cinema took halting steps toward full artistic freedom. This culminated with 1993's Like Water for Chocolate, a critique of women's status in Mexican society that would have been unimaginable 20 years earlier.

Since Like Water for Chocolate, Mexico has undergone radical transformation—the continued migration of its people to the United States, rebellions, the rippling devastation of NAFTA, and the end of the reigning PRI political party after 71 years. Free of meddling government officials—and the seductions of their money—Mexican cameras have turned on the once-untouchable problems of church (El Crimen), urban poverty (Amores Perros) and the upper class (Y Tu Mamá También).


El Crimen de Padre Amaro

The opposite occurred in the U.S. As Chicano filmmakers broke into Hollywood during the late 1990s, Chicano cinema switched from depicting a community under seige to a community of Bill Cosbys facing the mundane concerns of everyone else wandering through a Hollywood drama. The crisis in a Chicano film is now likely to be middle-class angst: self-discovery (Real Women), the threatening of the family (Tortilla Soup) or interracial dating (Luminarias). Chicano cinema is now producing films reminiscent of la Época de Oro, creating a distinctly problem-free portrait of Chicanos acceptable to the rest of the country.

In fact, non-Chicanos have made the films that best continue the critical traditions of the Golden Age of Chicano cinema: John Sayles' 1996 ruminations on class, race and memory in a Texas border town in Lone Star; last year's Bread and Roses, a film dealing with the Mexican-immigrant-fueled resurgence of unions directed by British Ken Loach; and Crazy/Beautiful, a surprisingly thoughtful teen flick that didn't shy away from issues of race and class. Only Hollywood outsiders can now properly document the Chicano experience, it seems; the insiders are too busy selling out their community to the most appealing denominator.

 
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