Y Tu Mamá También is a 2001 Mexican film following the travels of two teenagers and an older attractive woman as they drive across Mexico to a supposed hidden beach known as “Heaven’s Mouth” and gain a greater understanding of life, love, death and friendship along the way.
Before I kick off a review of a foreign film, a genre which a good portion of moviegoers tend to avoid because they don’t like reading subtitles, I’d like to mention that the director of Y Tu Mamá También is Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican filmmaker responsible for Prisoner of Azkaban, which transitioned Harry Potter from pre-teen adventure escapades to a much darker and menacing series throwing it into the sub-genre of fantasy thriller that captivated a much wider audience than the previous two films and arguably created the most visually interesting instalment of the entire franchise.
That’s my attempt to connect with those who wouldn’t typically watch a Mexican film on a Saturday night, so if I’ve won you over then great. If not read on anyway.
“Y Tu Mamá También” literally translates to “and your mother too” which said on its own is not offensive but if put in context of an argument or used as a deliberately arrogant retort it becomes so. I bring this up because the title perfectly encapsulates the relationship between the two male leads; Julio (Gael Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) two best friends who revel in slagging each other off in an attempt to charm Luisa (Maribel Verdu) sometimes playfully and other times with a bit more malice.
Though all cast members give tremendous performances the stand out is Maribel Verdu whose nuanced portrayal of Luisa is nothing short of perfect. Whether she’s teasing the boys with questions of their sexual endeavours or on the phone to her cheating husband trying to keep composure in her voice as she physically breaks down in tears, Verdu steals the show.
I picked up a copy of Y Tu Mama on DVD at a second-hand shop for around 50p, it was the last copy and funnily enough the exact film I set out to find. It was the only DVD in the foreign film rack under the letter Y so finding it wasn’t too difficult. Earlier that day I had been watching a video essay by the Nerdwriter (I’ll put a link to his YouTube channel somewhere) on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and in said video the Nerdwriter notes how surprising it would have been at the time for Warner Bros. to choose Alfonso Cuarón to direct a film in a series that was essentially for children when his previous film had been, you guessed it, Y Tu Mamá También, which the Nerdwriter described as “an explicit Mexican road trip drama about sexual discovery.” Which naturally intrigued me. I then looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Y Tu Mama, the opening lines of which explain how though marketed as a teen drama with a very used premise (a couple of horny teenagers trying to get laid by a sexy older woman) and while said premise is technically true, it in no way prepares you for what the film is really about or how long the thoughtful silence after you watch it will be. At this point I read no further, grabbed my coat and left for the pawn shop.
The DVD I bought had a number of special features including a short film written and directed by Carlos Cuarón (three guesses at who his brother is) a couple of radio interviews with Alfonso himself, a decent enough behind the scenes video and a load of marketing material. I watched one of the promos before I watched the film itself, to kid on that perhaps I was back in 2001 and not 5 years old and experiencing the promotion the way I would have on telly, and after watching the film I completely understood what Ebert meant. The marketing would have you believe that Y Tu Mama is a raunchy all out sex romp of a film (kind of like every second movie Hollywood pumps out) and even though there are sex scenes in Y Tu Mama they are filmed in a way unlike any other film I’ve seen that depicts the act of “love-making”.
It was either Alfonso Cuarón or Emmanuel Lubezki (I forget exactly who as the interview contained both) who said that the sex scenes were shot in one take deliberately from a distance so as to create the impression that the events unfolding were just happening naturally and that just by chance there was a camera nearby, therefore any nudity you see appears to be down to subtle and seemingly unintentional movements by the actors and not by result of the man behind the camera. Never do you see a cut to a glorified close up of perfectly lit breasts or hear unrealistic pornographic moans; what you get with the combination of excellent direction, an outstanding cinematographer and a cast with brilliant acting chops are sex scenes that are grounded in reality, and to comic effect in a number of ways. In fact some of the funniest moments in the film stem from the awkward fumbling of rushing teenagers treating sex like a race.
I briefly mentioned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki above and I have to commend him further, he apparently used 90% natural light for most of the film (a key trait of his) which adds tremendously to the environment the characters are travelling through. The flat desert-like daylight shots are in stark contrast with the harsh fluorescent lights of a throwaway Mexican bar at night that illuminate the actors from above in a much more dramatic and dynamic way.
A key stylistic choice I’ve yet to mention in this film has little to do with visuals and everything to do with audio; there is narration throughout that doesn’t just speak the minds of the characters, but instead tells stories of events that happened in the same places the characters are travelling through but years before, and at some points even tells us the future (of the characters sparingly but more importantly of Mexico itself and how century old traditions are ended by corporations’ ever growing need to expand business). It took a bit of time to get used to, mainly because of the complete 2 – 3 seconds of silence that immediately precedes the narration, I was fooled a couple of times into thinking my speakers had cut out without warning. The narrator himself (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) delivers his speech in a matter-of-fact sort of way, much like the narration found in “Amelie” only with less of a flair, the performance is dead pan but completely fits the tone of the film.
I get the feeling that I’ve used a lot of words thus far but I haven’t really said much about the plot and to be honest I don’t want to say much more than what I have. The knowledge I’ve presented here regarding the plot is as much as I had before watching the film and to say more I think would diminish the experience for someone who hasn’t seen it.
I definitely suggest having your own copy of Y Tu Mamá También because after the first viewing you’ll want to watch it again and I guarantee that you’ll find the second sitting to be almost an entirely different but equally powerful and profound film. It has easily become one of my all-time favourites (NOT just in the foreign category).