Slice Of Life Dramas Bring Empathy And Delicateness To Guadalajara

in 38th Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Andrew Kendall

What do we want for the future of cinema? For each festival I go to I think of this. As the gap between big budget and small budget grows, as the onslaught of anti-art sentiment continents, as everything becomes filtered through the prism of productivity or proving its value I am moved, touched, and beguiled by contemporary films which recognise the fleeting nature of life and art in an increasingly capitalistic and even mechanical world. It’s why two of the films that have resonated most from the 2023 Guadalajara Film Festival Mexican entries were two thoughtful, quiet, gentle and sharp films that stepped beyond ponderous or didactic approaches to filmmaking.

Female filmmakers Sofía Auza (Adolfo) and Claudia Sainte-Luce (Love and Mathematics) approach interpersonal relationships, existential ambivalence, and the growing malaise of adulthood in two elliptical and thoughtful humanistic dramas. The two entries in the festival’s Mezcal Competition dedicated to Mexican cinema were welcome reminders that filmmakers in the Global South are as sharply attuned to the nuances of life’s banalities as those in the Global North.

It is important, in a fast-changing cinematic industry, that filmmakers, audiences and critics alike, resist the reduction of Global South cinema to cinema of issues. Even as Mexican, and Latin American, cinema grows in commercial and critical popularity in the 21st century, many still think of the region as a place for stories about macro issues that render Latin America as a place of kinetic political explosions, harrowing tragedy, historical calamities, and thrilling action sequences. These are all fine things; these are attributes that many Mexican – and Ibo American films – can confidently boast of. But there is an element of tokenism that has creeped into perceptions of Global Cinema.

Expectations of regional cinema are too often conflated with poverty porn that seeks to present Latin America in sharp contrast to the largesse of the Global North. The interpersonal tenderness, contemporary bite, and unwavering empathy amidst the humour and unexpectedness of Adolfo and Love and Mathematics feels like part of decisive exclamation by these women filmmakers – Mexican cinema has more to offer than sensationalised perception of Mexico.

In Adolfo, Auza plays around with seemingly familiar tropes when early on we meet our two protagonists. Hugo is neatly dressed and on his way to his father’s funeral with a cactus (eponymous Adolfo). Momo is less neatly dressed and is fresh-out-rehab. You will be correct if you anticipate that the somewhat straitlaced Hugo will find his evening disrupted by the increasingly out-of-control Momo. Yet, the way that Auza – in her feature film debut – plays around with the kinds of familiar tropes that are more likely to be the focus of a European pseudo-comedy feels intentional and valuable.

Juan Daniel García Treviño and Erika Hau have charming chemistry as the main duo, ambling through an evening together that becomes increasingly chaotic. The perceptiveness in Adolfo is less owed to the queries of what the pair will do over their night misadventures, and more to the way Auza’s gentle camera finds space for a fanciful and earnest kind of warmth amidst the sadness lurking beneath Hugo and Adolfo. Even as it traces familiar ideas of “one night to change it all”, the meet-cute that acts as a fulcrum for Adolfo feels lived in and well-earned and provides a startling reminder that these kinds of easy, charming works are often relegated to the periphery in conversations about Global Cinema.

Rather than emphasising any sharp, or desultory, overt social realism outlook Adolfo provides implied context for the world of these characters while refusing to condescend to placing them within a box. This expansiveness allows for the film’s tender close, and its wealth of empathy.

This refusal to condescend is even more emphatic in Claudia Sainte-Luce’s Love and Mathematics. Seasoned director Claudia is more confident with her more complex, challenging, and unexpected Love and Mathematics. Unlike Auza, who wrote and directed her debut film, Sainte-Luce is directing her first script written by someone else in Love and Mathematics. It is a reminder of Sainte-Luce’s ability to shape her own stories, as well as others, turning the shifts and turns of the amusing and unnerving Love and Mathematics into a welcome and unusual entry in this year’s Mezcal features.

Even the film’s title feels like a sleight of hand. It is not quite the title we expect from the film that comes and even the two nouns of its title seem ostensibly incongruous. It’s clear Claudia aims to exploit this incongruity with Love and Mathematics teasing and then subverting familiar tropes and expectations at each turn.  Even the film’s logline feels ineffectual when confronted with the nuances of the actual film: a popstar turned stay-at-home dad grapples with the malaise of anonymity when a neighbour reveals herself as a fan of his teen boyband days. There are any number of ways that plotline could go, and it’s credit to Sainte-Luce’s direction that what might be a talky dramedy feels intuitively visual in its form.

Roberto Quijano’s performance as Billy, somewhere between man and child, is a frustratingly emphatic performance of male adult ennui and Sainte-Luce’s direction excavates the ambivalent banality of suburban melancholy. Her work is sharpy attuned to the undulating nature of what Billy perceives as his domestic prison, and it’s the strongest asset of Love and Mathematics that it consistently withholds any hectoring or moralising from its audience. Instead, it cleverly demurs to its very end – likely to leave audiences long beyond the credits.

I felt heartened to experience both these films at the festivals, for numerous reasons. Mexican cinema continues to be buoyed by female filmmakers and screenwriters who offer nuanced accounts of masculinity and gender roles. But, more than that, these filmmakers present ideas and themes that are familiar but presented them with an interpersonal acuity that feels important and effective. It is important that they do not feel obliged to write the stories of Mexico only in Macro Terms. Instead, Love and Mathematics and Adolfo find space for the human instinct in contemporary Mexico, and in that they remind us that the contemporary version of Mexico is more than a reductive idea of Latin America as a site of social turmoil. Instead, they engage in interpersonal strife, tender moments, gentle uncertainties. And in their tenderness offer themes and resonances that point to a great future for Mexican cinema.


Andrew Kendall