Mexican Cinema has a long history of suffering on-screen mothers. Sara Garcia in Cuando los hijos se van (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1941) and Dolores del Rio and Libertad Lamarque in El pecado de una madre (Alfonso Corona Blake, 1962) are classic examples of the sorrows and pains a woman must endure to be a good mother. So the number of films screened at the Guadalajara Film Festival filled with absent mothers or those with a less than ideal behavior came as a surprise. Whether this is a welcome surprise or not remains to be seen.
In So much water (Tanta agua), a Uruguayan-Mexican co-production, a divorced father takes his children, one aged 10, the other 14, to a town with an out-of-fashion resort only to find stormy weather. The mother in So much water is never seen, but she’s never completely absent either. The children bring their mother’s homemade food for the trip, comfort food at its best, fulfilling and familiar, a care package to savour in a strange setting. Yet, as the resort and its surroundings become more familiar, the remaining food is dumped unceremoniously. First-time writer-directors Leticia Jorge and Ana Guevara write with a sensitivity that does not allow us or the other characters to forget the mother figure, even though she is not physically there.
The mother is present with constant calls to the children’s cell phones — though, conspicuously, she never calls the father — and she is also present as a permissive reference (“Mom allows me to go to parties”) and as an authority figure who should be kept informed. She’s a mother who’s there for her children; nevertheless, the children can only get close to the father when their mother’s presence temporarily recedes. The children’s relationship with their father seems like the bitter remains of a divorce turned into war, one that forced the kids to be only with one parent at the time. It takes a good actors’ director — or two, in this case — to show how the father’s behavior improves and he regains control only when the mother’s presence is vanquished, when she is no longer allowed to intercede, whether through food or phone calls.
The mothers in Sugar Kisses (Besos de azúcar), veteran scenarist Carlos Cuarón’s second feature as director, are of a different kind — a very-easy-to-hate kind. Sugar Kisses is the story of star-crossed lovers Mayra and Nacho, both of them just 12 years old. Although they live in the same neighborhood — Mexico City’s Tepito market district — their circumstances are completely different. Nacho’s stepfather, Joao, (Enrique Arreola) owns a small stall where he sells bootleg DVDs; Nacho’s mother, Licha, (Paloma Arredondo) is a traffic cop. Nacho shares a bedroom with two stepbrothers and his stepfather’s mom. By contrast, Doña Leticia, Mayra’s mom, is a powerful widow who sells “protection” and collects bribes throughout the market. Mayra and Leticia live with Mayra’s older and abusive brother — as well as a huge “Santa Muerte” plaster figure.
Cuarón and Luis Usabiaga’s script restricts Doña Leticia to pure caricature. Even her nickname “La Diabla” (“The She-devil”) is a stereotype, and Leticia Falcón’s one-note performance doesn’t help to remedy the situation.
Nacho’s mother will never stand up for him, and instead perpetually caves in to her moronic husband’s whims. She remains passive as Joao threatens Nacho, beats him and locks him up as punishment for attempting to keep a camcorder he found during a police raid of their building.
Both mothers in Sugar Kisses deny their children the sort of basic protection one might expect from a mother. These mothers will believe anybody — lovers, other children — except Mayra and Nacho. Both mothers could be redeemed, but Cuarón has chosen to avoid the melodramatic path of crime and punishment in favor of something lighter, employing comedic touches, even when the story is clearly not moving towards a happy ending. The mothers will have a well-deserved punishment, but not onscreen. The melodrama is there, but Cuarón shies away from it, along with its inherent redemption. It seems like Cuaron’s idea of modernity is to avoid the heavy stuff at all cost — even if the heart is lost in the process.
Other examples of maternal presence and absence can be found in Last Call (Tercera llamada), the second feature from Mexican director Francisco Franco (no relation with the Spanish dictator). The film tells the story of a theater company assembling a fraught production of Calígula.
Four weeks before the premiere of Calígula, Issa (Karina Giddi), the director, changes her mind about the setting of the play — she opts for classical Rome instead of updating the tale to fascist Italy — and also, about the possibility of becoming a mother. She takes birth control pills without her partner Adrián’s (Martín Altomaro) knowledge, ostensibly for professional reasons, even though the chance of her becoming a mother will have no impact on the date set for opening night. Her role in the company is very much a maternal one — nurturing, protecting, dealing with tantrums — but she can’t cope with the notion of conceiving a child of her own.
Julia’s mother (Irene Azuela) — the actress playing the main role in the play — has only one scene, but everybody in the film talks about her. She has been a theater diva and is now a depressed addict. Her scene — with the wonderful actress Julieta Egurrola — conveys desperation and strong feelings for her daughter. She simultaneously represents a glorious past and the possibility of a dark future for her daughter. Issa mentions her, only as a tool to provoke a reaction from Julia. Does Julia fear comparisons with her mother? Is she as talented as her? Or merely as neurotic? Julia has her own issues to consider, but her immediate concerns seem to center around her mother’s stability.
In a subplot, Ceci’s mother (Mariana Treviño), the director’s assistant, is never seen, but she is used by Ceci to justify all of her distractions, until her mother has a real accident — off-screen — and is in need of her daughter.
In a film that’s mostly a comedy and a light homage to life in the theater, the mothers in Last Call, and the possibility of motherhood, have gravitas in the narrative. Isa and Adrián don’t have a fight until he discovers she has abandoned their plans for parenthood. Julia’s mother is the theatrical legend all actors aspire to reach, as does her daughter. The simple mentioning of her name sets the tone for the film’s dramatic second act. Ceci is sunny, smiling, and always helpful; her unnamed mother is the only cause for her despair and crying. These mothers serve to bring down to earth the airy discussions about vision and drama; they are the link to a reality much needed both in theater and in real life.
The whole female cast of Last Call won the Performance Award at the Guadalajara Film Festival — an award we could say is for mothers and daughters.
The mothers in Mexican Cinema are finally changing, and the possibility of being good or bad, weak or strong, beautiful or ugly, will give a new scope to Mexican cinema.
Edited by José Teodoro
© FIPRESCI 2013