The film’s young male protagonists, Tenoch and Julio are just leaving high school and embarking on their adult life; they spend their time getting drunk, taking drugs, having sex and “whacking off”.Whenthey meet an attractive older woman, Luisa, at a family wedding they flirt with her and invite her to come on atripto the beach with them. Luisa, in her late twenties, is married to Tenoch’s cousin Juno and, although she doesn’t take the invitation seriously at first, when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful she takes the boys up on their offer. The trio travel through the Mexican countryside en route to the mythical Heaven’s Mouth.
On the surface Y tu mamá también is a stylish road movie. Whilst the film borrows from the Hollywood genre, it does not employ a classical Hollywood style. Y tu mamá también has a distinctly documentary feel, employing long takes and fluid camera moves, which follow the action mostly in wide shots. The opening shot of the film, which shows Tenoch and his girlfriend Ana having sex before Ana heads off to Italy for the summer is more than two minutes long and in the bar scene towards the end of the film there is one take of over seven minutes. The use of this technique puts great pressure on the actors to deliver authentic performances. Luna (Tenoch) and Bernal (Julio) had worked together several times before and knew each other as children and so were very much at ease with one another from the outset, but they did not know Verdú (Luisa) who came over from Spain to shoot the film. To facilitate veracity in the performances, director Alfonso Cuarón shot the main action of the film in chronological order so that the development of relationships on screen was reflected in the developing relationships between the actors, who became more comfortable with one another as shooting progressed.1
Cuarón has asserted that context and character are equally important in the film.2 Julio and Tenoch are self-absorbed and pay little attention to what is happening around them and so the social and cultural context of the story is brought to the audience through use of a wandering camera and voiceover. The context is a society in a state of flux. Mexico underwent rapid change in the late 1990s, largely instigated by the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the wake of the agreement, new prosperity generated by increased trade with the US was concentrated in wealthy cities and Mexico experienced intense urbanisation, which placed pressure on rural communities and increased the inequities in society. In 2000 a new right wing government was elected ending the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). This broader narrative is revealed when the camera moves away from the main action of the film and follows events, which are seemingly irrelevant to the main story. So at the family wedding the camera follows a tray of leftover food being carried to the car park where it is shared among the bodyguards and, on a rural road the camera leaves the car to dwell on a group of peasants being ‘hassled’ by the police. Using the camera in this way also reinforces the veracity of the action, giving the impression that the viewer is happening upon events rather than viewing scenes set up for the camera.
Diversions from the main story are often used to disclose inequalities in societal structure and the displacement of people in the face of economic progress. This occurs not just through the distracted camera but also in the use of voiceover. For example, in voiceover we are told that the lifestyle of the family who take Julio, Tenoch and Luisa on a boat tour around the bay of Heaven’s Mouth will be lost due to the building of a tourist resort and in the city we are told that the cause of a traffic jam is an accident in which a migrant worker was killed whilst taking a short cut across a busy road because of a poorly positioned pedestrian bridge. The delivery of the voice-over is deadpan, without emotion, and it deals with very specific and detailed facts; we are told exact lengths of time, amounts of money and distances, so that it sounds like a news report. It also often cuts into the soundtrack silencing the diegetic sound. The effect of this is to distance the audience from the central narrative and to create a reflective space to consider the wider context of what we are seeing.
Mexico is presented as a class-riven society and class is an important factor in the relationship between Tenoch and Julio. Tenoch is from an upper-middle-class family and this is made clear through the camera’s exploration of his palatial home and the lavish family wedding. On one occasion we see Tenoch’s Nanny bringing him a sandwich from the kitchen. The journey to Tenoch is lengthy, she hands over the sandwich and he barely acknowledges her. She then answers the phone (that has been ringing for a while and is right next to Tenoch) and hands it to him. Tenoch is clearly comfortable being served by others. Julio, by contrast lives in a modest apartment in a built-up part of town. The camera takes us on a tour of the apartment and shows us the view from the window, while the voice-over tells us that Julio lives with his single mother. The friendship between Julio and Tenoch seems unfettered by this difference in status; however, when tensions develop between the boys the insults they throw at one another are bound up in class prejudice. One of the central themes of the film is the search for identity.3 The boys are finding their identity as adults, Luisa is finding her identity as a free woman, and Mexico is finding its identity as a ‘grown-up country’.
Throughout the film, Luisa’s sadness is contrasted with the youthful exuberance of Julio and Tenoch. They are carefree and self-absorbed, interested only in having sex and getting high. In one scene this contrast takes place within a single frame: we see Luisa through the window in the telephone booth crying whilst on the phone to Juno, and next to the window in a mirror we see the reflection of Julio and Tenoch playing table football. Luisa develops throughout the film from a lonely wife whose husband is unfaithful, to a liberated and assertive woman. We learn near the beginning of the film that she has received the results of some medical tests but it is not fully revealed until the end that she has terminal cancer.4 However, reminders of death follow her through the film as the trio pass by crosses and a funeral procession on the side of the road, and an old woman gives her a toy mouse that belonged to her dead granddaughter. Luisa’s terminal illness is an additional motivation for taking the road trip that gives her journey greater import.
The boys are clearly attracted to Luisa from the start. She adopts a motherly tone with them but then seduces Tenoch when he comes to her room to borrow some shampoo. This sexual encounter, which is observed by Julio, is the start of tension between the two ‘Charolastras’, 5 and Julio then tells Tenoch that he has slept with his girlfriend. Luisa then sleeps with Julio seemingly in an attempt to even things up, but it just makes the situation worse and the relationship between the boys deteriorates until Luisa takes charge and sets out her own rules for the trip. The sex within the film is passionate but not romanticised. The boy’s inept fumblings are comic and sweet, but ultimately unsatisfying for Luisa who reverts to mothering them in the aftermath.
In the climax of the road trip, Luisa seduces both boys placing them in a sexual encounter with one another. The sexual potential in their relationship is alluded to throughout the film, (we see them masturbating together at the swimming pool and chasing one another around the shower after Tenoch comments that Julio has ‘one ugly dick’), but when sex becomes a reality the boys head back to the city and stop being friends. While Luisa is the catalyst for the break-up of their relationship, she is not the reason for it. The film presents this outcome as almost inevitable. The boys are from different strata of Mexican society and will follow different paths. When they bump into each other in the city and go for a coffee some time later, it is clear that they have now taken their predestined places in the adult world. Tenoch has given up dreams of writing and capitulated to his father’s wishes to study economics and Julio is studying biology at college. The voiceover tells us they will never meet again and the final words in the film are Julio’s, asking for the bill.
Although Cuarón asserts that the film does not make political points and is merely observing developments within Mexico, there is a clear indication that progress comes at a cost, which will be paid by the poor and powerless. The film can also be interpreted as an allegory of the role of Spain within Mexico. Luisa Cortéz is Spanish and the boys first encounter her at a family wedding held in a bullring emphasising the influence of Spanish culture within Mexico. She is clearly portrayed as an outsider; on several occasions she asks the boys to translate their slang phrases and has a tourist’s interest in the culture of the people they encounter on their road trip. She is also named after the Spanish conqueror of Mexico6 and is from the outset a ‘contaminated’ character;7 she has a terminal cancer that remains hidden from the boys until her death is revealed after the trip. Her presence disrupts their friendship, she lures them into sexual transgression and order is only restored once she is gone. However, in this restored order, although sexual conformity returns, a new social conformity also emerges as Tenoch and Julio end their inter-class friendship and take their places in the adult world.
1. The film was shot chronologically except for the final scene in the café which was shot first. At this point in the film, the friendship between Julio and Tenoch is over.
2. See Alfonso Cuaron, ‘Interview’, Y tu mamá también (2001) DVD Extras.
4. The door of the consulting room is closed to the camera as the doctor gives her the news literally shutting out the audience. 5
. Julio and Tenoch dub themselves ‘Charolastra’, which means astral cowboy. The small band of ‘Charolastras’ have a Manifesto which includes not sleeping with one another’s girlfriends.
6. Names have significance within the film: Julio Zapata is named after a Mexican revolutionary and Tenoch is given an Aztec name by his politician father who was ‘affected by a sudden nationalism’ in the year he was born.
7. See E. Hind, ‘Post NATFA Mexican Cinema 1998–2002’, in Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, Vol. 23, University of Texas Press, 2004, pp. 95–111.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Mexico. Production Company: Anhelo Producciones, Besame Mucho Pictures. Producer and Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Screenwriters: Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos Cuarón. Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor: Alfonso Cuarón, Alex Rodríguez. Cast: Diego Luna (Tenoch Iturbide), Gael García Bernal (Julio Zapata), Maribel Verdú (Luisa Cortéz).]
Jeff Menne, ‘A Mexican Nouvelle Vague: The Logic of New Waves under Globalization’, Cinema Journal 47, No 1, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 70–92.
Laura Podalsky, ‘The Young, the Damned and the Restless: Youth in Contemporary Mexican Cinema’, Framework 49, No 1, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2008, pp. 144–60.
María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, ‘In the Shadow of NATFA: Y tu mamá también Revisits the National Allegory of Mexican Sovereignty’, American Quarterly Vol. 57, Issue 3, 2005, pp. 751–78.
Paul Julian Smith, ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, Sight and Sound, Vol. 12, Issue 4, 2002, pp. 16–19.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.