Dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios. Mexico. 2014

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Set in 1999 against a backdrop of student protests, Güeros is a road movie that becomes a voyage of discovery for three rootless young people seeking to bridge the gap between aimlessness and social purpose. The debut feature film by Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios received twelve nominations at the 57th Ariel Awards, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars, winning five of them including Best Film, Best Director, Best First Film, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography (Damian Garcia). Shot in black-and-white, the film is evocative of the French New Wave, balancing highly structured sequences with segments of spontaneous and playful improvisation.

In the film, Tomas (Sebastian Aguirre), a disruptive pre-teen in Veracruz is sent by his overburdened mom to Mexico City to live with his brother Federico (Tenoch Huerta), a slacker college student known as Sombra because of his dark skin. Tomas is called a “güeros” because of his lighter complexion underscoring an element of racial conflict in Mexican society. Living with his similarly uninvolved roommate, Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) in an apartment complex in Copilco that looks as if it’s next on the waiting list for demolition, Sombra’s position on the student strike is firmly in the middle, saying that he is “on strike against the strike.” His daily activity consists of …well, nothing much. He and Santos sit around watching TV by borrowing an electrical cord from a little girl downstairs, an action that does not sit too well with the girl’s father.

Bored, Tomas decides that a little adventure never hurt anyone and comes up with a plan to find Epigmiento Cruz, an enigmatic folk singer from the sixties who their father loved in order to have him sign their well-worn cassette tape. Cruz is symbol of something bigger than them, a larger than life hero who can make them see what’s behind things as Sombra says, “If you can see behind things, the only thing they can’t take away from you is that feeling.” Though the singer is rumored to be sick or dying, little güerito tells Fede that Cruz “once made Bob Dylan cry,” presumably an accomplishment worthy of a place in the hall of fame. The trip, according to Ruizpalacios, was inspired by Bob Dylan’s journey to visit an ailing Woody Guthrie in the hospital during the late 50s.

Shrugging off a panic attack which is carefully explained to him at the hospital, Sombra visits the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) where students are on strike to show their disagreement with the administration’s decision to instate an enrollment fee even though the University had always been free. Sombra, Santos, and Tomas walk into an auditorium overflowing with protestors listening to Sombra’s former girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas) speaking in front of the room. The scene is filled with shouting and confrontation, a chaotic depiction not to the liking of some former protesters who complained about the unserious tone of the segment. As Ana joins the trio to look for Cruz, their quest leads them to a pool party where well-to-do intellectuals muse about the sorry state of Mexican cinema.

Here the film engages in a sort of self-parody as one director complains that all Mexican movies deliver a picture of impoverished beggars to satisfy Western audiences at film festivals. Sombra also chimes in, saying that Mexicans are often portrayed as cheaters, atheists, prostitutes and alcoholics. Güeros ultimately takes many detours and shifts of perspective but, though it is episodic in structure, never loses its footing as the search for the legendary Epigmiento allows the seekers to move from a place of apathy to one of self-acceptance and commitment.

Ruizpalacios describes the film’s central theme as “the change from being static to being in movement. Healing through movement.” However you interpret Güeros’ message, the film has an invigorating appeal: fresh, playful, and meaningful, even suggesting at one point that the seeming randomness of life is guided by divine purpose. Sombra says at one point that “If the world is a train station and the people are the passengers, those who stay at the station and watch the trains go by are the poets, the ones who come and won’t go.” Tomas is one who watches the trains depart, seeing as we all have once with the innocent eyes of discovery as the city unfolds before his eyes with all its massive contradictions, encompassing the best and worst of humanity.


Howard Schumann

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