Right off the bat, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “Güeros” captures
three superlatives from this reviewer: Best debut feature I’ve seen in the last
year, best Mexican film in recent memory, and best (black and white)
cinematography since Pawel Pawlikowski’s equally stunning but very different
Lauded at numerous international film festivals since it
debuted last year at Berlin (where it won Best First Feature), the offbeat comedy
might also be called the most creative recent engagement with the cinematic
past, especially the French New Wave, but that’s a subject that deserves both
explication and rumination, so let’s start with the basics.
The year is 1999. Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is a teenage
troublemaker who lives in Veracruz with his mother, whom he’s driving crazy.
One day, when he drops a water bomb off a roof and it hits a harried woman and
her baby, mom decides she can’t take it any more and sends the boy to stay with
his older brother, Federico, a.k.a. Sombra (Tenoch Huerta), a college student
in Mexico City.
“Güeros” is a film of running jokes, and one concerns the
siblings’ skin colors. The word “güeros,” a derogatory slang term meaning
something like “paleface” or “whitey,” applies to fair-skinned Tomás. Sombra
(the nickname means “shade”) is dark, meanwhile. That practically everyone they
meet seems to remark on this difference is never explained, but that somehow makes it ever
When Tomás arrives in Mexico City, he finds his bro holed up in
his incredibly filthy high-rise dorm room with his roommate and partner in
slackerdom Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris). At night, they live by candlelight, if
that, because there’s no electricity. Daytime, they sometimes cadge power via a
cord supplied by their downstairs neighbors’ mentally challenged daughter.
Santos and Sombra are nominally students, but they’re not in
class because their school is on strike. So why aren’t they out demonstrating?
“We’re on strike from the strike,” they explain. In other words, they’re
completely inert and disengaged, living on fumes and not interested in doing
Ironically, it’s the arrival of young screw-up Tomás that
injects some motion into their lives. The boy idolizes a legendary Mexican
rock’n’roll pioneer named Epigmeneo Cruz (Alfonso Charpener), whose music he
listens to on a battered cassette handed down from his and Sombra’s absent
father. When Tomás learns that Cruz is reportedly near death at a hospital in
the city, he persuades Sombra and Santos that they must find him and pay their
That, plus the fact that their downstairs neighbor wants to
beat their asses for stealing his power, propels the guys out onto the highway
in their shitty clunker, on an odyssey that takes them through many cul de sacs
and wrong turns but also includes a stop at their embattled university.
Here, the film’s desultory pacing and whimsical mood give
way to something much more electrifying: a university in the tumult of
revolution. The situation is both dramatically and thematically important, so
it’s worth quoting Ruizpalacios’ words on it.
“In April 1999,” he wrote, “the Universidad Nacional
Autónoma de México (UNAM) students began to strike to show their disagreement
with the administration’s decision to instate an enrollment fee even though the
University had always been free….What started as a symbol of dissidence (it
turned out to be the biggest movement since the 1968 student strikes) finished
as an existential crisis for many involved. Before long, social disparities
began to surface within the student movement, causing distance between people
who were involved. A lot people found themselves not only without a university,
but without a purpose in life, no beliefs, nowhere to belong.
“’Güeros,’” he continued, “is actually two movies in one. On
one hand, it is a portrait of this particular stage in Mexico’s history. On the
other…it is an exploration of Mexican youth who are not able to feel at ease in
their own country.”
This double purpose is a fascinating concept on the thematic
level, and it has a corollary on the formal level that gives the film’s
specifically Mexican social and historical concerns a universal cinematic
reach. For, just as the story implicitly looks from the student activism of the
moment (particularly related to the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero
state last year) back toward the ‘60s brand via 1999 (when issues of identity
politics began to intrude), so do the film’s filmic references harken back
toward such films as Godard’s “Breathless” and other ‘60s classics, but through
the prism of more recent works such as “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Slacker” and
That scheme of references may sound a bit dense on paper,
but it helps explain why the film’s New Wave evocations come across not as
static or precious idolatry (as purely aesthetic tributes tend to make them)
but as part of an active, challenging dialectic that involves both politics and
movies. In a sense, “Güeros” asks the viewer what the ‘60s were worth, in terms
of its innovative popular art and its
political radicalism—which of course were completely intertwined. Yet it
doesn’t assume there are any clear-cut or easy answers. If the film comes at us
with a heady appreciation for both the movies and revolutionary impulses of
1968, it does so with a witty circumspection that admits that their value has
been continually amended and complicated by more recent developments.
And while Ruizapalacios has admitted other influences
ranging from Ozu to Fellini to Monte Hellman, the New Wave does seem to be his
pole star. You get that in the film’s focus on marginal, quasi-hipster
characters; its self-reflexivity and cascade of cinematic and pop-culture nods;
its winningly naturalistic performances, jerky, stop-start plotting and
geographic peregrinations (the director has called it a road movie about Mexico
City); and, most especially, in Damián Garcia’s exultant camerawork, which has a
fluid, observant lyricism worthy of ace New Wave lensman Raoul Coutard.
In one sense, the film is a great lark, a dizzy road trip
with some entertaining knuckleheads, both light-skinned and dark. Yet it also
manages to be a movie with some serious things on its mind, for those who want to think about what it’s saying. More than perhaps any other country, Mexico has
lobbed some real cinematic intelligence onto the world stage in recent years.
“Güeros” continues that salutary tradition. A sly, insouciant masterpiece, it
marks Alonso Ruizpalacios as a talent to watch.