Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was at home in Mexico City three years ago when the phone rang. "Hi, this is Sean Penn," said the voice at the other end. "I said, 'Sure, and I'm Marlon Brando'," the Mexican film director recalls. But as he soon realized, the caller really was Penn, phoning to congratulate him on his critically acclaimed feature debut, "Amores Perros." The two men became fast friends, and Gonzalez Inarritu later sent Penn a script written by his longtime collaborator, Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote "Amores Perros." "[Sean] called me every 20 minutes while he was reading it," says the 40-year-old filmmaker. "He was reacting like a kid; he kept calling to talk about the scene he'd just read." The end result is "21 Grams," a haunting tale of three star-crossed individuals featuring Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro that opens this week.
Gonzalez Inarritu is a hot property in Hollywood these days, and so are many of his compatriots. His friend and fellow Mexico City native Alfonso Cuaron is in England shooting the third Harry Potter installment, with Gary Oldman and Emma Thompson. The 24-year-old actor Gael Garcia Bernal, who starred in "Amores Perros" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien," will soon appear as Che Guevara in a movie about the Argentine revolutionary produced by Robert Redford's Southfork Pictures. The actress Salma Hayek won rave reviews last year for her Oscar-nominated film about the turbulent life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. These directors and actors are on the cutting edge of a new wave in Mexican cinema that has inspired comparisons with the evocative work of Quentin Tarantino and Ang Lee--and generated impressive box-office receipts around the world. "They're successful because they're tuned in to the most popular international filmmaking styles," says Carl Mora, a University of New Mexico lecturer and author of a book on the Mexican film industry. "[Hollywood] producers certainly see something in them."
And so do audiences--especially Mexican ones. Though the sheer number of U.S. blockbusters dwarfs local offerings, the biggest-grossing movies in Mexico for the past four years have been homegrown productions like Carlos Carrera's "El Crimen del Padre Amaro" (which starred Garcia Bernal in the title role) and Antonio Serrano's "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas." Some degree of commercial success may be inevitable, given the rising number of movies being made locally: the Mexican film industry produced nearly 30 movies last year, up sharply from eight in 2000 and just five in 1995. But they are also winning praise for their no-holds-barred, brutally realistic approach. Subjects that were long considered taboo are now fair game; "Padre Amaro," for example, tackled the philandering of Roman Catholic priests and the church's murky relationship with drug traffickers. "Today the doors are totally open in Mexican cinema," says Alfredo Ripstein, a veteran film producer. "We never used to be able to talk about sex or the church. It was all very repressed."
The greater cultural freedom coincides with the fall from power of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). During the party's 71-year reign, successive governments controlled movie ticket prices and closely monitored content. The defeat of the PRI in 2000 seemed to usher in a new era of democracy and freedom of expression, and the release of "Padre Amaro" bolstered those hopes. One anti-abortion group tried to organize a boycott of the movie, and Mexico's top cardinal, Norberto Rivera Carrera, blasted it as "garbage." But the assault backfired: drawn by the uproar as well as the hunky star power of Garcia Bernal, millions of Mexicans flocked to theaters--making "Padre Amaro" the country's highest-grossing film.
The newfound liberation is still fragile. Just last week President Vicente Fox's government proposed shutting down a state-run film school and the agency in charge of movie promotion and financing as part of a broader campaign to privatize the film industry. It also threatened to sell off the storied Churubusco Azteca Studios, which is to Mexico's film industry what Rome's Cinecitta has been to Italy's. The proposed cutbacks triggered howls of protest in the moviemaking community and aroused suspicions that Fox, the country's first openly devout Catholic president in nearly 100 years, was trying to appease a church hierarchy still smarting from the "Padre Amaro" debacle. "This attack is totally absurd," says Carrera, the movie's 41-year-old director, who received limited government financing for the project. "It just shows how ignorant they are."
If approved, the government spending cuts will surely accelerate the exodus of Mexican talent to El Norte. The directorial diaspora was set in motion in 1993 by Alfonso Arau's romantic fantasy, "Like Water for Chocolate," which set a U.S. box- office record for a foreign movie. After that, Mexican filmmakers became all the rage in studio boardrooms across Hollywood. Now they are just as likely to venture out on their own; Guillermo del Toro, the director of comic-book-inspired films like "Cronos," moved to Austin in the late 1990s and cofounded the Tequila Gang production company with Alfonso Cuaron and "Like Water for Chocolate" screenwriter Laura Esquivel.
No one has profited more from the current Mexican vogue than Cuaron and Gonzalez Inarritu. The script for "21 Grams" was originally written in Spanish, but--bolstered by the success of "Amores Perros"--Gonzalez Inarritu decided to switch languages "so I could have Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts." Cuaron, too, hit the jackpot on the strength of a small-budget gem, "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Though the 42-year-old director had already done two Hollywood films, "A Little Princess" and "Great Expectations," it was that exquisite coming-of-age film that landed him the coveted job of directing "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." His production budget--more than $100 million--is a far cry from the $450,000 it cost to produce his first feature, "Love in the Time of Hysteria," in 1991. Now based in New York, he has a bittersweet take on the state of the industry where he cut his teeth. "It's very hard to put films together in Mexico," Cuaron said last week from the "Harry Potter" set. "What is ironic is that at a time when there's all this attention being paid to Mexican cinema, the Mexican government is proposing to close all these institutions that support it." Like it or not, the next generation of Mexican filmmakers may have little choice but to follow him out of the country.