Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro: The Rise of the Mexican Director

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Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro: The Rise of the Mexican Director

As the confetti settles, the champagne loses its bubbles and the end of the day passes on the 90th Academy Awards, another Mexican director scores big in Hollywood.

“I am an immigrant, like Alfonso and Alejandro my compadres…”

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro spoke these words, as he accepted the award for Best Director. At the after party, the Guadalajara-born del Toro posed with “compadre” Alejandro Iñárritu, as they celebrated a victory for the filmmaker, for the fantasy genre, and for Mexican cinema alike.

In winning the award for The Shape of Water, the master of gothic-horror joins fellow directors Alfonso Cuarón and Iñárritu as one of the three Mexican directors who have won four out of the last five Oscars for Best Director.

Cuarón won the prestigious award for his movie Gravity, a film which made $723 million in worldwide box office in 2014. Following that, Iñárritu took home the gold two consecutive years, winning in 2015 for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (elevating Iñárritu to the elite ranks of directors who have won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same film) and then the following year for his survivalist-western The Revenant (a film which also gave Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar win).

Cuarón, Iñárritu and del Toro (the holy trinity for Mexican cinephiles like myself) represent a resurgence, a revival of an elevated Mexican cinema not seen since the days of Pedro Fernandez. Since the early ’80s, Mexican movies have been dominated by stereotypes of slapstick comedians, over-the-top “telenovelas” or man-child womanizer tropes. And while those elements still remain a large part of the film industry and cinematic culture coming out of Mexico City, there is a powerful movement led by these three directors that is both Mexican in its identity, yet operates solely outside its country of origin’s borders. In a way, what defines the new “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema is that it isn’t happening in Mexico at all.

Del Toro left the country in 1993 after the release of his classic vampire film Cronos. During its production, kidnappers took del Toro’s father, Federico del Toro, and held him ransom for the sum of $1-million. Following the traumatic event and encouraged by his father’s safe release, del Toro moved him and his family out of Mexico. It would be 17 years before the director felt safe to go back to his beloved homeland.

In a similar manner, though for different reasons , Iñárritu left Mexico, moving to Los Angeles after the release of his classic dog-fighting movie, Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch). Cuarón, the first Mexican to win Best Director, has also become an expatriate of Mexico, residing in London since 2000 and filming most of his work in either Europe or the United States. Whether due to concerns for the safety of the directors and their families, or the lack of economic security in Mexico, the biggest names in Mexican cinema are living outside its borders. Still each of these expatriate Mexican directors carry their identity with them wherever they go. Using their platform to promote social awareness that benefits their countrymen. Iñárritu, for instance, during his acceptance speech for Best director in 2015, called for the dignified treatment of his compatriots, who are stigmatized in the United States because of their origin, and for “a president that Mexico deserves.”

But the fact that the new Golden Age of Mexican cinema is happening outside of Mexico isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In fact it gives these directors both cultural and mainstream significance. Unlike the Latin Grammys or any other form of Latino media that’s only relevant to a Spanish-speaking audience, del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu can now reach a much larger audience, writing and directing stories that speak to a human condition rather than just limiting their work to Mexican or Spanish speakers.

While these three directors can be seen as the leaders of this movement, they are not the only Mexican filmmakers to making their mark in Hollywood. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who works closely with Iñárritu and has three Oscars himself, is often described as the best photographer of our time; Rodrigo Prieto, who shot The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo and Brokeback Mountain; and production designer Eugenio Caballero who has an Oscar for his work in del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, are all leaders in their respective fields.

In fifty years, we’ll be looking back at these fearless creators as pioneers of the craft. (Indeed, that’s already the case for some.) They’ve opened the floodgates for younger generations of outsiders to make it to Hollywood and tell the stories they want to tell without being pigeon-holed in tired comedic tropes, or Casanova roles. Much like the stories they tell, these filmmakers inspire us. They make us believe that no matter where you come from, the obstacles you face or the systematic belittling of the career path in which you find yourself, there’s nothing that can stop you from achieving your dream. As del Toro said, holding his trophy at this last Academy Awards. “This is the door. Kick it open, and come in.”

Abdiel Vallejo-Lopez is a graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta, and has been writing for Paste since January 2018.