The bracing, beautifully made Mexican film, Güeros, is the kind of unabashed ode to cinema we rarely see on our screens these days (and when we do, the screens are usually small, and the audiences even smaller).
A winner of several 2014 Ariel awards, Mexico’s version of the Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography, Güeros is a sweet, shaggy road movie, albeit one that confines itself to the four corners of Mexico City. It combines a playful romance, a gestural nod to the country’s politics circa 1999 and a search for an elusive, cirrhotic folk singer.
Shot in black and white and boxed into a retro 4x3 frame, the picture is clearly nostalgic for the early films of the French New Wave. Godard’s Band of Outsiders and The Little Soldier are referenced, as is Truffaut’s freeze-frame ending to The 400 Blows. And then there is the shout-out to the D.A. Pennebaker documentary on Bob Dylan, Don’t Look Back.
But director Alonso Ruiz Placios stakes out his own stylistic flourishes as well. The movie is buoyed by a graceful, free-floating camera, a layered sound design, an appreciation for the interstitial sequence — a flurry of close-ups here, a panicky black-out there — and an eye tuned to the random encounter, the flux of life, in one of the world’s most vital, imposing cities.
The story, such as it is, follows a young teen, Tomás, after he is sent to Mexico City to live with his older brother, Sombra, a procrastinating grad student and his roommate, Santos. They meet up with Sombra’s sometime girlfriend, Ana (her striped sweater echoes Jean Seberg in Breathless; her black-haired bangs and dark pooled eyes a dead ringer for Anna Karina in Band of Outsiders) and embark on a semi-aimless search for old folkie Epigmenio Cruz, who once, as we are frequently told, “made Bob Dylan cry.” In the soft background of this odyssey a student-led protest occupies the central university, and these four urban middle class travelers puzzle over the meaning of the moments they encounter.
Güeros, which means a blonde or light-skinned person, is both an unapologetic paean to the art and craft of cinematic device, and an acknowledgement of the gulf between Mexican art house cinema made for the critical intelligentsia — where poverty porn usually rules — and the popularity of dumbed-down fare for the masses. It doesn’t make an impassioned stand for or against either genre. It is content to amuse itself with a buoyant, casual awareness of the many lost generations that drift through a society. It’s also too easy to overpraise a film that dazzles like this one, but what the hell: Güeros is easily one of the best films of the year.
This review first appeared in The Restless Critic blog.