In keeping with the most defining trend in 21st century Mexican cinema, DramaMex weaves together two seemingly unrelated narratives and asks the viewer to infer meaning from juxtapositions like suicide and rape, beauty and desperation. Years ago, the same technique produced Iñarritu’s breakout films Amores Perros and 21 Grams. But today, even at the hands of Iñarritu himself, the narrative collage approach has lost its novelty and exposed its own limitations. With 2006’s Babel, for instance, the same director attempts to splice together what effectively could have been three separate short films. As a result, he ends up with three sets of underdeveloped characters and a film that feels self-consciously artsy.
Executive produced by Gael García Bernal, the young and handsome star of several of Iñarritu’s films, DramaMex borrows liberally from the repertoire of the elder filmmaker in all aspects of writing and production. In one plot thread, Fernanda, a beautiful and spoiled 20-something from touristy Acapulco, struggles with a strange addiction to sex, betrayal, and violence. In the other, a business person and father named Jaime, the depth of whose problems are only vaguely touched upon, ponders suicide in a beachside hotel room. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear reason as to why these two stories are told in conjunction, except for the painfully obvious fact that they’re both about troubled people in the same town.
But the film does have its merits as social commentary on a Mexican society very much under the spell of its telenovelas, or soap operas. The acting is over the top, embracing all the dramatics of daytime television, the only difference being that the producers of DramaMex don’t have to abide by the same regulations as the producers of network television shows (and during the disconcertingly violent sex scenes, they don’t let you forget it.) Make no mistake, DramaMex is a telenovela, albeit one that is filmed by some very thoughtful aestheticians. It’s not a quest for resolution, really, but a piece about being trapped in a cycle that can’t be broken and about learning to take solace in small pleasures. For these characters, those pleasures might be a Marlboro red or the company of an adolescent prostitute.
In Mexican cinema today, for better or for worse, the majority of protagonists seem to be the children of privilege, or niños fresas. To cite a couple of popular examples, Y tu mamá también and Por la libre tell the stories of privileged young people who end up interacting and learning something from “regular” Mexicans. Then there’s the overwhelmingly cheesy Romeo and Juliet adaptation, Amar te duele, which is about a love that society won’t allow to exist between an upper class Mexico City girl and a boy from, if you will, the other side of the tracks. All of these films point to the understated conclusion that the rich ought to be a little more respectful toward the working class. And by the time you get this lesson for the 10th time, you want to exclaim, “That’s obvious, Mr. Mexican Filmmaker from a Privileged Upbringing! Maybe you had to learn that lesson the hard way, but not me!”
DramaMex is, yes, another film about rich Mexican kids. But its conclusions are at least unique variations on the standard. For one thing, the film portrays classism as something so divisive that it even destroys the people at the top of the pyramid. Fernanda is ultimately so jaded by her life without responsibilities that she actually seeks out violent men and taunts them into hurting her physically.
On the flip side, Tigrillo, the adolescent prostitute that befriends Jaime, ends up saving the older man from his own trigger finger. While she clearly has problems of her own, Tigrillo knows how to manage them in a much more level-headed fashion than the erratic and violent protagonists Jaime and Fernanda. As a result, DramaMex turns out to be more than the cookie cutter Mexican drama that it at first seems.
It could have been so much, much more if the writer had only adapted a different narrative technique and offered a little more in the way of back-story. As it stands now, you see many of the characters naked without even getting to know them. It feels dirty. You can’t entirely blame filmmakers for wanting to continue in the tradition that catapulted Mexican cinema onto the International stage a decade ago. But if filmmakers like Iñarritu are going to produce work that some day might be considered on par with, say, Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labrynth), their storytelling methods need to evolve into something more sophisticated than what we see in DramaMex.