By the '70s, as Hollywood kicked into high gear with commercial blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars, to the south, Mexican cinema was going in another direction. What had been a promising, shining industry, both artistically adventurous and financially solvent, began to sputter. Many of the films produced in Mexico during the '60s and '70s tended toward the trashy and trite, and there was little encouragement for interested filmmakers.
But, in 1982, President Miguel de la Madrid kicked off his difficult six-year tenure with a stroke of artistic flourish: Partly for economic reasons and partly for national pride, he aided the formation of the Mexican Film Institute and supported the growth of two film schools. It took nearly a decade for these institutions to produce noticeable results, but in 1992, Like Water for Chocolate jumped onto the screen as a sizzling success.
Picking up the magical realism from noted Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the film is based on a 1989 novel that holds a seductive romance at its core, and sets the Mexican Revolution and sumptuous cooking scenes as its backdrop. Like Water for Chocolate swept all 11 major awards at the Mexican Academy of Motion Pictures, and ruled American screens during the summer of 1992.
That success also was the starting gun for a renaissance in Mexican cinema, yet by the decade's end, the newly elected President Vicente Fox challenged public funding for the arts, and threatened to discontinue the Mexican Film Institute and close film schools.
Remarkably, those public attacks actually had the reverse effect: Domestic and international lobbying encouraged the Mexican Congress to rebuke Fox and, by 2004, the budget for the Mexican Film Institute had been doubled.
During that same time, Mexican film reached a new high point when, in 2000, Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También were released almost simultaneously. The common denominator of those two films is, of course, the handsome Gael García Bernal. Acting since a toddler, Bernal had been a poster boy from Mexican soap operas. But, cast by noted Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, he broke out of those melodramatic trappings when he starred in the gritty and brutal Amores Perros. With obvious parallels in style and storytelling to Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros weaves together three cruel and sun-bleached stories. (After Amores Perros success, Director Iñárritu moved to Hollywood and went on to direct 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) and Biutiful (2010).
Bernal's other film, Y Tu Mamá También hit the screens at the same time as Amores Perros. Much more gentle and emotionally touching, that film is a loosely wandering coming-of-age tale; at its core, Bernal's sexuality smolders.
Then, two years later, Bernal scored a trifecta when he starred in El Crimen del Padre Amaro (2002) and pulled contemporary Mexican cinema to another high point. Surprisingly, that film, which was partially funded by the Mexican Film Institute, head-on addressed the duplicities of Catholic life in Mexican culture—the tensions between desire and obedience, and between guilt and pleasure—as a priest struggles with a love affair and also takes drug money to finance charitable work.
Twenty years after Like Water For Chocolate's breakout success and 30 years after public reinvestment into filmmaking, cinema in Mexico has never been better.