Box office hits, prizes buoy Mexican cinema

With wildly popular comedies and hard-hitting dramas, Mexican cinema is enjoying a banner year that has brought prestigious prizes and broken box office records.

Somber subjects such as drug violence and immigration have inspired art films and won critical acclaim, while audiences have flocked to see comic takes on elitism and single-parenthood in Mexico.

While they differ in style, the films are all made by young filmmakers in their 30s and 40s with modest budgets who tell stories rooted in modern-day Mexican life.

"Instructions Not Included" -- a comedy about a playboy from Acapulco whose life is upended when an old fling leaves a baby on his doorstep -- has stood out by becoming the most successful ever Spanish-language film in US movie theaters.

Last weekend, the film directed by popular Mexican comic Eugenio Derbez, who plays the leading role, shattered Mexico's box office record with 8.7 million moviegoers and earning more than $27 million.

The mark had been set just months earlier by another comedy directed by Gary Alazraki, "Nosotros Los Nobles" ("We are the Nobles"), which tells the tale of a wealthy businessman who fools his spoiled children into a life of poverty to change their ways.

While the comedies have raked in millions, more serious films have picked up awards in Europe.

Last weekend, Fernando Eimbcke won the best director award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain for "Club Sandwich," a minimalist movie about the relationship between a mother and her teenage son.

"In every festival around the world now, you see two, three or four interesting Mexican films," Eimbcke said before his victory in the most important film competition in the Hispanic world.

Cartels and immigration

His success came just five months after two Mexican movies won prizes at the Cannes film fest.

Amat Escalante won the best director nod in Cannes for "Heli," the story of a young girl who falls in love with a police cadet against the backdrop of Mexico's drug cartel violence.

And director Diego Quemada-Diez won the prize known as A Certain Talent for his film "La Jaula de Oro," using amateur actors to tell the odyssey of teenagers desperate to cross into the United States.

"There is a rebirth of neo-realist cinema in Mexico with much riskier films that are in direct contact with reality, which is powerful," Quemada-Diez told AFP.

Quemada-Diez and Escalante, whose mentor Carlos Reygadas won the 2012 Cannes best director prize for his film "Post Tenebras Lux" are part of a movement toward movies that delve into tough social issues and use non-linear storytelling.

This new generation of filmmakers follows in the footsteps of a trio that went on to build Hollywood careers: Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros," "Babel").

"If there is a new wave in Mexican cinema, it's something that maybe we can't see in the present time, but there is a snowball effect taking us to a more optimistic outlook," said Mariana Chenillo, who won the best director prize at the Moscow film festival for her 2008 dark comedy "Nora's Will."

Laughs vs dramas

While the dramas have won critical acclaim, it is Mexican comedies like "Nosotros Los Nobles" and "Instructions Not Included" that have won over audiences in a country where local cinema has struggled.

"La Jaula de Oro," for instance, will only be screened in Mexico in February 2014.

Only 21 percent of films shown in the country's theaters are Mexican productions despite fiscal benefits offered by the government to companies that finance movies.

"Mexican cinema is facing a contradiction, because art films that win festival prizes get little attention from the public, while those that don't win awards get an incredible response, bigger than in other periods," said film critic Leonardo Garcia Tsao, a former head of Cineteca, the national film institute.

"Instructions Not Included" was even able to surpass del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" in the United States, a phenomenon attributed to the growing Hispanic population north of the border.

Monica Lozano, producer of the Derbez comedy, said entering the US market is complex.

"It is something that must be conquered, and ideally the occasional thing like 'Los Nobles' or 'Instructions Not Included' can become something regular," she said.