Güeros is the story of a search without an object, and it offers an approach to making political art that dwells not in the illusion of authenticity, but in the real dissonance of complexity.
* * *
Alonso Ruizpalacios’s debut film Güeros (2014) was heralded at European and North American festivals long before it was even released in the director’s native Mexico. This direction of travel leads to an interesting comparison with his fellow countrymen Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, who have garnered major plaudits in pursuing more illustrious venues overseas. One wonders what Ruizpalacios’s protagonists might make of Güeros’s success, though. At one point on their dazzling road trip through Mexico City they gatecrash some filmmaker’s luxurious party only to find themselves excluded. Sitting on the steps outside the kind of chic bar we might find in Paris or New York, our heroes lament the way their national cinema prostitutes itself for worldwide acclaim, playing out violent grotesques of Mexican society or pretentious art house films that are inevitably shot in black and white. Ruizpalacios and his scriptwriters are far too sharp to let this comment pass without a punch line, though: Güeros is shot entirely in black and white.
It is exactly this sense of irony that ultimately allows the film to transcend its own characters’ criticisms. Despite all its antics, this is a work that is profoundly engaged not just with Mexican society, but with film’s relationship with that society. It takes seriously the game of otherness. The Spanish word “güero” (meaning white or fair-haired) usually has a derogatory inflection in Mexican slang, and the characters constantly accuse one another of being güeros, playing out an endless anxiety about class and identity that is analogous to the film’s wider play with ideas of authenticity. As our band of heroes drift around Mexico City, looking for a mysterious folksinger from the 1960s, one odyssey distorts the meaning of the preceding one, and we find ourselves searching for something that only becomes more elusive the longer the search goes on. What is really liberating, for a European audience at the very least, is that this offers us a version of Mexico unlike any we have seen on screen before.
Beyond the opening scene of the latest James Bond film, Sicario was perhaps 2015’s major mainstream “Mexican” film. The action thriller, directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, follows the story of an undercover group of FBI agents as they are sent into Ciudad Juárez. This is clearly a very different story to Güeros, but the films’ narrative similarities are revealing. In both, the car functions as a vital plot device. The vast majority of Sicario is played out in SUVs and military patrol cars. As the protagonists negotiate the vast American landscape in their armored vessels, we see all manner of violence inflicted. There are torture scenes and hostage situations played out in the back of unmarked cars, while one of the key action sequences occurs on a crowded highway where a local gang is massacred in broad daylight. The car effectively becomes an insurgent fortress, protecting our heroes from the strange and awful country portrayed beyond their bulletproof windows.
Güeros is a similarly perverse take on the road movie, insofar as its characters fail to ever leave their city, despite spending a great deal of the film in their car. Inevitably, we find an equivalent highway scene, though the threat at play here is more philosophically than physically existential. Stuck in traffic, and perhaps slightly bored of each other, our heroes stop to ask if anyone would miss them if they were dead. In reply, they simply stop driving, and we’re given a slow panning shot from above the highway, revealing them holding up traffic amid the cacophony of car horns that accompany their actions. In both films the car is central to the narrative, but Sicario’s fleet of vehicles moves the story toward its violent and inevitable end, keeping the heroes entirely free of their surroundings, while in Güeros the battered old car becomes a more generative point of departure. The difference between the films is not rooted in genre, but in their essentially different approaches to Mexico as a setting. Sicario simply drives through it, while Güeros detours within it.
The distinction does not make one film a more authentic representation of Mexico than the other, but it is precisely what makes Güeros a more interesting film. Despite its chaotic action scenes, Sicario exhibits a gratuitous sense of narrative realism. Güeros, a far less spectacular film, focuses on daily life in Mexico while delighting in itself as cinema. As such it slips beyond the clichés of national stereotypes. What has been highlighted as the film’s debt to the Nouvelle Vague is simply a misdiagnosed reference to the fact that the older movement shares this sense of ecstasy in form. Güeros constantly plays with meaning as it shifts in style. Characters begin anecdotes and monologues only to segue into something else entirely. We travel through stylish parties and dive bars, student protests and zoos, as Mexico City becomes an impossible collage of modernity. Güeros ultimately transcends the merely political with a sense of wonder, while a film like Sicario can only present a sense of the political that is wholly nihilistic.
There is an interesting dilemma that develops from Güeros’s joy riding, though, which the protagonists would certainly recognize. Sombra, the film’s central character, has abandoned his studies and the student protest movement his peers are so invested in. His aloof rejection of politics can be read as a petit-bourgeois form of apathy that would perhaps warrant the epithet of “güero.” The film is so closely aligned with Sombra’s point of view, though, that the protest, which is based on real events, is represented as a carnivalesque satire once our heroes finally drift toward it. Other characters deride Sombra’s apathy, and we come to respect them for their commitment, but ultimately they are fleeting figures in a film full of such apparitions. In refusing to focus on an “authentic” social reality, the film might be charged with taking none of it seriously, be it poverty or politics, violence or death. In a year when Mexico’s violence problems have been well documented, it could make even a film like Sicario seem engaged by comparison.
However, if the film can be criticized for being apolitical, then we might well ask why it has an obligation to engage with the political at all. Sicario ultimately uses explicitly political situations to make entertainment, which is a failure of a different kind. What’s more interesting is that, in comparison to a particular type of comedy from north of the border, like those by Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, marked by a similar delight in style and irony, Güeros is implicitly political. Again the art is in the detour. Güeros is the story of a search without an object, and it offers an approach to making political art that dwells not in the illusion of authenticity, but in the real dissonance of complexity. The film ends once the student protest, finally erupting into its critical moment, forces the car to stop, literally unable to go any further now that crowds of people have taken to the streets. Sombra joins the protest looking for his friend as he disappears on another odyssey. Whether this signifies a lasting commitment to his peers’ political engagement is beside the point; it is the movement toward and within it that is important, not the destination.