(Almost) a Mexican Family Film

Álex Perea in Zurdo

Álex Perea in Zurdo

Director: Carlos Salcés
Studio: Altavista Films
Mexico, 2003

Review by Martin Boyd

A series of internationally successful Mexican films over the past twenty years has led critics to speak of a Nuevo Cine Mexicano (“New Mexican Cinema”), a resurgence in Mexico’s film industry after decades of decline. With filmmakers like Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro as some of its most outstanding representatives, the movement is characterized by its dark overtones, with themes related to violence (Amores Perros), the drug trade (Rudo y Cursi), sexuality (Y tu mamá también) and the frankly grotesque (Pan’s Labyrinth), themes that are all quite popular in the world of arthouse cinema, but that don’t leave much room for the production of family films. In this context, a film like Zurdo, by Mexico City director Carlos Salces, whose protagonist is an 11-year-old with a skill for playing marbles, seems like a ray of light in the darkness for parents who want their children to see a little Mexican cinema to break up the Disney monotony. Unfortunately, in spite of many points in its favour, in the end Zurdo falls prey to the same fascination for bleak themes from which so many films of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano seem to suffer, and thus disqualifies itself as an ideal film for the whole family to enjoy.

Zurdo tells the story of Alejandro, nicknamed “Zurdo” (“Lefty”), an 11 year-old boy recognized by his neighbours as the best marbles player in his town, an imaginary and somewhat surreal location somewhere in Mexico called Buenaventura. When a stranger arrives in the town and challenges the boy to a duel with the so-called “Wizard of Santa María”, supposedly the best marbles player in the whole country, the residents of Buenavista rally around their young hero in the hope that his victory might change the fate of their impoverished and fractured town.

Buenaventura operates as a microcosm of Mexico today, with all the social problems that afflict it: social inequality, family breakdown, the corruption of the authorities and criminal gangs. These problems form a backdrop for the story of Zurdo and his young friends, whose childhood innocence is threatened and ultimately destroyed by the tragic social reality in which they live. In this respect, Salcés manages to create a clear division between the vivid and imaginative world of the children and the grey, desperate world of the adults. Indeed, it is the youngest actors in this film, and particularly the charismatic Álex Perea as Zurdo, who stand out for their excellent performances, while the adults in general seem stiff and one-dimensional, in spite of the presence of prominent Mexican actors like Eugenio Derbez and Aracelia Ramírez.

Another notable aspect of this film is its cinematography, which, in spite of the limited budget typical of a Mexican film, is characterized by extremely sharp and colourful imagery, particularly in the surrealistic scenes with gigantic marbles that come to life in Zurdo’s imagination. Indeed, it is through Zurdo‘s visual qualities that its director Carlos Salcés manages to brand the film with his own signature, a signature suggestive of a new, up-and-coming filmmaker. Unfortunately, however, this film appears to be one of the last that Salcés made.

But in spite of so much promise, Zurdo ultimately disqualifies itself as a Mexican family film thanks to an ending that is both grotesque and unconvincing. The confrontation between Zurdo’s uncle and the corrupt police officer (both of whom lack the complexity necessary to make us believe in them as characters) is trite and superficial, and in the end the film takes a turn for the grotesque in a culminating scene that seems to offer the moral that institutionalized corruption can best be overcome by means of self-mutilation.

In short, Zurdo has a lot going for it as an example of the best of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano, particularly in terms of its cinematography and the performance of its child actors. But ultimately, the same fascination of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano with shocking violence undermines its potential to be one of the few quality family films in contemporary Mexican cinema.

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