Review by Martin Boyd
It is no secret to most Mexicans that the central issue underlying all the turmoil that has affected their country in recent years – from the violence of the so-called “drug war” to the teacher protests that have brought Mexico City to a standstill on several occasions this year – is the growing gap between rich and poor. The Mexican economy has expanded considerably in recent decades to turn the country into one of the world’s economic superpowers; nevertheless, only a select group of Mexicans have benefited from the revenues earned from the country’s increasing productivity. Mexico’s economic inequality has led many commentators to speak of the emergence of “two Mexicos”, “one that is the beneficiary of neoliberal globalization, and the other that receives scarcely a few drops of the wealth that is created” (Agustín Basave, El Universal).
In cultural terms, the first of these two Mexicos is reflected in the phenomenon of the “fresa” (lit. “strawberry”), the slang term used in Mexico to refer to wealthy young Mexicans who are characterized as superficial and self-obsessed, highly knowledgeable on the latest fashions from the United States and keen to mimic the lifestyle of Hollywood’s rich and famous, but completely ignorant of and cut-off from the social reality of their own country.
These “fresas” are the target of Gaz Alazraki’s entertaining social satire, Nosotros los Nobles. The familiarity of the fresa stereotype in Mexico is reflected in the fact that the film, released in Mexican movie theatres earlier this year, quickly became the biggest box office success in Mexican cinema history. The film follows the ups and downs of the Nobles, a very wealthy family living in Mexico City. The father, millionaire businessman Germán Noble (played by the accomplished Mexican actor Gonzalo Vega), has suddenly become aware that his three children, all now grown up, are showing little sign of maturity. The eldest, Javier (Luis Gerardo Mendez), works as an executive in his father’s company, but his contributions to the business are limited to proposing outlandish projects (like a home-delivery gasoline service) or using the company jet to take his friends on a drink-fest to Miami. His other son, Carlos (Juan Pablo Gil) is a lazy pseudo-bohemian who is expelled from university following an affair with a professor. And his daughter, Bárbara (Karla Souza), whose nickname “Barbie” tells you a lot about the depth of her personality, plans to marry “Peter”, a failed businessman with international pretensions (although he speaks with a marked Spanish accent, he is in fact from Puebla) who hopes that his marriage into the Noble family will resolve his financial problems.
In an effort to teach them a lesson, Germán deceives his three children into believing that they have lost their entire fortune. The family moves out of their luxurious mansion and into a tiny run-down house in a humble neighbourhood and the three children are forced to go out and work for a living. Javier finds a job driving a bus, Carlos gets work as a bank teller, and Bárbara finds herself working as a waitress in a cheap restaurant. As they struggle to put bread on the table and fix up the dilapidated house, the three fresas finally get a shocking taste of how the other 99% live, while their father has an awakening of his own as he begins to realize that his obsession with accumulating material wealth had left him no time to get to know his children.
Although the characters may at times verge on stereotypes, each of the three children are given enough depth to make them convincing as individuals, beyond their status as fresas. Of the three, Karla Souza deserves special praise for her achievement in turning Bárbara, without doubt the most obnoxious and ignorant of Germán’s children, into a character that inspires a certain degree of pathos. Her elitist attitudes at the start of the film reflect much of the worst of the “two Mexicos”, which makes her reactions when she suddenly finds herself living in the “other” Mexico especially amusing (for example, on arriving at a typically Mexican market, very different from the US-style malls she is accustomed to shopping at, she exclaims: “Where are we, in Thailand?”).
As social commentary, Nosotros los Nobles is light satire, perhaps almost as frivolous as the fresas it so entertainingly satirizes. Nevertheless, it offers a surprisingly accurate picture of the gulf that separates the “two Mexicos”, a gulf which, in the best interests of both, needs urgently to be bridged.