Drama/Mex is the best film Alejandro González Iñárritu never made. It has the pounding energy of Iñárritu’s Amores Perros but none of the director’s shrill bombast. Last year’s Babel was Iñárritu’s breaking point, the moment his interwoven bibilical themes became Oscar-baiting pathology. After that bloated fuss, Drama/Mex comes to Mexican cinema like a reviving tonic—a lean, 93-minute picture of life’s delicate dramas uncoiling before Acapulco’s burnished vistas. Writer-director Gerardo Naranjo builds paralleling character portraits involving national identity, love, and dishonesty. But he does away with the superfluous distractions of Babel‘s cosmic narrative. With a quick eye and the soft pluck of a few guitar strings, he finds what is essential about these people’s lives. The poetry of Drama/Mex lies in its terse, simple honesty.
Naranjo’s images have a wonderfully clarifying quality; he sorts through the mess of his characters’ lives and, in a single shot, gives away all their dirty secrets. We quickly guess that Jaime (Fernando Becerril), a disenchanted office worker, carries on an affair with his young daughter, and that Fernanda (Diana Garcia) compensates for a nonexistent relationship with her father through a string of short-lived, passionate trysts. Lost in their own shame, Fernanda and Jaime grasp at any semblance of life’s thrills. Drama/Mex climaxes with a drunken escapade through Acapulco’s touristy beachside, the camera wobbling as it tracks its characters’ woozy night on the town: Between hot, sweaty fucks with her ex Chano (Emilio Valdés), Fernanda repeatedly collides with her incensed boyfriend, while inside a dank nightclub, Jaime claims a young prostitute named Tigrillo (Miriana Moro) as if she was the daughter he disgraced.
Drama/Mex speaks to moral questions, but you might not guess it by the way Naranjo delicately makes religion a part of his gorgeous, sun-burnt tapestry. “Let’s finish this,” Fernanda says to a beaten, dejected Gonzalo, spending one last night with him in the sand. Fernanda looks into the camera as she lies down, recreating a thrilling shot from her encounter with Chano. But notice how her position has been reversed: Before, Fernanda lie below Chano, submitting herself to his passion, while now she’s the one on top, cradling Gonzalo’s broken ego. One minute Fernanda’s a whore, the next she’s a mother. At its heart, Drama/Mex is a story of people struggling to fulfill their roles—in their families, in their relationships and in their country—and the camera’s forceful gaze is their confessional box.
Throughout, the characters cross paths and eye each other in a hotel café, but these coincidences are never given more consequence than they deserve. Everything that happens to Jaime, Fernanda and the others, Naranjo suggests, is a result of life’s funny happenstance—the paths that they propel themselves into and the strange destinations where their actions lead them. If it’s by chance that Gonzalo discovers Fernanda’s infidelity and that Jaime meets Tigrillo, then it is every bit their prerogative to do with their situations what they choose. Jaime and Fernanda come to terms with life through their Acapulco landscape, a tourist town at crossroads with itself, where locals seem to live in a perpetual state of arrested development (one character calls it “Crapapulco”). Jaime, on the brink of suicide, steps into the sand with his slacks and work shoes, letting the tide wrap itself around his legs, pushing him into an existential moment. On the beach, characters reach out to spirits that live just outside their own world; this is their prayer.
And it’s on the beach that Mexico connects to the rest of the world. Drama/Mex is executive-produced by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, with an eye toward bridging Mexico with other commercial film audiences—the way, you might say, Babel did. But Naranjo calls into question these global market forces as much as he serves them. When Chano tells a frigid Fernanda to “stop being so international,” it may as well be Naranjo’s discreet fuck-you to Iñárritu and the rest of a Mexican New Wave cinema increasingly co-opted by Hollywood. Drama/Mex—through and through, from its title to its omnipresent Acapulco backdrop—is a Mexican film. That identity, Naranjo suggests, says something fundamental about who his characters are and the choices they make. As much as Drama/Mex illuminates universal themes like sex and religion, it also holds a forcible mirror up to national backgrounds. Babel‘s condescension came from its whitewashed worldliness—a bird’s-eye view into different countries, tying everyone’s messy conflict together into one tidy package. Drama/Mex, capturing the essence of religion’s individual human spirit, acknowledges that our lives are so much messier than that.