Exploring the stunted childhood of a young, misunderstood boy, Cuernavaca is a colorful film that employs a tried and tested surrealist approach to storytelling. Alejandro Andrade’s directorial debut amasses a variety of old-age visual concepts and renders them to the viewer in a soft, easeful manner, reminiscent of the aesthetics of the irrational. Following in the footsteps of Luis Buñuel, the motion picture creates a dreamlike universe for its characters, full of color and mystery, through a unique blend of static beauty and amorphous, constantly evolving cinematography.
Life is about to change drastically for Andy (Emilio Puente), a young boy who witnesses his own mother get shot during a robbery. Without a father figure in his life and consumed by grief, the child is forced to move in with his hard-nosed grandmother, Carmen (Carmen Maura, in a stunning performance). So he is taken in the city of eternal spring in Mexico, in an extravagant villa surrounded by gardens and walls. During his stay in Cuernavaca, Andy is frequently overwhelmed by a series of nightmares, some of which repeatedly depict his mother’s tragic demise. Although his father, Andrés (Moises Arizmendi) has been mostly absent from his life, he briefly comes back to his son. Thrown into maturity without much choice, Andy soon becomes the caregiver for the adults in his life, as his cold, indifferent parent struggles to stay afloat and his grandmother turns out to be an alcoholic with abandonment issues. A new world opens up to the young boy when he meets the family’s gardener, but it is not enough to help him cope with his beloved mother’s death.
Andrade aims to accurately and sensibly represent the child in his innocence and melancholic ruminations. He offers glimpses into each stage of development, from naivety and the frantic need for acceptance to suppressing emotions in order to adapt and finally taking up the role of the caregiver. All of these periods are not overtly crammed into the film’s storyline, but rather referred to through subtle nuances. Similar to Bunuel’s framework, Andrade accommodates silence amongst its enthralling visual elements in order to make room for the main character’s inner experience to manifest. Using dreams and surreal imagery as a narrative form, the director reveals another dimension, intangible and unfathomable, that is hidden within our reality.
Skillfully employing cinematic devices that mesh well with its theme, Cuernavaca does not revolve around a rigid plotline. Instead, it unfolds with fluidity and tact, stringing together a series of events that are interspersed with cinematic dream sequences. There is not much emphasis placed on the story’s development, but rather on its content, its essence and the means through which this essence is depicted to the viewer. These formulaic techniques work together in a unique manner to create a form of non-chronological time that brings to mind Tarkovsky’s filmmaking process. His concept of using suggestive images not as symbols, but as rhythmic elements part of a dynamic, complex narrative is cleverly encapsulated in Andrade’s motion picture. Moreover, the latter blurs the boundaries between imagination and reality, immersing elements of the dream world into the raw narrative of the film. This juxtaposition prevents the viewer from imposing their own fixed chronology on the storyline’s events and allows the focus to be tilted inward towards the more subtle, mental and emotional “happenings” that define the characters’ inner experiences.
Another clear influence on Cuernavaca is Luis Buñuel’s work, which has mystery and dreams as its cornerstone. His concept of memory as a blend between fact and fantasy is also explored by Andrade through the constant encroaching of imagination on reality. There are several references to Buñuel’s art, including the opening of the motion picture. The theme of ants is recurrent throughout the whole movie and is also present in the scene where young Andy relives his mother’s death. The eerie image of her arm covered in crawling ants is a direct reference to Buñuel’s renowned Un Chien Andalou. A brilliant collaboration between Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali, the project depicts one of Dali’s bizarre dreams of a hand covered in ants.
Andrade himself has pointed out the fact that Cuernavaca is based on his childhood memories. His grandmother had a mansion in the tropical city encircled by gargantuan walls to keep the perils of the outside world away from their safe haven. Despite being isolated from external “evil”, the director confesses that his grandparent struggled with anguish and anger and that was she was still deeply suffering. This recollection serves as an allegory of Andrade’s native country, which condemns and seeks to protect itself from foreign hate and cruelty without recognizing the malevolence within its own community. “Real violence starts inside each one of us when our pain is too big and unattended”, claims Andrade in his effort to depict Mexican society from a refreshingly different, self-reflective and detached perspective.