Thinking of visiting Mexico for the first time? Watch a few films before you go. Like great works of fiction, movies often provide an illuminating insight into the culture of a country, its landscape and its peoples. Mexico has always been a rich source of movie material, with its own prodigious film industry and plenty of Hollywood blockbusters set in the country. Here are a few cinematic gems to whet your appetite:
Like Water for Chocolate (1992)
Any shortlist of Mexican films must include this historical drama, based on the novel by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel. The hype really is justified: it’s about as powerful and beautiful an evocation of middle-class Mexican culture in the early twentieth century you could hope for, featuring doomed love, superstition, eroticism, suffocating tradition, Revolutionary skirmishes and, of course, mouth-watering Mexican food. The backdrop is the dry scrub and copper-coloured deserts of northern Mexico, near the border towns of Ciudad Acuña and Piedras Negras.
Amores Perros (2000)
While calling it “Mexico’s Pulp Fiction” is a bit of stretch, “Love’s a Bitch” is certainly one of the most creative and thought-provoking movies from south of the border, and comprises three distinct stories linked by a single car accident in Mexico City. There are disturbing dogfight scenes, scary neighbourhoods, disloyalty and infidelity – it’s pretty grim stuff, but compulsive viewing nonetheless, offering a journey into the darker side of modern urban Mexico. Filming locations include the trendy boho district of Colonia Condesa.
Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
Super-horny slacker duo Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna represent the affluent, slang-spouting youth of Mexico City in this sexy, bleak but humorous Mexican road trip movie. Whilst their relationship with the alluring Maribel Verdú (including the notorious threesome at the end) anchors the story, the extremes of Mexican rural and urban poverty are never far from view – the contrast is artfully achieved, with scenes shot in the mountains of Oaxaca and on the beaches of Huatulco (mainly Playa Cacaluta) and Playa Zipolite.
Salma Hayek’s unforgettable portrayal of ground-breaking artist Frida Kahlo is essential viewing; unless you make a special effort to avoid art completely during your stay in Mexico, you will almost certainly encounter the work of Frida or Diego Rivera (her unfaithful husband, played by Alfred Molina). Much of the film was shot in Kahlo’s former home, the Casa Azul (now the Museo Frida Kahlo) in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City.
And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003)
Antonio Banderas stars as Pancho Villa in one of the strangest episodes of the Mexican Revolution – the filming of Hollywood production The Life of General Villa in 1914, when battle scenes involving Villa’s troops were actually re-enacted hours after the fact for the cameras. It’s a fabulously entertaining introduction to the Mexican bandito legend, the brutality of Revolution itself and the reactions to it north of the border. Much of the movie was filmed in and around Guanajuato, Pozos, San Luis Potosí and San Miguel de Allende.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi Trilogy” plays shamelessly on numerous Mexican stereotypes, but it’s hard not to enjoy the antics of Antonio Banderas, Johnny Depp, Salma Hayek and Eva Mendes in this all-action finale. The gorgeous locations are expertly captured on film and while you are unlikely to meet wandering guitar players with machine guns, the dusty, winding streets, colonial churches and old-fashioned bars of Guanajuato, Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende are all very real.
Filmed off the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, this slow-moving movie about a father and son is a bit like a documentary (the actors are real people), lavishly shot in a tiny community of fishermen and one-storey stilt cabins. The entire movie was filmed on atolls on the Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral reef in Mexico – what it lacks in action it makes up for in staggering beauty, with almost every frame an enticing advert for unspoiled sands and aquamarine seas.
Miss Bala (2011)
It’s hard to ignore the lurid reports of Mexico’s ongoing drug war, even though as a tourist you’ll rarely see any sign of it. This movie provides an insight into how drug trafficking and organised crime works in modern Mexico, through the story of an aspiring Miss Baja California in Tijuana who gets sucked into the crime-world. Ironically, much of the film was shot in Aguascalientes, since it was deemed too dangerous on location in Tijuana.
Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to Mexico.