By Jan Chaiken
Just as the Oscars are awarded annually in the US by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Mexico has its own Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas which makes annual awards called the Ariels. The Mexican Academy was established in 1946 at the height of the Golden Age of film in Mexico but did not have annual awards including ceremonies until 1977. Not only is the name very similar to the corresponding academy in the US, but also the categories of Ariel awards closely parallel those for the Oscars – best picture, best director, best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, screenplay, editing, music, cinematography, and so on through the various technical awards.
Three distinct awards stand out among the Ariels. The top award each year is called the Golden Ariel and can be for just about anything – a movie, an actor, a director, a film company or consortium, or a life history of achievement. It is not limited to the current year in scope. The second unusual Ariel is one for the best first work, which is designed to motivate and bring recognition to upcoming young artists. This award could be for a first-time performance in a leading role, the first production as director, or other possibilities. The third difference from the Oscars is an Ariel for the best Iberoamerican film, whose nominees are collaborations between Spain and any Latin American country.
If you have never heard of the Mexican Film Academy or its Premio Ariel before, you are just an example of a persistent pattern — the Academy’s inability to have any substantial influence on the profitability or popularity of films in Mexico, much less on the world stage. Nonetheless, the Ariel nominees and winners in the most important categories receive high critical acclaim in Mexico and elsewhere and are worth a DVD rental or video download if you are interested in becoming more immersed in the culture of Mexico.
Some examples of topics covered by prize-winning Mexican films are these–
The Prize. Confusingly, the winner of the 2013 Premio Ariel for best picture was called El Premio. It takes place in Argentina during a period of military repression, where a seven-year-old girl is supposed to keep a secret but she doesn’t know exactly what or why. The movie was directed by Paula Markovitch, a writer known in the the US as co-author of the screenplay for Lake Tahoe, directed by Fernando Eimbcke. Lake Tahoe won the 2009 Ariels for best picture and best direction.
An interesting 2013 nominee for best picture is The Last Cristeros — they were a group of Catholics who resisted the Mexican government’s efforts in 1925 to create a much sharper separation of church and state.
Nora’s Will. The 2010 winner for best direction was Cinco dias sin Nora, an unlikely comedy directed by Marianna Chenillo. The movie begins with a Jewish man receiving a shipment of meat which was intended for his ex-wife, who lives across the street. When he goes to visit her to make arrangements for the meat, he receives no answer. So he retrieves a key that he still has from his previous residence, goes inside, and finds Nora is dead. It is the day when Passover will begin in the evening, so although normally a Jewish funeral would be the next day, it has to be delayed for the first two days of Passover plus the sabbath (Saturday) that follows. This allows time for members of the family to assemble. They discover that Nora has packed the refrigerator with accompaniments for the meat and has left detailed instructions for a festive meal. As you have guessed by now, it is Nora’s will that the family should reconcile. Look for Chenillo’s next production, Paraíso, coming to theaters in February.
El Narco. For some reason known as El Infierno in English-language publicity, this film was the 2011 Ariel winner for best picture and best actor, Damián Alcázar. A tremendous critical and commercial success in Mexico, it presents the worst face of Mexico at the height of the drug wars. The protagonist Benny is deported from the US to Mexico and finds himself delightedly involved in money, women, and fun, and not so delightedly involved in violence. A black comedy that critics compare to the works of Sam Peckinpah, it is a deeply cynical view of a country spiraling downward. But it presents drug lords as folk heroes, not really macho or self-confident, and the viewer feels that the narcotics trade in Mexico might just implode from within.
Pan’s Labyrinth. Winner of the Ariel award for best picture, it was Mexico’s submission to the Oscars for best foreign-language picture of 2007, which it did not win. But it did garner four other Oscars, as discussed in the article about the Academy Awards.