Exploring the fragile nature of a child’s soul, whose world gets torn apart after a traumatic event, is a theme frequently addressed in the Coming-of-Age cinema.
It is also the central theme of the 2017 Mexican film Cuernavaca written and directed by Alejandro Andrade. In it a young boy’s life changes entirely after his mother gets hurt in a store hold-up. With an absent father and an aunt living far away in Canada, young Andy (Emilio Puente) is taken to Cuernavaca to the home of his distant paternal grandmother (Carmen Maura).
Most Mexican films I have seen never miss addressing class inequality, and Cuernavaca is no exception. While Andy’s grandmother lives in a lush mansion, only the walls of its garden are separating it from a world of poverty and crime. Andy’s grandmother has enough on her hands, with an estate to look after, a disabled daughter (played by Dulce Domínguez) and last, but not least, a trauma of her own that she is still struggling with.
The quality of the acting performances is not consistent across the cast, especially in the case of those with supporting roles. Yet since the film’s narrative focuses strongly on Andy’s experiences, it has to be noted that Emilio Puente’s acting is convincing enough in portraying a spoiled, yet impressable, preteen who still has a naïve look regarding society and life in general. His character development is mostly done through visual hints and dialogue that is effective enough so that, in the first ten minutes of the picture, one gets a pretty good idea of the personality of the main character. He’s a shy, loner of a boy who is growing up while rarely seeing his father – lacking a male role model that has turned him into what’s best described as “mommy’s little boy”. The film also features a stunning performance by Carmen Maura.
A stranger at his grandmother’s house, Andy is looking for support and acceptance. Intriguingly enough it is not the grandmother that offers him compassion, but her mentally challenged daughter and the son of the gardener – although their manner of doing so and their personalities could not be more different. Naturally the lack of a male role model has contributed to the afflictions of the main protagonist and his nativity impairs the recognition of the fact that compassion can turn into exploitation in the blink of an eye.
The interpersonal relationships explored by the narrative bring to mind two other Coming-of-Age films: The Spanish Gardener (1956) in character definition and the need for a role model, and John John in the Sky (2001) for the portrayal of the positive nature of the friendship between a young boy and a disabled woman. The narrative of Cuernavaca also includes some slight homoerotic overtones, highlighted by the camera and hinted at as the story develops.
The biggest flaw of the film is the lack of originality in its narrative, a fact that gets compensated for by the beautiful cinematography and slightly melancholic, yet suitable, musical score. If you’re looking for a film that has swift exciting action, you won’t find that in Cuernavaca. The plot develops at a slow pace, not untypical for movies with similar motifs. But almost all films that deal with grief, etc. use that approach.
The cinematographer uses a warm color palette that prettifies the images. Some of the most visually appealing scenes represent the dreams/nightmares of the main protagonist, with extreme close-ups and slow motion artistically combined. The musical score too is one of the better ingredients in the cinematic structure of Cuernavaca due to its unobtrusive yet rhythmic patterns, which perfectly fit with the events on screen.
If you haven’t seen many Coming-of-Age films with a similar theme, you are likely to enjoy the film more than I did. While I appreciated its beautiful aesthetic, the masterful acting of Carmen Maura (I know several elderly rich Spanish women whose behavior is just like her characterization) and the aspiring Emilio Puente as Andy, for me the film did bring on a slight sense of boredom. I did not discover many nuances in repeated viewings prior to writing this review, which is why I do not believe that the film is capable of lingering in the viewer’s mind after the final credits roll.