Güeros (2014), a Journey through Limbo and Mexico City’s Landscape

Directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, Güeros follows the adventures of a group of young people living in Mexico City. Although conceived in 2014, Güeros is most likely set in 1999, a year in which the Autonomous University of México, UNAM, underwent student protests and a strike. The strike was caused due to the fact that the rector, the highest authority in the University, approved a series of changes to the Reglamento General de Pagos (General Regulation of Payments), which implied increases in tuition and in stricter requirements for graduation. As a result, students declared a strike, during which the UNAM eventually experienced a shutdown. The strong response from the part of the students was, in part, motivated by what they seemed to go against the University’s mission of providing economically accessible higher education.

To provide some context, the third article of the Mexican Constitution states that the government is responsible for providing free education for its citizens (Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos). The UNAM, however, is a complicated entity because of its autonomous, i.e., free from the government’s authority, quality, but many believe it should still adhere to the third article. Nonetheless, tuition at the institution is not free; before the strike, tuition was about two American pennies per academic year (Preston). The new budget proposed by the rector stated that the tuition would be raised to $150 American dollars, but that it would be free for “needy students” (Preston). While in theory tuition would still be accessible to economically disadvantaged students, many believed changes in the budget would create a strong divide between rich and poor Mexicans, and that the liberal arts design would become compromised (Preston). Although many students supported the strike, the public perception was mostly negative. This created a deep division between the public interest, the students who were not supportive, and the University.

The conflict and divide between students, the University, and the larger society is at the center of Güeros’s narrative. Two of the main characters, Sombra (Tenoch Huerta) and his friend Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris) are UNAM students themselves, but they neither support nor condemn the strike. When Sombra’s little brother, Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre) is sent from a seaside town to live with him, he seems perplexed by his brother’s uninvolved attitude regarding the strike. This lack of participation confuses Tomás, who in several occasions asks them why they are not taking part in the strike or protests. During this time, according to the director and based on his personal experience, the students were divided into three groups: the ones who actively supported the strike, the ones who were against the strike and continued to take classes at alternate locations, and the ones who could not decide between the two because it was too complex, unclear or they overanalyzed the situation (“Güeros – Entrevista con Director” 1:00-1:30). As a result, this third group of students, just like Sombra and Santos, found themselves in some sort of existential limbo.

As previously mentioned, Güeros is set in Mexico City. The first part of the film is set in some sort of a tower-block project, which is where Sombra and Santos live, and the second part takes place mostly in a car, with which the characters embark on a road trip around the city. The apartment, which is where Güeros initially takes place, helps convey feelings of isolation, the in-betweenness of the characters, their imprisonment, lack of structure, and angst, among others. The limbo that the characters experience due to their inability to choose one side over the other is clearly expressed in their environment. In fact, since the first time the audience is properly introduced to the apartment, the conflict becomes apparent. First, the table at which the characters are sitting is filthy, has empty bottles, and cigarette ashes and butts; in the background, there are many books stacked up in random piles. Not only do these elements provide more information about the characters and reference the fact that they are students living on a budget, but they are also extremely reflective of their mental states. In other words, they are physical representations of the lack of order and structure.

While these details exemplify the chaos, there are two props that are even more telling of the nature of the conflict that Sombra and Santos are experiencing. In this same shot, a photograph on the wall is visible. Upon closer inspection, the photograph depicts the anonymous man, “Tank Man,” who stood in front of several tanks in the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, and is considered on of the most iconic protest pictures of all time. On the wall opposite to that picture, there is a dartboard. These two opposite sides of the wall are visual manifestations of the limbo they inhabit. On one hand, the photograph evokes a sense of idealism and desire to stand up for what is right. The dartboard, however, might signify being stuck in recreational activities and not being able to do anything about the larger issues. This interpretation of the dartboard is supported by the kind of activities in which Sombra and Santos usually engage in: playing cards, smoking cigarettes, drinking, cutting newspapers, and listening to the radio. Although deep down they may desire to take part in the strikes, they are not motivated enough to do so.

In addition to their apartment, their road trip through the city also conveys many of the themes that have been previously discussed. While it is true that most of their feelings of being stuck in a limbo are caused due to their inability to be for or against the strike, the chosen locations also provide a larger context for their in-betweenness. Close to the beginning of their road trip, they accidentally make a wrong turn and stumble upon a lower class neighborhood, in which they feel threatened. Although it is not specifically mentioned which neighborhood this is, it is clear that the people that inhabit the area are not friendly towards outsiders. Not only are they clearly different to the young men they encounter due to their social class, but they also have different accents and make use of distinctive slang.

In contrast to this lower class slum, they later go to a party at a luxurious penthouse in downtown Mexico City. During this party, they encounter somewhat pretentious people, and the mise-en-scène is completely different than the one at the slums. There is a pool, an open bar, and everyone, except Sombra, Santos and Tomás, seems to be dressed accordingly. Although this scene is used to poke fun at the intellectual elite and bourgeoisie of the city, it is also evocative of their inability to fit in. Just like in the slums, they are also outsiders at the party. Both locations serve to make a point about the cultural shocks they experience. Beyond conveying their lack of identification with one particular side or sector of the population, these two locations are examples of the stark contrasts and inequalities of the city.

One of the many interesting things about Güeros is Alonso Ruizpalacios’s use of sound. Among the things that drive the characters to embark on a road trip around Mexico City is Tomás’s insistence to find their childhood hero: a musician named Epigmenio Cruz. Interestingly, every time one of the characters listens to the cassette with Epigmenio’s music, complete silence is heard. In fact, just before Tomás is sent to live with Sombra in Mexico City, he sits by the seaside and puts his headphones on. Instead of the audience being able to hear what he is listening to, the only element present in the sound track is silence. When he takes the headphones off, the sounds of the environment are heard again. Similarly, when they are in the car with Ana, Sombra’s love interest, and Tomás puts the headphones over her ears, nothing, including the ambient sounds, is heard. After she takes the headphones off, Ana says: “I had never heard something like that.” Not only is silence used to emphasize the significance of the cassette, but it also provides a mysterious quality to the musician. The importance of the music is also subverted because the point of the film is the journey itself. Moreover, the fact that the audience cannot hear the music is also significant because it exemplifies the idealization of Epigmenio Cruz, much like how the painting in Maria Calendaria is never shown on screen. Because both the painting in Maria Candelaria and Epigmenio Cruz’s music are idealized artistic objects, it would be impossible to fulfill the expectations of an audience. Thus, they stay hidden and remain in the directors’ imaginations.

In addition to silence, another interesting use of sound is when non-diegetic sounds are incorporated into the narrative. In one particular scene, in which the characters are still at the apartment, Tomás picks up a newspaper and an insert of it is shown on screen. The newspaper clearly references the conflict, as it reads: “13 Días de Huelga” (13 Days of the Strike). The cover of the newspaper also includes a picture in which detained students are kneeling with their hands on their heads. The violent nature of the picture is juxtaposed with the sound of drumrolls, similar to the ones soldiers play when marching. The image of the students along with the drumroll is also highly evocative of the Tlatelolco Massacre, during which the military intervened, and where many of the victims were also students from the UNAM. As soon as Tomás puts the newspaper down, the sound of the drums stops. In the same scene, Sombra is playing cards by himself and Santos is cutting people’s faces from newspapers; when the sound starts and then stops, the idea of two extremes is communicated. In other words, this detail of the sound design creates a strong comparison between the inactivity of the characters and the sociopolitical conflict that is being referenced. This, again, evokes the state of limbo and existential crisis that they experience.

Although Güeros was produced in 2014 and is a relevant film that depicts contemporary issues, Alonso Ruizpalacios made the conscious choice to shoot this film in black and white. The use of black and white serves several purposes, including evoking nostalgia, giving it a ‘timeless’ quality, and representing the extreme contrasts that are often found in a place like Mexico City. Regarding nostalgia, this stylistic choice, along with the old-school music, helps communicate a strong sense of longing for the past. Because the characters embark on a road trip in search of their childhood musical idol, using black and white film stock seems like an applicable choice for this particular film. While it is true that the black and white film and the use of jump cuts, among other things, pay homage to films of the French New Wave, the lack of color does serve the narrative.

In a similar vein, the black and white provides the film with a sense of timelessness; although the 1999 student strike is clearly referenced, it is actually never directly mentioned. Audiences that are familiar with the conflict will most likely pick up on the many references, yet the fact that the year is never stated and the use of black and white also indicate that this strike could have happened or could happen at any point in time.

Finally, black and white is also an effective tool through which the stark contrasts and inequalities of the city are shown. In an interview, the director mentions how the decision was influenced by the political, social, and even geographical contrasts that are referenced in the film, and how black and white photography is the perfect medium to convey those ideas (“Entrevista con el Director Alonso Ruizpalacios” 1:00-1:10). Indeed, the many opposing forces, i.e., inactivity vs. action, high class vs. low class, idealism vs. cynicism, are successfully conveyed through black and white photography.

Although the choice of black and white is one of the elements that stands out the most, other aspects of the cinematography also help convey several of the film’s themes. Specifically, through the camera movement and the framing, feelings of anxiety, fear, and tension are communicated. At the beginning of Güeros, when Tomás is running towards the beach after having caused trouble, the hand-held camera evokes the extreme sense of anxiety that the character is experiencing. Not only is the camera shaky and representative of his feelings, but at one point it also partakes in a 180-degree flip. For a few seconds Tomás is actually seen upside down; this aspect of the camera movement further conveys the chaotic nature of his mental state. This hand-held camera is again used towards the end when they are running after the kids who threw a brick at their car, further adding to the atmosphere of chaos and confusion.

Aside from the camera movement, the framing and composition of many of the shots also communicate feelings of fear and tension. When they accidentally enter the bad neighborhood and have to give one of the young men a ride, the feelings of anxiety and fear are visually communicated through the composition. While Santos is driving, Sombra’s face appears in a close-up, but only the half of his face is within the frame. On the other side of the frame, the guy they just picked up is shown in the background, yet is out of focus. For a long period of time, the only thing the spectator sees is Sombra’s face in the foreground and the man in the background. The fact that Sombra’s face is shown in a close up and is cut out further evokes a sense of claustrophobia and highlights his anxiety. It is also significant that the man is out of focus, as it also puts into question the true nature and intentions of this character.

Güeros’s use of the road trip narrative trope not only provides the audience with an enjoyable and dynamic experience, but it also helps explore many of its major themes. In a sense, the road trip is a journey through limbo; by the end, the conflict seems somewhat resolved, as Sombra stands in the middle of a student protest. Not only this, but the road trip structure also metaphorically conveys the characters’ own journeys of self-discovery and finding their identity. More than Epigmenio Cruz being the ultimate destination, he is merely the catalyst that sets the characters’ travels into motion. As it is proved near the end, finding the man turned out to be quite insignificant; he seems unimpressed by their presence and falls asleep during Sombra’s monologue. However, when the musician asks them why they are there, Sombra reveals the real motive. After he mentions he, Tomás and their father used to listen to his music non-stop, he also says that they are there because he has not slept nor left his house in months. The road trip, then, is a vehicle for Sombra to resolve some of his own existential problems. By the end of the film, it seems that he is no longer in a state of numbness.

Not only is the road trip a device that allows a connection to be made between traveling and self-discovery, but it also visually expresses the complicated nature of Mexican society. Through the road trip, the spectator is part of the journey, during which many contrasting sides of the city are shown. The different locations illustrate many parts of Mexico City and how these are home for extremely different kinds of people. From the slums to the high-class party at the rooftop, to the zoo and the pulquería, the narrative style allows Ruizpalacios to portray the myriad of experiences and stories that are part of this vibrant city. Moreover, it also depicts the deep inequalities and contrasts that are a reality of Mexico. It is not necessary to embark on a journey through the whole country, like in Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001); the stark differences and class struggles that plague Mexican society are found and explored within the confinements of one city.

Although Güeros does not make use of the subjective camera, character identification is still reinforced through the emphasis on their mental states. As I have previously discussed, the cinematography, mise-en-scène, and sound design, among other things, are extremely evocative of what Sombra, Santos, Tomás and Ana are feeling at any given moment. Not only this, but by being “with them” through their journey, a sense of intimacy and camaraderie is formed between the characters and the audience. Despite the specificity of the characters, the social conflict, the dialogue, the city itself, and other peculiarities of Mexican culture, the themes explored are extremely universal. In other words, the theme of self-discovery and the conflicts that arise when one becomes an adult are things that everyone experiences, regardless of culture or national origin.

Overall, Güeros by Alonso Ruizpalacios is a film that successfully explores themes of in-betweenness, anxiety, nostalgia, contrasts, and the tension between involvement/uninvolvement, high class/low class, and cynicism/idealism. Through the use of black and white, not only is the element of longing for the past emphasized, but the opposing forces that are at the center of the story are also further highlighted. In other words, the dissimilar environments, people and situations that are part of Mexico City’s fabric are effectively conveyed and represented thanks to Ruizpalacios’s choice of shooting in black and white. The framing, composition and camera movements also help the viewer understand the characters’ conflicts and emotions like fear or anxiety. The narrative style of Güeros is also in service of the issues explored because it acts as a metaphor for self-discovery and finding one’s identity. Not only this, but it is also a tool for the director to reveal the contradictions and contrasts that make up the city. Another interesting element of Ruizpalacios’s film is the fact that, although the characters are in search of their musical idol, his music is never revealed to the audience; instead, anytime one of the characters listens to his songs, complete silence is heard. It is clear that, while Epigmenio Cruz’s music is the catalyst of their travels, the journey itself and what they learn is what truly matters.

References

Constitución Política de Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos – Ordenamiento – Legislación. https://www.juridicas.unam.mx/legislacion/ordenamiento/constitucion-politica-de-los-estados-unidos-mexicanos#10533.

“Entrevista con el director Alonso Ruizpalacios sobre su película “Los Güeros.” YouTube, uploaded by Noticias22Agencia, 23 March 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2gr7iXux-Q.

“Güeros – Entrevista con Director.” YouTube, uploaded by CinemaNET TV, 30 October 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8fOYU2hhMM.

Preston, Julia. “University Officials Yield to Student Strike in Mexico.” New York Times, 8 June 1999, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/world/americas/060899mexico-student-strike.html.

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