I was lucky enough to get an invite to the Maya Riviera Film Festival as it emerges onto the scene. An early morning flight with a few other journalists and film critics took us first to Mexico City and onward to Cancun where a car would drive us down the coast of Mexico to Playa Del Carmen.
The vibe here is mostly laid back with free-flowing tequila and mango juice or mojitos handed to you in every room. At the Yucatan Princess, vertical pools lined the pathways with vacationers cooling off their sunburnt bodies always with drinks in their hands. There will be time for pools and drinks, but the first order of business was the opening night celebration, followed by dinner and the festival’s opener, Asia Argento’s Incompressa or “Misunderstood.”
It’s one of those typically depressing situations that Argento’s film has yet to find a distributor here in the US. Of course, other people in other countries have been smart enough and open-minded enough to back the film but in America, it appears that no one will touch it with a ten-foot pole, even though in Argento they have that rare breed of a cultish female director who has followed the more celebrated career of her father. She co-wrote the screenplay that concerns young Aria, whose life seems headed for one thing or another but is anything but a passive player in her fate. Aria is ping-ponging against sexuality, drinking, drug abuse — something holds her firmly to the ground even if forces are continually trying to pry her from it.
With a self-absorbed wreck of a mother (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) and equally self-absorbed father who is just not interested in his daughter, Aria sprouts up like a weed with imagination and resilience despite the chaos at home. Argento seems to be clearly drawing from her own life with this film and for that alone you’d think there’d be interest in here in the US. But thus far there isn’t. What a shame because this is a fine example of female-driven cinema that reaches far beyond the usual.
Just as it is kind of heartbreaking to watch Aria, overflowing with smarts and potential, be ignored by those she cares about most, it is equally frustrating to watch how Argento is not being given any kind of hero’s welcome for having made this film. So few stories about young women are told at all, let alone outside the boundaries of PG-13 fantasy we get in America. The film is a reminder of the full spectrum of a human life, not just the idealized one.
Argento was on hand to introduce the movie and afterwards propped a cigarette in between her lips and took photos with a few fans. With a little more encouragement than she’s getting now, Argento could become a major filmmaker. Here’s hoping.
It was a late first night. I slept off half the morning and didn’t see the light of day until noon. This was going to be a drink and pool day, and then dinner with the governor in the evening.
One tries not to feel like the ugly American when visiting “all inclusive” resorts but inevitably one begins to feel that way, despite the promise of being attended to, very politely spoken to, and served — all with no expectation of tips. One way out of feeling awkward and guilty about such treatment is to tip. It is not mandatory but I feel, as an American, it’s important to bring that custom along when traveling.
Playa Del Carmen is right by the Caribbean and sits across on the mainland from the island Cozumel. It is not uncommon to see wild dogs surviving on the streets here, nor wildlife like migrating crabs, or even giant-ish reptiles. The aqua blue water of the sea laps gently on the white sand beaches which are populated by people from all over the world eager to dip their bodies into the bathwater-like shallows of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Uniformed employees busily keep things clean and tidy, even raking the kelp that clusters at the lip of the sea. There is too much kelp and it appears to be worrying them enough to try to rake it away. It does seem a futile task because more just keeps floating back into the bay. While walking the beach this morning two young women from the UK were marveling at a coconut they found washed up on the shore. They were wondering whether it would be any good or whether they could take it back with them. “Nah, it’s probably too heavy,” one concluded.
The high pillars and marble floors around the resort give it kind of a Romanesque feel – it is beautiful here, there’s no denying it, even if one rather longs for the simplicity of a grass hut perched on a sand dune right on the sea while someone flips a filet of freshly caught fish on the crackling beach fire nearby. This is a modern Mexico that we’re in, one that has come to join the ranks as one of the most formidable regions for cinema. Indeed, the Oscar race has given its Best Director prize to two Mexican men in two years in a row, both of whom had their roots in Mexican cinema, helping to define it, and now helping it emerge.
Film festivals are the best and only way films can be seen by adult people in today’s market as they try to build buzz, find a distributor, then land in an art house in a major city or else play on VOD. “A Netflix movie” is how I heard them referred to once by a young person. To her, an artsy independent film was the kind you get to see on the Netflix. Was a time when they were playing all over the place and people bought tickets to them. Film festivals give us that time back by creating a kind of thinking person’s amusement park/fantasy land where the point of film still rests in the realm of art.
So committed to this notion, the festival is free of charge. They’re committed to bringing cinema to the people by showing films on the beach and in public squares. It is both a way to celebrate and fortify the cinema of Latin America as it is a fest that reaches out internationally to filmmakers everywhere. Being here, the jungle divides the resort from the sea. Though we’re all nested comfortably in luxury, that feeling of wildness always threatens to emerge, whether it’s a snake sneaking its way onto the grounds, or a hurricane churning into the gulf of Mexico. It is a place that trades this wildness for exquisite beauty, with one foot in its ancient past and one foot in the inevitability of its future.