Coming to America

Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau talks about making movies, loving women, and growing up sensual and Catholic

"It was very different," he says, "There were more people to keep track of, more technology and computers, more opinions to listen to, situations requiring more patience and diplomacy. I had to learn a whole new system."

Arau handled the challenges with a firm hand. Unlike many directors celebrated for their skill with actors, Arau doesn't place his faith in spur-of-the-moment inspiration. He favors intense advance preparation, presiding over lengthy rehearsals and generally eschewing improvisation. He brooks little argument on his sets and struck creative control deals with his producers earlier on. And he spent a full year auditioning actors because "if you make a mistake with the cast, the film will be ruined."

He has little patience for carelessness or people who do not share his complete dedication to his craft. If he discovers that he has hired someone not as devoted to the art of filmmaking as he, Arau is inconsolable. "It's like if I ask for a horse and someone brings me a mule, right?" he says. "That angers me. Making a movie is a great responsibility. When you come to my set, I expect you to work."

Arau grew up middle class and Roman Catholic in Mexico City, one of seven children born to a dentist and a housewife. A mischievous scamp, young Alfonso spent his youth charming his many female relatives. They, in turn, doted on him. "I was somewhat spoiled," he says with a grin.

He grew up enamored of women; more than one critic has noted that he films them as objects of art, while capturing female qualities and sensibilities often ignored by other male directors. Part of his appreciation, he says, comes from a lifelong reaction against the traditional sexism of Mexican culture.

"I believe it has something to do with the machismo, the macho Latin society's image of the virgin," he says. "[It] is very hard on women. I have always had an admiration for women. I try to understand how they feel. To me, the mother is the queen. She is the goddess."

The director's portrayal of female characters in A Walk in the Clouds reflects this philosophy--particularly Sanchez-Gijon, whose haughty loveliness the director captures exquisitely. Arau said he chose the Spanish movie star in part because of the obvious chemistry between her and Reeves. Yet in her most memorable scene, she is alone, curled up on a white bed after a grape-crushing ceremony and an aborted tryst with the hero. Drenched in grape pulp and juices, she is hungering for the young man who has just left her room. It is a poignant, provocative image, and vintage Arau.

The filmmaker is heralded for the sensuality he brings to his work. Asked if his Catholic upbringing ever inhibited his portrayal of life's sensual side, he grins.

"Of course, I was raised Catholic," he says, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "But I am not a religious person, I am a spiritual person. Catholicism increases sensuality. You know why? Because in the Catholic church, everything that is erotic is a sin, so it makes it more satisfying.

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