Coming to America
Upon greeting the photographer assigned to take his portrait for a newspaper profile, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Arau immediately turns his Crescent Court hotel suite into a set.
"Do you like this light?" he asks, gesturing toward delicate sun rays that shimmer through a window and rest upon a fawn-colored chair.
The photographer, somewhat surprised, admits that yes, in truth, he does.
"But this you don't want," Arau exclaims, reaching for a tray of candies nearby. You can almost sense him thinking that the cones and boxes that rise from the tray will mar the photo's background.
His voice carrying traces of reluctant respect, the photographer agrees that no, in fact, he does not.
Arau, who has come to Dallas to promote his latest movie, A Walk in the Clouds, settles his lithe frame in the chair and submits himself to the camera's lens. His craggy face is at once frank and engaging. At 62, he seems remarkably young and virile, congenial and--at least on the outside--relaxed. Yet he greets his guests with something akin to mild expectation. A silent question is etched into the grooves of his expressive face, but he doesn't move his elastic mouth to ask it. A subtle disquiet seems to quiver invisibly under his skin.
His career juncture is probably to blame. It has been nearly two years since Like Water for Chocolate, Arau's directorial debut. Based on the bestselling novel by his ex-wife, Laura Esquivel, the movie throbbed with passion and mysticism; Arau's often daring direction titillated the senses, capturing the beauty and texture of Mexico and the sumptuous Latin culture. By Mexican standards, it was a big budget film; scarcity of money constantly threatened it. In a nation whose shaky, state-subsidized film industry has been described as "emergent" for nearly eight decades, it took a combination of perseverance, talent, and luck to bring Like Water to fruition. "In Mexico, we don't make movies," he says, "We make miracles."
The results surpassed the most optimistic of expectations--particularly in the coveted U.S. market, where Like Water became the top grossing independently-produced foreign language film of all time. It was a hit with audiences of all ages and cultures--but especially with Latino moviegoers, who were thrilled to be presented with a Mexican filmmaking voice that spoke from a place beyond the barrio--a voice that instead invited them into the richly appointed homes of the Mexican aristocracy and well-to-do. And when viewers arrived, they became the most fortunate of houseguests, treated to a spellbinding imbroglio that required nothing from them but wanton interest and fickle judgment.
Now, after having been predictably wooed to Hollywood, Arau offers us another romantic drama, A Walk in the Clouds. This time, the budget is big, the cast is international, and the language is English. Set in the 1940s, it concerns a young gringo G.I. (Keanu Reeves) whose chance encounter with a beautiful woman (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) who is pregnant and husbandless brings him into the lives and home of the Aragones, a wealthy California wine family of Mexican descent. He poses as the daughter's husband so she can escape the wrath of her father (Giancarlo Giannini), and to their surprise, the two fall in love. Arau invites you to watch Reeves' journey into the Aragones household, while at the same time creating a fable about family control and pride.
It is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year, and the film industry is watching Arau closely. Can he apply the qualities that made Como Agua por Chocolate a hit to an English-language production, while operating under the controlling hand of a major Hollywood studio, 20th-Century Fox?
So far, the answer seems to be yes. Critics have embraced Clouds, and early screenings have been packed to standing room. Arau, it seems, has effortlessly glided from obscure Mexican director to international icon.
Over the years he has become, by design and circumstance, a bit of a prophet. During the filming of Like Water for Chocolate, young Latin filmmakers flocked to the set to work for him and submit to his demands and advice. To many, Arau is the Miracle Maker, the name some of Mexico's most promising young directors offer as inspiration. True to his roots, he continues to mentor them, and auditions exhaustively for Mexican actors when Hollywood has shown no qualms about using Anglos for Hispanic parts. He turned down dozens of scripts from the U.S. simply because they were not about Mexican people. "In the beginning, we were sent a hundred scripts," he reveals in his deep, rhythmic voice, "although only four or five had something to do with our culture."
He accepted A Walk in the Clouds only after convincing the producers to change the vineyard family from one of Italian descent to Mexican descent. He then invited screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen to visit upper-middle-class homes in Mexico City, so the writer would be able to capture the authentic Mexican lifestyle enjoyed by the fictitious Aragones.
Where he once pinched pennies and did without in his homeland, Arau now worked within the expansive confines of a well-financed project. Still, the situation was not without challenges.
"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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