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MEXICO CITY -- Mexico is enjoying a film revival not seen since its golden era of cinema during the 1950s, and what better place to showcase its talent than on the international stage at Cannes.
Getting top billing for Mexico In Competition is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's latest work, "Biutiful," a drama revolving around a conflict between a drug dealer and a policeman. A decade ago, Gonzalez Inarritu's feature debut, "Amores Perros," made a huge splash on the Croisette, winning the Critics Week prize and the Young Critics' Award. Many consider it one of the most important films in contemporary Mexican cinema.
"I can't think of another film that has had such an impressive debut," "Amores Perros" executive producer Martha Sosa says. "It opened a window of opportunity, and after that people started asking, What else is coming out of Mexico?"
It's a question that comes up much more often these days as Mexico produces a host of gifted new filmmakers.
Three first works from Mexico will screen this year at Cannes, two of which are competing in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar: Jorge Michael Grau's cannibal movie "We Are What We Are," which had its world premiere at the Guadalajara film festival in March; and the minimalist drama "Leap Year," from Australian-Mexican writer-director Michael Rowe.
Additionally, Cannes will present a special screening of "Abel," the freshman feature from actor-turned-director Diego Luna. "Abel," which bowed in January at Sundance this year, centers on a psychologically troubled 9-year-old boy who imagines he is the head of his fractured family.
"Revolution," a collective work of 10 shorts filmed by 10 directors, also represents Mexico as the country celebrates its 200th year of independence and the 100th anniversary of its revolution. Offering a contemporary take on the Mexican Revolution, the film features segments from some of the nation's most buzzed-about helmers, including indie auteurs Carlos Reygadas ("Silent Light"), Fernando Eimbcke ("Lake Tahoe") and Rodrigo Pla ("The Desert Within").
Thanks in large part to a film- incentive law that allows financiers to write off up to 10% of their tax obligation, Mexico has seen a significant upswing in production lately. Back in the days of "Amores Perros," the industry was struggling to put out two dozen feature films a year, but since the incentive program went into effect in 2006, the nation has been churning out about 70 pictures annually.
The documentary genre is reaching new heights as well. "Presumed Guilty," which puts the Mexican justice system on trial during the investigation of a homicide case, would have been impossible to do 15 years ago under the regime of Mexico's former ruling party.
Now more than ever the filmmaking scene here has opened up to a new breed of filmmakers. "Presumed Guilty," which won awards at Mexico's top two film festivals, was shot by two lawyers with no film background. Women directors also are making headway. In April, newcomer Mariana Chenillo became the first woman helmer to win best picture at Mexico's Ariel Awards for her Jewish dramedy "Five Days Without Nora," and Patricia Riggen's immigration-themed drama "Under the Same Moon" set an opening-weekend boxoffice record in the U.S. for a Spanish-language film. This summer Riggen will begin filming the biopic "Vivaldi," which has Ben Kingsley and Jessica Biel attached.
Despite the progress, Mexican films continue to sing the boxoffice blues as local fare captured a mere 5% of receipts last year, according to market research company Rentrak.
"There is still a big problem in getting screen time for local productions, and that's because the market is saturated with Hollywood films," says Monica Lozano, head of Mexico's Independent Producers' Assn. "We need to revise the existing film law and improve the market conditions so that Mexican films can be more competitive and have longer runs in theaters."
Lozano's upstart shingle, Alebrije Producciones, is taking the challenge head-on with one of the year's largest productions, the period piece "El Atentado" from veteran helmer Jorge Fons ("Midaq Alley"). Budgeted at 77 million pesos ($6.3 million), it's a risky venture by Mexican standards.
Then again, Mexican cinema wouldn't have made a comeback without some risk-taking along the way.