The film, with its sexual openness, upended the lives of its filmmakers and stars. Twenty years later, they still feel the effects.
By Carlos AguilarAug. 25, 2021
Mexican cinema was just emerging from decades of obscurity when Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También,” a voyage of self-discovery and the study of a country in flux, was released there in 2001, instantly achieving landmark status.
The film, structured as a road trip from Mexico City to a paradisiacal beach in Oaxaca, revolves around a love triangle involving the upper-class teenager Tenoch (Diego Luna), his humbler best friend, Julio (Gael García Bernal), and a Spanish visitor, Luisa (Maribel Verdú). She challenges the boys’ nascent notions of manhood against the backdrop of a society getting its first taste of democracy after seven decades under the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the P.R.I.
The movie, which smashed box office records in Mexico before debuting at the Venice Film Festival that August, represented a return for the director, not only to Mexico after a stint in Hollywood but also to his passion for cinema. And it saw the birth of the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s naturalistic film grammar. But the film’s larger impact resides in the sexual openness it depicted, resulting in the most restrictive rating from the Mexican government; its tacit questioning of traditional masculinity in a culture where machismo is ingrained; and its incisive treatment of class issues in a nation of painful inequalities.
I spoke with the far-flung stars and filmmakers, including Carlos Cuarón, the director’s brother, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay about their memories of making the film, the changes it brought to their careers and the reception in Mexico at the time, when the carnal encounter between the two boys was controversial. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Where were you in your career when “Y Tu Mamá También” happened? Was it a turning point?
ALFONSO CUARÓN: At that point I had let the industry seduce me and that’s where my confusion started because I forgot about cinema. It’s a myth that the industry corrupts you, you corrupt yourself. Making my first movie in Hollywood, “A Little Princess” , was wonderful, but then I made another movie, “Great Expectations”  that I never understood. I started watching a lot of movies I had loved. That’s when I called my brother and said, “Let’s write a movie.”
CARLOS CUARÓN: “Y Tu Mamá También” was a conceptual idea that Alfonso and I had even before his first movie, “Sólo con tu pareja.” The movie is inspired by those trips that we take in adolescence. What neither my brother nor I did was do that with a beautiful Spanish woman. [Laughs] We were working on it for about 10 years while apart. But then a really nice project Alfonso had in the U.S. fell apart and here in Mexico what was going to be my debut feature also fell apart. Alfonso lived in New York and he called me. “What if we make ‘Y Tu Mamá También’?” I flew to New York using his frequent flier miles and we got to work. [Laughs]
DIEGO LUNA: This was the first time I realized [I] could have a reach that I didn’t imagine possible. I grew up mostly in theater in Mexico and thinking mostly in the context of my community there. But “Y Tu Mamá” was like an awakening for me. What struck me the hardest was the distance that developed between my family and friends and I after this movie. I started to work in other countries, to spend long periods away from home to the point that I questioned where my home really was. That can be exciting, but it was also anguishing because you feel lost, like you don’t belong anywhere.
GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL: When I made “Amores Perros” [his first movie, in 2000] I discovered this universe without knowing anything about the craziness of moviemaking. With “Y Tu Mamá También,” Alfonso was at a moment in his life where he was very open to including us actors throughout the process for over a year. We learned the basics of cinema! What I’ve taken with me into every movie I make is that as an important requirement there should be a sense of fraternity like the one we had then.
MARIBEL VERDÚ: I’ve been working since I was 13, so I would have kept on working in Latin America and in my country regardless, but thanks to “Y Tu Mamá También” I became known abroad. It wasn’t only that I gained international recognition for any movie, but this prestigious and significant movie. I got to know Mexico thanks to [Alfonso] and eventually made other films with Mexican directors.”
What do you believe are some of the reason that made “Y Tu Mamá También” a success?
ALFONSO CUARÓN: One part is obvious. Putting teenagers in situations that include sex will always be attractive to a certain audience. But I hope “Y Tu Mamá También” transcended that, because we set out to not be “American Pie.” We wanted the sex scenes to get a point across about these characters and about the social elements we were playing with, like class and the conceptions of masculinity that these characters have.
CARLOS CUARÓN: That portrait of adolescence with its failures and virtues, the narrator who doesn’t narrate but contextualizes things and helped us avoid explanatory scenes, the enormous chemistry between Diego and Gael and the counterpoint that Maribel provided were some of the many factors. None of us who made it thought it would have such success. When we wrote the screenplay, we didn’t know who would dare make it.
LUNA: This is a great movie, of course, but not all great movies arrive in the correct moment. “Y Tu Mamá También” had such luck. It found an audience that needed a journey like the one the movie proposes. The movie speaks of fundamental relationships and it’s very easy to reflect yourself in it. It’s also a movie that portrays a Mexico that seemed to be hidden before. The way it depicts the economic inequality and class conflict was very painful for some to see back then. I remember a lot of people complained, “Why do you portray Mexico this way?” But at the same time it portrayed the beauty that the country has to offer.
GARCÍA BERNAL: It caused a schism within the Mexican audience. Many people connected positively with the movie but it angered the pearl-clutchers. [Laughs] Some audiences projected a certain discomfort with the sexual openness or with the fact that the movie touched on gay themes in an ambiguous way. All of that created a dialogue. Outside Mexico what transcended was the desire to live that this movie instills in you. When you come out of the theater, you want to head to the beach and go on a crazy adventure.