Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu have invigorated Hollywood, though perhaps at the expense of their roots. Victorian haunted houses, astronauts marooned in space, and washed-up Hollywood stars on Broadway are set in imaginary places far from their native land, in a world of CGI and meta-cinema.
But in his debut picture, “Güeros,” which opens Friday at the Brattle, their countryman Alonso Ruizpalacios has his feet on the ground. And his head filled with the anarchy of the French New Wave, as well as the surreal neo-reality of Luis Buñuel ’s Mexican movies. “Güeros” is brutal, ironic, madcap, and grim. Shot by Damian Garcia in black-and-white with the pristine spontaneity of Godard’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard, it is “Bande à part” (1964) meets “Los Olvidados” (1950).
Without explanation, the film begins as a woman with a squalling baby rushes out of her apartment and into the street. Boom! A water balloon hits the kid in the stroller, and it’s no joke.
So much for them. The point of view switches — at least momentarily — to that of Tomás (Sebastián Aguirre), the teenager who dropped the balloon. Fed up with his behavior, his widowed mother sends him to live with his brother (Tenoch Huerta) — nicknamed Sombra (“Shadow”) because of his dark skin — a student in Mexico City.
It’s 1999 and a student strike has taken over the campus. Since neither Sombra nor his roommate, Santos (Leonardo Ortizgris), has any interest in politics, they don’t budge from their apartment. They are as paralyzed as the partygoers in Buñuel’s “The Exterminating Angel” (1962).
When Tomas arrives, however, they venture outside into the labyrinth of the city. But repeated patterns underscore their futility and peril. Everyone asks why Tomás’s brother is darker than he is. Gangbangers taunt them with the epithet “güeros,” a derogatory term for fair-haired people. Like the cinematography, the limitations of black-and-white are inescapable.
Or perhaps not. Santos enlists his ex-girlfriend Ana (Ilse Salas), one of the leaders of the strike, to join them on an expedition to find the dying pop legend Epigmenio Cruz. A cassette of Cruz’s music is the only legacy the brothers have of their dead father. From time to time they put on headsets and listen to the music, which only they can hear. Their expression is rapturous. Perhaps it is the aural equivalent of watching this movie.