Comeuppance for the Rich, at Least on the Screen
By Elisabeth Malkin, NY Times, May 30, 2013
MEXICO CITY—“Why are they taking everything away from us, like in Venezuela?” wails Barbie Noble, a spoiled rich girl crammed into a getaway cab with her two brothers as the family flees a police raid on their sumptuous mansion.
A business scam, all the money is lost, explains her father, twisting around from the front seat to break the news to his 20-something children slouched in the back.
Dusk is falling as their decrepit cab bounces across this city, and from the window, the Noble children watch a collage of misfortune and decay: graffiti splashed across crumbling cement walls; weary vendors packing up market stalls; ragged workers trudging home over pockmarked pavements.
That trip is the only serious moment in the Mexican farce “We Are the Nobles,” a movie hit here that inflicts blunt trauma on any suggestion that Mexico may soon emerge as a middle-class country.
"You have an elite few that control everything," said the film’s director and its main screenwriter, Gaz Alazraki, 35. "These few families have not generated a good partnership with the government so that a big middle class will develop in the country. You have just a big division between wealthy and poor, which replicates itself in Brazil, Argentina, in Latin America in general."
Almost 6.5 million people have seen “We Are the Nobles,” making it the highest-grossing Mexican film ever in cinemas here. It is still filling multiplexes 10 weeks after its release.
Few people in this country tiptoe around the fact that Mexico’s rich and poor inhabit distinct worlds, sharing little more than a taste for traditional food and a perennial disappointment over their almost-great national soccer team. In the movie, Mr. Alazraki does not even allow them the same food.
Minutes before Barbie’s credit card is cut off, she harangues a waiter for bringing her melted goat cheese. Days later, the bankrupt Noble children are camping out with their father, a self-made construction millionaire, in the ruins of his childhood home, dining on tortillas drenched in oil. “It tastes like beans,” he urges.
In fact, the Noble children are as rich as ever. Their father, Germán, has become distraught over their idle arrogance and wants to teach them a lesson, so he invents a story about losing his company and sends them all out to get a job.
The eldest son, Javi, drives a battered bus through the streets of Mexico City. Barbie squeezes into a minidress to wait tables at a cantina, and the youngest son, Cha, becomes a clerk in the neon-lighted back office of a bank.
Their guide to this new life is Lucho, the nephew of their ancient nanny. He gets up before dawn to buy food in the city’s vast wholesale market, cooks at the cantina all day, and then caters parties for the rich all night.
His schedule is no surprise to most working-class Mexicans. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that Mexicans work more hours than any other nationality surveyed.
The simplest explanation for the movie’s success is that audiences love to see rich people humiliated. But a more complex dynamic is at work in the nuances of Mexico’s multiple layers of class and perception.
"I think the real reason the film is so successful is that it’s cathartic for the middle class," said Gustavo García, a film critic and historian. "It captures the fears and fantasies of the middle class."
Indeed, this is a country where repeated financial crises over decades have generated a steady background hum of anxiety for members of the middle class, who are one devaluation or layoff away from poverty.
Mexico has made some progress over the past decade in raising incomes for the very poor, which means that overall inequality has decreased. But the top 20 percent of the population still earn 53.4 percent of the total national income, according to statistics from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The 40 percent of the population below the wealthy, the segment where one would expect to find the middle class, make 33.6 percent of national income.
"The middle class here does not exist," said Ana Suárez, a 27-year-old lawyer who pronounced the movie "the absurd of the extremes of the two classes."
Mr. Alazraki, the movie’s director, admits to bearing a passing resemblance to the Noble children himself. As in the movie, his father, Carlos Alazraki, is a self-made man, having built a career as an advertising executive. The younger Mr. Alazraki recalls how furious he became when his father announced that he would not get a new car until he got into college.
"It happens to most parents that want to give their children all the opportunities that they never had so that they never struggle the way they did," he said, "without actually realizing that the character that comes out of the struggle is what helps you succeed."
Midway through college in Mexico, he transferred to the University of Southern California, where he took film courses and worked as a studio intern, learning what it was like to be a relative nobody. Unlike his Mexican circle, his Los Angeles friends were all taking odd jobs to make ends meet.
He said he had changed once he returned to Mexico. “I could see a big difference between the friends that left the nest and the ones that didn’t,” he said. “The ones that didn’t never lost their sense of entitlement and grew to turn, some of them, into despicable people.”
Mr. Alazraki always knew that he wanted to make a comedy, and he based “We Are the Nobles” in part on a 1949 Mexican classic by the exiled Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. He was also influenced by American comedies. The Nobles’ taxi cab ride was drawn from the bus ride in the 1934 American classic “It Happened One Night.”
"During the ’30s, the Great Depression eradicated all of the middle class for the United States and the comedies that made the biggest impact were social satires that made fun of the rich," he said. "It was pretty clear to me that that was the film we should be doing in Mexico."
Though the Noble children and their friends are caricatures, some of their on-screen exploits parallel a real-life mini-scandal that has engrossed Mexico during the movie’s run. When a woman did not get the table she wanted at a trendy Mexican restaurant in April, she called in inspectors who worked for her father at the federal consumer protection agency to shut the place down, prompting a huge outpouring on social media condemning the arrogance of the rich and powerful.
Although the woman and her father apologized, the furor persisted, and he was fired two weeks later.
For the movie, the woman’s timing was impeccable, Mr. Alazraki said: “I owe her some flowers.”