History, both fictional and factual, is rife with brotherly bloodshed. Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Scar and Mufasa. While fraternal friction isn't usually this deadly, the natural one-upmanship and competition between brothers frequently alternates between motivation and deterioration. Rudo y Cursi, which premiered at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival in April, examines this dualism.
Beto (Diego Luna) and Tato (Gael Garcia Bernal) are half-brother plantation workers in a rural Mexican village where they play on a local soccer team. While Beto earns the nickname "Rough" (Rudo) for his aggressive playing style, Tato's moniker "Cheesy" (Cursi) arises from his flamboyant and exuberant post-goal celebrations. After talent scout Batuta (Guillermo Francella) catches a weekend scrimmage and offers them representation on rival teams, the two yokels head for Mexico City and sport stardom. But neither their big-city dreams nor national popularity prevent their small-town problems from tagging along, as Tato's excessive lifestyle and Beto's gambling addiction threaten their career chances.
Rudo y Cursi reunites actors Luna and Bernal eight years after the international success of 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien, and their chemistry is just as electric. Beto and Tato are who Tenoch and Julio would have become, their quibbles as petty and camaraderie as powerful as in that film. All that has changed is their financial circumstances. Francella's turn as the poetically slick manager is well-rounded, buoyed by his narrative musings on sports and life. Despite a dearth of female depth in the script, Adriana Paz and Jessica Mas make solid impressions as Beto's abandoned wife and Tato's aggrandizing girlfriend.
While first-time director Carlos Cuaron (who co-wrote brother Alfonso's Y Tu Mama Tambien) shows good promise, his direction is serviceable but not superlative. The robust and reflective screenplay is his strongest contribution to the film, as Adam Kimmel's vibrant cinematography and Leoncio Lara's bandoneon-infused musical score are the star players on the production side.
Although set up like a rags-to-riches sports film, Rudo y Cursi has little to do with professional soccer. The delineation between talent and passion--Tato foolishly fancies himself a singer--and the metaphor of contest as combat prevails over scenes of athletic valor. It's hard to tell if Luna or Bernal even have any skill on the field, so scant are any soccer scenes. It's surprising and strangely satisfying, then, when the entire finale of the film hinges on a single goal kick. Much more is riding on this win than simply a national title.
Sports allegories get far too much playing time in modern cinema. They're easy and crude, a shallow reflection of real conflicts and celebrations. By using a sports story simply as the engine of action and focusing primarily on the life struggles of the two protagonists, Cuaron turns this genre upside down. Much like the 2008 baseball film Sugar, Rudo y Cursi is more interested in the lifestyle of star athletes, the idea of fame and wealth, and whether these change how we act, rather than the sport itself. By putting very real and compelling personalities in the character's cleats, the film's pivotal face-off causes the same breathless, riveted anticipation that any sports fan feels with a tied score and a minute remaining. Excuse my crass metaphor, but this rookie director just found himself in my starting lineup.