A new crop of Latino movies--led by the sexy surprise hit 'Y Tu Mama Tambien'--has Hollywood taking notice.

Twelve years ago, UCLA film-school student Patricia Cardoso, a onetime archaeologist then pursuing her dream of becoming a director, made her second film, a 12-minute feature she called The Air Globes, as part of an independent study project. The project paid off, earning her $40,000 on a tiny $5,000 investment. But she was so unlearned in the ways of moviemaking that instead of billing herself as the director, she inserted the words ”As Provided By Patricia Cardoso” in the credits.

She’s come a long way since that early fumble—her first feature-length film, Real Women Have Curves, snagged two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and debuts on HBO this fall. With these accolades, she joins a growing queue of bold Latino filmmakers working feverishly to create a new batch of provocative films; if they’re successful, they could transform a big-screen oeuvre that, from West Side Story to Selena, has been historically spotty.

”This is a story that I don’t think gets told as often as it should,” says Cardoso of Curves, a mother-daughter saga set in Los Angeles’ predominantly Mexican garment district. ”Maybe the studios are finally noticing, for better or worse, that there is some money to be made here.”

A lot of it. Last year, Latino moviegoers made up 15 percent of U.S. film admissions and saw more movies per person (an average of 9.9) than any other ethnic demographic. Not that they saw themselves on screen, of course. Few mainstream films featured Latinos in lead roles, if at all.

But something funny happened on the way to irrelevance. The simmering popularity of art-house hits like Mexico’s Amores Perros (a 2001 Oscar nominee) and the L.A.-based Tortilla Soup now seems to have foretold the growing genre’s latest runaway success: IFC Films’ Y Tu Mama Tambien, a critically praised, sexually frank Mexican road dramedy purchased last May at Cannes, has already earned $4.5 million and cracked the top 20 in its first month of release…all without an MPAA rating. ”I was obligated to deliver an R-rated version,” says director Alfonso Cuaron, the 40-year-old Mexico City native whose previous projects were English-language studio fare like 1995’s A Little Princess and 1998’s Great Expectations. ”And we went through the exercise of trying to come up with that R-rated version. But as we were running it in the cutting room, [IFC Films VP] Bob Berney said, ‘Wow, this is not the film we loved.”’

In the end, IFC orchestrated a nifty coup by releasing the film — whose fetching leads, Mexican marquee stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and Spanish actress Maribel Verdu, spend half their scenes sans clothing — unrated, rather than submit to the stigma-laden NC-17. ”The film is so much about sexuality and coming-of-age that it just seemed impossible, finally, to make any changes,” says Berney. What’s more, the burgeoning IFC (owned by Bravo Networks) even got Salma Hayek—who plays a peripheral role in the film’s, uh, seminal diving-board scene

Amores Perros
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  • 153 minutes