Like any good sports movie, the subtitled "Rudo y Cursi" is not at all about sports. The competition exists on a much more fundamental level: One brother is pitted against the other in a battle over who the better person is. Even more fundamental is the battle each brother wages with himself between his talent and his passion, neither of which seem to go hand in hand. The strength of this film is that it relies on these simple, understandable ideas to get its point across. It also relies on clearly defined characters that behave realistically. The brothers, for example, seem not like archetypal clones but rather like actual human beings, shifting back and forth between loving and hating each other. While none of this makes for groundbreaking cinema, it does allow for an enjoyable film that's sometimes fun, sometimes dramatic, and always charming.
The film, written and directed by Carlos Cuarón (Alfonso's brother), is about Tato (Gael García Bernal) and Beto (Diego Luna), brothers from a rural Mexican village where life revolves around a banana plantation. As they play soccer, they're spotted by a stranded talent scout named Batuta (Guillermo Francella), who doubles as the film's narrator. As smooth as can be, he offers them a chance to try out for a professional team. From this, we get a much better understanding of who the brothers are: Tato clearly has talent on the field, but his real dream is to be a famous singer; Beto's dream is to be a goalie, although he seems better suited for a career in gambling. Both seem determined to help their mother, who's married to a new husband neither one of them have any patience for.
It's the eager and ignorant Tato who Batuta chooses first, and within no time, he's taken to Mexico City and given the nickname "Cursi" (which translates as "vulgar"). The quick-tempered Beto eventually joins his brother, leaving behind a wife, a few children, and a steady job. He earns the nickname "Rudo" (which translates as "coarse").
As they both go through the ups and downs of playing on a professional soccer team--and this definitely includes the many hazing rituals in the locker room showers--they engage in other activities. Tato begins dating a beautiful TV personality and produces a music video for the Spanish version of "I Want You to Love Me." Beto gets sidetracked by fame and fortune, resulting in risky games of high stakes poker and a line or two of cocaine. It also results in a considerable amount of debt ... the kind that comes with death threats from shady people. This isn't good, especially since his wife has made the journey to Mexico City hoping to make it big pitching health supplements.
All this inevitably leads to a climactic soccer match, made more interesting by the fact that Tato and Beto find themselves on opposite teams. Were this all "Rudo y Cursi" were concerned with, it would be a very mundane film. As it is, it's an absorbing tale of two conflicting personalities, both so convincing that they effectively overshadow the conventional plot. One of my favorite scenes takes place on the beach, where the brothers are spending time with their visiting mother. As they sit in the sand, each son tries to one-up the other by promising to build a big house right along the shore. It's a perfect example of evoking a rivalry, and I say "evoking" because one gets the sense that it's been building within them ever since they were children.
This very intentionally functions as a counterpart to Batuta's narration, which seems made up almost entirely of proverbs and facts. He begins the film, for instance, by giving us a brief history of soccer: Long, long ago, the Ancient Aztecs invented a game in which they kicked around the severed head of their enemies. We know right then and there that "Rudo y Cursi" will be a story of competition and sacrifice with just a little bit of game-playing thrown in for good measure. To extend the metaphor, the story that we're about to see will be just like a soccer match, with opposing forces working towards their own set of goals.
By the end of the film, there's the implication that every gets exactly what they wanted out of life, albeit in unconventional ways. To elaborate would give too much away, but rest assured that the story resolves itself appropriately, if not unexpectedly. What "Rudo y Cursi" lacks in originality is more than made up for in depth of character and simplicity of theme; we watch this film aware yet forgiving of its conventions, and that's because we're being told a relatable story with protagonists who seem real. This would have been very difficult to achieve were it not for the natural onscreen chemistry between Bernal and Luna. They just seem like a natural fit together. More to the point, they seemed like actual brothers--perpetually caught in that gray zone between love and hate, driven by the need to upstage each other, united in their desire to please their mother. This, I feel, is so much more compelling than a simple game of soccer.