It's symptomatic of the state of the Mexican cinema that the most acclaimed film in the country's history. "The Young and the Damned," was actually made by a Spaniard; Luis Bunuel. Add to that the shadow cast by the behemoth to the north -- Hollywood -- and the eternal popularity of cantinflas, a Latin version of Chaplin's little tramp, and it's clear that Mexico provides a classic case of cinematic underdevelopment.

But the American Film Institute's "New Mexican Cinema" series, which opens Tuesday and continues intermittently through April 28, suggests that Mexican films -- and filmmakers -- may finally have come of age. Of the seven representative features to be shown at the AFI Theater, most are technically on a par with what is coming out of Europe and the U.S. these days, and each, including Federico Weingartshofer's clumsily earnest 16 mm "Walking On. . . Walking," addresses itself to some distinctly Mexican theme.

All but one of the films deal directly with critical political or economic issues: land reform, the poverty of the Indians, the unfinished Revolution, official corruption. The lone exception is the series opener, "The Passion According to Berenice," a psychological study of a young, attractive and sexually repressed widow in provincial Aguascalientes, but even this film touches on an important social problem -- machismo and the damage it has done to the Mexican women.

Perhaps the most impressive -- and entertaining -- of the films is Jorge Fons' 'The Bricklayers." Ostensibly a police thriller, "The Bricklayers" begins with the murder of a night watchman on a construction site. The resultant police investigation reveals that everyone involved in the project --from the construction company, which has been fudging on specifications, to the night watchman, the other workers and the police themselves -- is guilty of corruption. Hollywood veteran Katy Jurado's fine performance is matched by several other actors unknown to American audiences, most notably Ernesto Cruz and Salvador Sanchez.

Aside from "Mezquital: Notes About An Ethnocide," a powerful if dogmatic Mexican-Canadian documentary about the exploitation of the Otomi Indians of Hidalgo, these films have obviously been made with a mass audience in mind. There is nudity in several of them and violence in all of them: Screenwriter and director Marcela Fernandez Violante has so much blood and guts in her "The General's Daughter" that a comparison to Lina Wertmuller seems in order.

And as for Bunuel, who with Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez can be seen as the founding father of the Mexican film, his influence is most pronounced in Rafael Corkidi's "St. Pafnucio." Corkidi, cameraman on Alejandro Jodorowsky's cult favorite "El Topo," has written and directed what may be the first surrealist opera, a convoluted and visually striking tale of a Mexican saint's search for the woman who will become the mother of the new messiah. It is at once both the most absurd and the most adventurous example of the "New Mexican Cinema."