Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 12, March 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antonio Traverso

 

Unsettled Screens:

_The Cinema of Latin America_

 

 

_The Cinema of Latin America_

Edited by Alberto Elena and Marina Díaz López

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004

ISBN 1-903364-83-3 (pbk) 1-903364-84-1 (hbk)

224 pp.

 

It is because of the inherently paradoxical character of life in the vast and heterogenous region known as Latin America that the category 'Latin American cinema' always needs to be rendered problematical. In fact, the phrase 'Latin American cinema' does not mean the same, nor does it necessarily have meaning at all, to filmmakers and film audiences living in the many countries of the region. Paradoxes in Latin American culture have been the object of study in several fields and Latin American scholars continue to wrestle with the question: 'What is Latin America?' The attempted answers invariably foreground the notion that the image of a homogenous Latin America is not only one of many legacies left by colonialism but also that this representation continues to be reinforced by neo-colonial structures. Indeed, the paradoxical character of Latin American culture, where languages, historical processes, and systems of knowledge are not always commensurable with each other, is understood as the direct effect of centuries-old, ongoing and overlapping histories of colonialism, capitalist imperialism, social revolution, dictatorship, and exile. Cinema, of course, has not been immune to, but on the contrary intervened in these historical circumstances. Thus, with an innate tendency towards homogenisation, stereotyping and exoticism, 'Latin American cinema' is at its best a category of analysis in Cinema Studies in English. At its worst, it's a marketing label used by both international publishers of cinema books and festival film distributors.

 

At first sight _The Cinema of Latin America_ appears to tap into this homogenising marketing image. One could argue that one of the stills from the overtly political films analysed in many of the book's chapters -- as a whole the contributors' preference is placed on political films and histories -- would have better depicted the book's dominant focus than the chosen cover image: a still from a 1943 Mexican classic which depicts a young and very attractive peasant couple. The woman has thin, stylised lips and eyebrows and a traditional shawl over her head; the man has the recognisable dark hair, (drawn!) moustache, white shirt, and straw sombrero. Similarly, a quick look at the contents table shows that each of the book's 24 chapters discusses one key film made in the Latin American region during a seventy-year period stretching between 1931 and 2001. I could not help but wonder if a title such as '24 Must See Films from Latin America' should not have been preferable (one of the editors' previous titles seems more at tune with the conceptual limitations of any list: _Tierra en trance: el cine latinoamericano en cien películas_ -- _A Land in Trance: Latin American Cinema in One Hundred Films_). Why should this particular selection of 24 films, necessarily partial, be exemplary of such manifold and diverse cinemas?

 

The initial suspicion, however, is rapidly and happily diffused as soon as one begins to read the text. To begin, the editors inform us that the book is part of a series called '24 Frames' in which individual volumes bear the common title of 'The Cinema of . . .', and that rather than constituting 'best of' lists of films the 24-title selections 'serve to highlight the specific elements of that territory's cinema, elucidating the historical and industrial context of production, the key genres and modes of representation, and foregrounding the work of the most important directors and their exemplary films' (iv). In this way, the editors add, each film discussed offers a different entry-point to the particular national or regional cinema addressed by the volume. This is clearly the case in _The Cinema of Latin America_, where the book's contributions are surprisingly refreshing and enthusiastic, as well as scholarly rigorous and sophisticated. Even though the selection of films is necessarily partial -- determined by the specific interests and emphases of the contributors -- it is also an open one, whereby the chapters consistently draw critical connections between individual films and filmmakers and their national and regional socio-cultural contexts.

 

In the book's Introduction -- an excellent historiographic and thematic outline of the cinematic cultures of Latin America -- editors Alberto Elena and Marina Díaz López directly address the problems implied in homogenising frameworks of analysis of national and regional cinemas. Encouraging a critical reading, they foreground an argumentative line running through the book's chapters, which concerns the multiple, fragmented, and heterogenous nature of the diverse cinematic expressions and practices emerging from the Latin American continent from the early 20th century to the present. The theme of the plural and 'becoming' nature of Latin American cinematic practices is also addressed in Brazilian director Walter Salles's Preface to the book: 'I believe that there is not just one Latin American cinema . . . There are *cinemas*; made of sometimes contradictory currents that often collide, yet come together in a desire to portray our realities in an urgent and visceral manner.' (xiv)

 

Without overtly acknowledging it, the book in general privileges political and activist films -- made in response to a diversity of ideological and aesthetic proposals emerging in the 1960s and 1970s, such as *Cinema Nõvo*, imperfect cinema, third cinema, and the New Latin American cinema -- as a focus to facilitate the theorisation of recent and current Latin American films. With only four analyses of films produced in the 1990s-2000s period, the bulk of the book falls on critical revisions of political films made between the 1950s and 1980s. The cinematic experiments and activism of those four decades of revolution, dictatorship, and exile undoubtedly constitute what a Latin American 'cinema' has most generally been identified with, both in film exhibition outside Latin America and in Latin American cinema studies in English. And although the suggestion concerning the death of 'third cinema' as a viable category has already been expressed by scholars researching alternative, minoritarian, and counter-establishment cinemas today, I have the impression that the contributions to this book seem stubbornly to suggest the opposite. The corollary of this could be that while 'third cinema' remains the product and definition of a specific historical and cultural context, it nevertheless constitutes the most powerful ideological and aesthetic antecedent and source of influence for current Latin American filmmaking. By this I mean a filmmaking still engaged in a project of cultural decolonisation, identity politics, and narrative and stylistic experimentation, which simultaneously aspires to its own place in the global networks of exhibition and distribution regulating film consumption today.

 

Each chapter of _The Cinema of Latin America_ receives as its title the name of the film it focuses on, offering a close textual analysis and an expansion of the discussion through abundant contextual links. A critical revision of classic revolutionary films from Latin America could not but begin with Cuban Tomás Gutierrez Alea's _Memorias del subdesarrollo_ (_Memories of the Underdevelopment_, 1968). Salles opens the book literally with a mental projection of this film, as he remembers and retells in the present tense the overflow of excitement produced by his first viewing. I cannot help becoming excited myself at his words:

 

'I remember it as if it were yesterday. The film begins. A dizzying sound of drumbeats invades the movie theatre. Pulsating bodies take the screen. Dozens, hundreds of people, mostly blacks and *mestizos*, are dancing. Everything is movement and ecstasy. All of a sudden, gunshots ring out. A man lies on the ground -- a lifeless body. Surrounding him, the deafening music and the rhythm continue. The beat is frenzied. The camera travels from face to face in the crowd, until it stops at a young black woman. The frame freezes on her trance-lit face.' (xiii)

 

(And in her chapter on _Memorias del subdesarrollo_, Nancy Berthier discusses director Gutierrez Alea's still inspiring experimentalism and critical understanding of the role of the artist in society.)

 

Salles, better known in the English-speaking world for his international hit _Central do Brasil_ (_Central Station_, 1998), is himself the subject of one of the book's chapters, devoted to his earlier _Terra estrangeira_ (_Foreign Land_, 1995), a film that he co-directed with Daniela Thomas. Alberto Elena frames the film within the context of both the culture of exile that followed the period of dictatorship in Brazil and of a revival of Brazilian cinema in the last decade. For the two main characters in the film, Elena explains, the distance and strangeness characteristic of the exilic experience fail to offer solutions to their confusion and rootlessness, as they subsequently question their place in both their home country and the world to which they departed and from which they have returned. Like the characters in his film, Salles also experienced this sense of displacement. In the Preface he tells us about his encounter with Latin American films after spending his childhood in Europe and returning to Brazil as an adolescent in the early 1960s. What he found, after having become acquainted with the principal European film movements, such as Italian Neorealism and the French *Nouvelle Vague*, were not just the militant films of revolutionary Cuba but the *Cinema Nõvo* of Brazilian Glauber Rocha. In Ivana Bentes's chapter on Rocha's _Deus e o diabo na terra do sol_ (_Black God, White Devil_, 1964), we see the details of the formal experimentation and political commitment energising the *Cinema Nõvo* project in terms of ideological and stylistic prerogatives that Rocha defined in his classic cine-manifesto _Eztetyka da fome_ (_Aesthetics of Hunger_). The film is described by Bentes as a sociological study through archetypal narratives of Brazil's most revisited mythical themes. In the film, director Rocha explores figures that represent a past revolutionary force, which, although destined to disappear in modern Brazil, constitute the signal of a great change to come. This representation is achieved through the dialectical combination of documentary, avant-garde, and Brechtian elements. An oscillating cinematic vision moves back and forth between realism and subjectivism, with the camera itself at times entering the trance that energises the characters. A 'shock', Salles tells us, was provoked in him by the intensity, rough beauty, and urgency of Rocha's new cinema.

 

This 'shock encounter' of Latin American films by a Latin American is emblematic of a more generalised irony. Perhaps with the exception of some notable cases, such as India and Hong Kong, most contemporary non-Western cinema audiences, brought up on heavy regimes of Hollywood, and to a lesser degree European films, have not seen, nor for that matter found out about, their national and regional cinemas. This is sometimes explained as an effect of the allegedly later advent of cinema in these countries in relation to Europe and the USA. Yet this assumption is mistaken since the new cinematic technology arrived in most non-Western countries soon after the first Lumière screenings in Paris, immediately triggering the practice of filmmaking by local enthusiasts and launching national cinema traditions before or soon after the turn of the century. In _Brazilian Cinema_ (1995) Randal Johnson and Robert Stam remind us that the Lumière *cinématographe* arrived in Brazil six months after the historic 1895 Paris screenings and that the first filmmaking equipment was introduced to Brazil as early as 1898. Similarly, as Carmen Gómez, one of the contributors to _The Cinema of Latin America_, points out in her chapter about Paul Leduc's _Reed: Mexico insurgente_ (_Reed: Insurgent Mexico_, 1971), 'the cinematograph of the Lumière brothers arrived in Mexico in 1896, and in that very same year some nationals interested in it became the pioneers of Mexican film' (131). Unfortunately, these past histories are often only the domain of film historians. Salles confirms this irony at the level of the filmmaking community itself, explaining that even today Latin American films are hard to see in Latin America and that it is mostly in international events where one is able to both see the films and meet the filmmakers.

 

In Latin America it is the overwhelming dominance of Hollywood commercial cinema, with the complicity of local governments and institutions, which either discourages or directly prevents audiences from accessing national and regional films. There have been only two historic exceptions to this rule, where governments have devoted institutional support and resources to the production and distribution of locally-made political films. The first is the case of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute. Two ICAIC-produced films, besides _Memorias del subdesarrollo_, are discussed in subsequent chapters of _The Cinema of Latin America_. Humberto Solás's _Lucía_ (1968) is a three-episode film that tells the stories of three women called Lucía who participate in political events in different periods of Cuban history, from colonial to revolutionary times. _De cierta manera_ (_One Way or Another_, 1974) is the last film made by Sara Gómez, a prolific filmmaker who died from an asthma attack at the untimely age of 31. Consistent with the rest of Gómez's film credits, _De cierta manera_ seeks to engage the viewer with the problematics of gender and race politics within the revolutionary process.

 

The second case of a state-initiated film centre is Chile Films, which was instituted by the socialist government of Dr Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. The only Chilean title discussed in the book is the all-time classic of political documentary _La batalla de Chile_ (_The Battle of Chile_, 1975/1979) by Patricio Guzmán. Working under the umbrella of Chile Films, Guzmán set himself the task of documenting Chile's unique revolutionary process after Allende's presidential triumph in 1970. Mostly working within *cinéma vérité* and direct cinema strategies, he had completed two long projects by 1972. In her chapter, Maria Luisa Ortega indicates that Guzmán's films were inspired by 'the urgent task to document what, even at that time, was seen as a historic moment' (151). Guzmán's next project was never completed within the circumstances that originated it, as it was truncated by General Pinochet's coup on the 11th of September, 1973. _La batalla de Chile_, whose title appears to quote Gillo Pontecorvo's earlier neorealist classic _La bataille d'Alger_ (_The Battle of Algiers_, 1965), was finally edited in Cuba (with the rolls of film progressively smuggled out of Chile by Guzmán's associates) and released in three parts from 1975 to 1979. Transformed by the dramatic events, the film became a retrospective look at the last stages of Chile's failed revolutionary experiment from the perspective of exile.

 

The above exemplifies a political legacy that has determined the fate of cinema in Latin America. At least since the 1960s, filmmaking in Latin America was perceived by the establishment as a subversive expression that required control and this impulse was institutionalised through successive governments and regimes. Not only in Chile but in most Latin American countries during the period of military dictatorships (from the 1970s to 1980s) films and filmmakers were banned, exiled, or simply annihilated. One of the most dramatic and telling examples of the fascist attack on transgressive cultural expression is the burnings of films by the military at the Chile Films central office, following the military coup. In _Plano secuencia de la memoria de Chile_ (_A Long Take of Chile's Memory_, 1988) Chilean film scholar Jacqueline Mouesca reproduces in full the testimony of a Chile Films worker who describes how the soldiers made a great bonfire in the central yard of the film company and for three days burned hundreds of master prints of films ranging from recent political documentaries to national cinema classics and precious historical relics.

 

This legacy of rejection and destruction of the locally-made cinema is only recently beginning to be negotiated -- partly because of the international success of a number of Latin American films. This reconsideration may have as its earliest antecedent the attention given, at the time of the return of democracy in Argentina, to Mario Puenzo's Oscar-winning _La historia official_ (_The Official Story_, 1984), which is the object of the analysis in Clara Krieger's chapter. The importance of _La historia oficial_ lies in its departure from the rough experimentalism of the activist cinema of the previous decades -- that followed the principles of 'imperfect cinema' and 'aesthetics of hunger' -- to embrace the smooth narrative and aesthetic qualities of mainstream commercial cinema. At the same time, the film maintains the traditional commitment of engagement with the historical and political context characteristic of Latin American films. _La historia oficial_ is a testimony of very tragic events left to future generations; it is an attempt both to recover and preserve a very painful collective memory that resonates not only among Argentines but Latin Americans in general. Thus, _The Cinema of Latin America_ is an essential tool both to recover and preserve this cinematic memory into the future. Many other essential films are also discussed in subsequent chapters. These include, among others, the impressionistic silent film _Limite_ (_Limit_, Mário Peixoto, Brazil, 1931); Luis Buñuel's Mexican cinematic poem _Los olvidados_ (_The Young and the Damned_, 1950); Brazilian Nelson Pereira Dos Santos's precursor to the *Cinema Nõvo* of Glauber Rocha, _Rio, 40 Graus_ (_Rio, 40 Degrees_, 1955); and the 4-hour, three-part agit-prop experimental documentary _La hora de los hornos_ (_The Hour of the Furnaces_, 1968), directed by Argentine Fernando Solanas and Spaniard Octavio Getino, who were also the authors of the manifesto that gave its name to the third cinema movement.

 

With the decline of the activist films of the revolutionary, anti-dictatorial and exilic periods, Latin American filmmakers seemed to have lost their sense of direction. The exceptions are notable because they invariable refuse to imitate the formulaic conventions of mainstream commercial film, recovering instead the experimental and political strategies of the earlier decades. I'm writing this review at the same time as Walter Salles's new film _Diarios de motocicleta_ (_The Motorcycle Diaries_, 2004) screens internationally. The release of _Diarios de motocicleta_ brings attention back to the theme of a unified and liberated continent through the film's depiction of Ernesto Guevara's story of travel through and recognition of the histories and tribulations of all Latin American peoples. El Che's utopian dream in the 1950s was not without antecedents but recovered the Pan-American project of Simón Bolivar, as the latter lead the anti-colonial wars against the European empires in the nineteenth century. Salles's own understanding of the project of filmmaking in Latin America responds to what the film scholar Zuzana Pick has called a 'continental project', that is, a creative activity directed to cultural decolonisation, identity search, and political unity through the diversity of cinematic expression amidst the continent's diverse countries. Salles expresses his hope for a renaissance of Latin American cinemas reflected in the recent international success of films such as Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu's _Amores perros_ (_Love's a Bitch_, 2000) and Argentina's Lucrecia Martel's _La Ciénaga_ (_The Swamp_, 2001), both with dedicated chapters in the book. As Salles notes, the fact that films like these have been successful, both with Latin American and international audiences and critics, is because,

 

'they are in dialogue with a film past that was our own, with the roots of Latin American cinema. They are as harsh and essential in their form and content as the films made by generations of the 1960s and 1970s. They are also different, since they portray another political and social moment.' (xiv)

 

_The Cinema of Latin America_ works as an excellent introduction for those interested in Latin American cinemas. Key scholarly references are provided in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and a selected national cinema bibliography is given at the back of the book. The films studied are essential titles and these are discussed in the context of many other secondary film references. Furthermore, full film credits are provided at the end of the book. The volume will also be of great interest to *connoisseurs* of the critical literature on Latin American cinemas written in English. Indeed, the book's editors and contributors, being specialists in specific Latin American national cinemas, are mainly from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain. Naturally, the chapters were originally written in Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and have been very competently translated into English. This represents a unique, important, and refreshing contribution to, and critical dialogue with, Latin American cinema scholarship in English. _The Cinema of Latin America_ also renews the excitement about both classic and contemporary Latin American films, raising an important question about the need for a dramatic improvement in the forms of access to such diverse, exciting, and essential film material.

 

Curtin University of Technology

Perth, Australia

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2005

 

Antonio Traverso, 'Unsettled Screens: _The Cinema of Latin America_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 12, March 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n12traverso>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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