Category Archives: Latin American Cinema

Las Plantas (Plants, Chile 2015)

Chilean cinema has certainly developed in recent years. This month a Chilean film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and here is a first-time writer-director Roberto Doveris creating an unusual coming-of-age story which succeeds on several levels. A weird and wonderful tale, Las Plantas combines genres and ideas that don’t always cohere, but the film is always watchable and it is innovative in interesting ways. I caught it on MUBI (on its last night of availability unfortunately).

Flor in the school playground with the comic book

The title refers to a comic book discovered by 17 year-old Flor in the garage of the apartment for which she is now responsible. The comic book appears to be Argentinean and offers an episode in a longer science fiction/fantasy/horror story which borrows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other familiar tales about plants that in the dead of night take over human bodies. Throughout the film there is a sense that the comic book and several other factors must be in some way metaphorical about the situation in which Flor finds herself. ‘Flor’ is short for Florencia, but ‘flor’ also refers to ‘flora’ or ‘flowers’.

Flor in cosplay mode at a comics fair

Flor has more to cope with than most teenagers. Her brother Sebastian is in a persistent vegetative state and needs constant care in feeding and washing. Flor’s father is absent and her mother is also seriously ill in hospital. When Clara leaves (she may be Flor’s aunt?), Flor is in sole charge of the apartment and Sebastian. A creepy uncle appears and disappears one night. Money is in short supply and it appears that Flor has had to move schools. We don’t see her engaged in school work and she doesn’t seem to have a ‘best’ girlfriend. Instead she hangs out with two boys with whom she creates dances that might at some point be performed. The trio also engage in forays into internet chatrooms, looking for sexual encounters. Eventually it becomes clear that this fascination and anxiety about sex (and the comic book story) is what helps Flor get through the daily grind. In the final part of the narrative Flor’s sexual desire takes centre stage.

. . . and sleeping next to her comatose brother

I can see from some of the online comments that the slow pace and the loose narrative has put off some viewers. It’s true that some characters appear without much explanation and that it is easy to get confused by characters who are similar in appearance and often photographed in shadow. On the other hand the whole film has a dreamlike quality and a ‘tidier’ narrative might lose some of the atmosphere or ‘tone’. The film stands or falls on the central performance of Violeta Castillo as Flor. This is her first listed feature and Castillo (who is Argentinian) has also provided some of the music in the film.

I’m a little surprised that the film hasn’t had wider distribution. I can see that the nudity (especially erect penises) might be a problem for censors but personally I’d be happy to see this film get a ’15’ certificate in the UK. It’s worth pointing out that the sequences depicting Flor’s developing sexuality are by no means sexist – nakedness is not ‘gendered’ here. It’s refreshing to see a narrative focusing on a young woman’s discovery of her own sexual desire and her own attempts to explore it.

Las Plantas won prizes in the ‘Generation 14+’ section of the Berlinale in 2016. Here’s the trailer from the festival:

The Clan (El Clan, Argentina-Spain 2015)

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

Pablo Trapero is one of the most successful filmmakers working in Argentina today. To underline that status, his latest film to get a UK release was co-produced by the Almodóvars’ company El Deseo. It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2015 and had the biggest ever opening box office take for any film in Argentina, quickly achieving 2 million admissions. What lies behind its success? This a ‘true crime film’ telling the unlikely story of the Puccio family living in an affluent district of Buenos Aires in the early 1980s. Behind the façade of comfortable middle-class life they operated a kidnapping business led by the father Arquímedes (Guillermo Francella) who had been an ‘intelligence’ operative – basically a tool of the military dictatorship – while masquerading as a civil servant before defeat in the Malvinas War helped to cause the downfall of General Galtieri in 1982. Still with contacts in the military, Arquímedes decides to switch from kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ dissidents to kidnapping rich business people and demanding large ransoms. It seems that young Argentinians are only dimly aware of the recent history of their country and the revelations of this story have created a great deal of interest.

(Warning: There are what some might consider SPOILERS in what follows.)

In terms of Latin American Cinema this is perhaps the most potent contemporary genre  – films about the repercussions of the fascism of the 1980s in Argentina and at different times in many other Latin American countries. In some ways El Clan resembles the big popular hit The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Argentina. But El Clan is in many ways a ‘harder’, less romantic film, probably because of the true life story. The hardness of the film is derived from the family’s involvement and in particular with the relationship between Arquímedes and his son Alejandro (known to his friends as Alex and played by Peter Lanzani). Alex is a successful rugby player. He plays for Casi, one of the powerful Buenos Aires clubs and was the ‘golden boy’ and later captain of the club team. He also played for the ‘Pumas’ – the national team which was beginning to build an international reputation in the 1970s and 1980s.  When his father decides to kidnap the sons of rich men, he drags Alex into the business because several such boys are rugby players at Alex’s club and Alex is useful in identifying potential targets. Later, Arquímedes uses the money from one ‘job’ to transform the small family shop into a swish sporting goods store to be run by Alex. In one of the best scenes we see Alex testing a new sub-aqua set, holding the mouthpiece to his face and breathing in oxygen. On reflection this seems like a metaphor for the terror that Alex feels because of his father’s actions and his own involvement. He compulsively sucks in oxygen, as if he is gasping for air because he is so frightened. The contrast between the domesticity of the Puccio family’s daily routines and the brutality and squalor of the treatment of the kidnap victims is shocking.

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family's criminality

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family’s criminality

All of the family bar the youngest, Adriana who is still in middle school, are aware of what is going on. Alex’s mother and his sister Sylvia (both teachers) play minor roles. The youngest son, Guillermo decides to abandon the family before he is dragged into the business when he goes abroad and the second son Maguila is brought back from abroad to aid his father. It is a chilling performance by Guillermo Francella as Arquímedes and reminds us of the conviction of the fascists in Argentina that they had a right to do these terrible things. Arquímedes is always calm, even when he is prepared to kill the abductees because they might cause problems if released. At the end of the film we learn what happened to the real Puccio family – and Arquímedes does more or less what we, by then, expect of him.

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

This is a well-made thriller which has audiences on the edge of their seats. Much has been made of the music in the film and the way it creates an ironic context for the terrible deeds on screen. I’ve seen reviewers refer to ‘contemporary pop songs’ – which is nonsense unless British/American music takes decades to reach Argentina. The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald (1944), the Kinks (1966) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) provide excellent tracks that fit the film narrative, but they are not about the period. I don’t know the other songs – which might be 1980s. It has also been suggested that this is Trapero’s most accessible film. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the case. My memory of Carancho (2010) is of a similar mix of crime genre film and social commentary. Trapero’s approach is to start towards the end of the story (i.e. the arrest of the family) and show snatches of action and then flashback to different periods to discover what happened over three years. Each flashback has a useful title giving the year and some contextual events. Even so, this makes the film narrative more complex and more difficult to follow. If you want to watch the film (and I certainly recommend it) I suggest that you read a timeline of major events in Argentina 1982-85 before you watch it. I’m not sure what Trapero gains from this approach – perhaps it just seems fashionable and that is the basis of its accessibility? You can download the Production Notes for the film from the Curzon website, but these focus mainly on the contemporary coverage of the arrest etc. rather than the aesthetics of the film. It’s worth noting though that Trapero’s cinematographer Julián Apezteguia uses a tracking camera to take us through the government buildings and bureaucracies of Buenos Aires and a distinctive film noir style for the criminal acts themselves and especially the way Arquímedes moves silently, calmly through the night. There is something really creepy about Arquímedes sweeping the pavement in front of the family shop early in the morning with water from a hose being used to clean the walk-way when only yards away in a basement room a kidnap victim suffers. The sound too is very well handled with attention given to the muffled screams of the victims mixed with other more every day sounds.

The 'normalcy' of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The ‘normalcy’ of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The Clan in cinemas

The Clan opened in the UK on September 16 and the BFI box office for the first weekend shows that it only appeared in 14 cinemas – but achieved a site average of over £3,000, giving it No 29 in the chart and beating all but two of the other films on release. The small number of cinemas is surprising, especially because this is a film from the producers of the previous Argentinian blockbuster Wild Tales which in 2015 became the highest earning ‘non-Bollywood’ foreign language film in the UK. Wild Tales opened on 50 screens for No 9 in the chart and a site average over £3,600. So why the change of policy from the same distributor, Curzon-Artificial Eye? The difference is that this time Curzon made the film available on VOD at the same time as the cinema release. Unfortunately, they do not release stats for VOD sales on a regular basis, so there is so far no chance to compare the releases. What this means though is that there are fewer opportunities to see the film in cinemas. I saw the film on its second week run at HOME in Manchester where it showed in one of the smaller cinemas. It was so popular that the lunchtime screening sold out and I found myself in the middle of the front row with a CinemaScope image a few feet away. This was genuinely ‘immersive’ – so much so that I couldn’t see the whole screen easily and had to switch my gaze from one side of the screen to the other while still managing to read the subtitles. I’m not complaining and I enjoyed the film, but I’m not happy about Curzon’s policy. I shouldn’t have to travel 40 miles to see a film that could be showing closer to home. Either Curzon are reluctant to accept Picturehouses booking the film or the latter are even less interested in the foreign language market than I thought.


Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

The Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has developed a reputation for festival films in the ‘slow cinema’ mode. This means that his films are shown by leading festivals but struggle to get cinema releases in many territories. Jauja (his fifth feature) is a slightly different proposition since it stars the internationally-known Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen (who is also credited as one of the producers and the music composer on the film). Perhaps because of this, Alonso has managed to attract funding and support from many sources including the US, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The film won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Cannes and two other international awards and certainly in the UK it has had a higher profile on release than the director’s earlier films.

Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish military engineer in the late 19th century who is assisting the Argentinian Army in their genocidal campaign to survey and ‘clear’ the ‘jungle’ – the desolate area in Patagonia sparsely populated by indigenous peoples. (The English word ‘jungle’ has connotations of tropical rainforest but its original Sanskrit/Hindi meaning is ‘arid wasteland’ – precisely describing parts of Patagonia.) He has with him his teenage daughter. It isn’t explained why she is there and her presence is disturbing for some of the soldiers. Almost inevitably she starts a relationship with one of them and the couple then run away from the camp. Forced to go looking for them, Mortensen’s character makes his own journey into the unknown.

‘Jauja’ refers to a magical place and at the beginning of the film a title explains this. In colonial ‘Latin America’ it became associated with similar concepts such as ‘El Dorado’. In this instance it seems to me that it refers to what might be termed the fantasy at the heart of the colonial melodrama. In some ways this film reminded me of Tabu, the Portuguese film which so captivated me in 2012. The two films aren’t necessarily the same in style, but there are some parallels about colonialism and both employ a time shift so we see characters in the present with links to the colonial past. In Jauja the link is not really explained but Viilbjørk Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, also plays a young woman in a country house in modern Denmark. Without spoiling the ‘plot’, I’ll simply note here that the Captain’s search for his daughter takes him to some odd places and some strange experiences. There are two linking motifs between the two time periods – a dog and a toy soldier.

The colonial 'other' – the indigenous people who live in the 'jungle'

The colonial ‘other’ – the indigenous people who live in the ‘jungle’

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

The search for a daughter (common I understand to several of Alonso’s stories) in the context of a ‘hostile territory’ in the 19th century brings to mind John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran searching for his niece presumed abducted by Comanche raiders. Alonso selected the Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki) to shoot Jauja and Salminen is quoted as seeking a John Ford look for this quasi-Western. He appears to have come across the idea of an Academy (1.33:1) frame with rounded edges during post production and then imposed it on the 1.85:1 footage. The effect works particularly well because of the deep-focus compositions which stretch the gaze into the far distance – proving that barren spaces can be captured in depth as well as in the breadth of a CinemaScope image (see the article and interview with Mortensen by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight and Sound May 2015 plus the review of the film by Adrian Martin for more detail on this). The Academy framings also act as a reminder of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

I enjoyed Jauja and I found the various aesthetic devices and ideas about the colonial (mis)adventure both interesting and stimulating. I think the Danish connection came about because of the multilingual Mortensen’s interest in the script. Alonso and his co-writer Fabian Casas welcomed a different ‘voice’/language that would be ‘strange’ in an Argentinian film (i.e. not Spanish/French/Italian or English). The colonial past of Denmark is not so widely known as that of other European nations but it is an important element in Danish culture. Besides Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland, Denmark also possessed widely scattered small territories in the Caribbean and India and participated in the slave trade. Dinesen stands in for the European colonial adventurer while the Argentinians themselves are like the ‘settlers’ in North America and Australia who set out to eradicate indigenous peoples. The Argentinian Army officer in the film refers to ‘coconut heads’ – a made up name that Alonso thought would be strange but “not offensive” (see the interview in Sight and Sound). It sounds pretty offensive to me and I suspect to many others. Perhaps as the Luis Suarez racism charge suggests, these issues are rather differently dealt with in the Southern part of South America (i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay)?

So, what does the wider release mean for this ‘slow cinema’ film? I suspect that there has been a fair amount of bewilderment amongst the more mainstream arthouse audience. For my part I enjoyed the chance to gaze on the tableaux set up by Alonso and Salminen and to use the time to think about some of the issues. But I was aware that at the end of a long working day I was prone to losing concentration and potentially falling asleep. On the other hand, a big screen in a darkened cinema auditorium is also far more likely to hold my attention over the whole film than a small screen in my living room – when it is so easy to pause or switch off a DVD. Festival films are meant to be seen in cinemas, even if many critics now watch them on much smaller screens. I also have Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) on disc – I wonder how that will work out?

¡Viva! 2013 #2: Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta Went to Heaven, Chile/Argentina/Brazil 2011)


Francisca Gavilán as Violeta Parra

vivalogoI don’t think I’ve seen a film by the Chilean director Andrés Wood before and I wasn’t familiar with the work of the subject of this film Violeta Parra (1917-67). Wood’s 2004 film Machuca has been on my waiting list for films to watch on DVD for some time so I jumped at the chance to see this new film which was the Chilean entry for the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar.

Violeta turns out to be an unusual form of biopic. Music (or more generally ‘artist’) biopics have tended to replace the 1930s and 1940s fascination with politicians and national heroes. Conventional films of this genre feature familiar aspects of the artist’s life – discovery, first success, fame, struggles with integrity, decline etc. Wood offers something very different, ‘layering’ snatches of Violeta’s career one on top of another, out of chronological order, in such a way that we build up an impression of  passionate and proud artist, not prepared to put up with audiences or commissioners who don’t appreciate her work. We keep returning to an interview on television in 1962 in which she responds to a particularly unpleasant interviewer. She came from a poor background and she attempted to keep alive aspects of Chilean folk culture in her music and her painting. She performed in Poland and painted in Paris and she fought the conservative establishment in Chile. She died before the dictatorship of Pinochet attacked many of her fellow artists. No hagiography this, it shows Violeta as a woman with desire, anger and demons whose relationships with her children were not straightforward – the script is based on writings by her son. The film looks good with cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz finding ways to represent the dusty plains and Andes trails of Chile as well as Paris and other locations.

Violeta Parra was a major figure in Chilean culture, I have discovered. She led performers into a New Chilean Song movement of folk-based socially committed music which spread throughout Latin America and throughout Iberian culture generally from the 1960s. I’ve no idea whether or not Francisca Gavilán’s portrayal is ‘authentic’ but it certainly worked for me and her performance of many of Violeta’s songs was stunning – I was especially taken by the songs delivered in a powerful voice of thudding drum beats which were quite mesmerising. But perhaps the most dramatic song in the film is about the Sparrowhawk and the Hen – a song with metaphorical meaning for Violeta. Cornerhouse Cinema 2 was packed for the screening but I don’t know if there is a distributor prepared to release a title like this in the UK. Unlike the Frida Kahlo biopic Frida (US 2002) there are no star names known in Europe and North America. Violeta se fue a los cielos is showing again in Viva at 20.40 on Saturday evening and it is well worth a visit. I should see it again.

!Viva¡ 2013


March means !Viva¡, Manchester’s annual festival of Spanish and Latin American film which this year runs from Friday 8th March until Sunday 24th March at Cornerhouse cinema and visual arts centre. This year’s programme promises the familiar mix of features and documentaries, education events and visiting filmmakers plus a complementary gallery programme featuring the work of Yoshua Okón in ‘Octopus’. The artist will be appearing in a Q&A session on Saturday 9 March with clips of his video work.

We’ll be making two visits to the festival and reporting on parts of the film programme. There are ten UK premieres and we are particularly excited by the range of work from Latin America this year with films from Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Chile and Colombia alongside Mexican and Argentina. There are several new Spanish titles including genre films. Lobos de Arga (Game of Werewolves) is a ‘werewolf comedy’ that will be introduced by Andy Willis in a ‘1 hour intro’ on 12th March. Other highlights include this year’s Oscar contender from Uruguay, La demora. This is a family drama by the Mexican director Rodrigo Plá whose earlier La zona was a hit at !Viva¡ in 2008.

!Viva¡ is a friendly festival with tickets at standard prices. The festival is spread out with two or three films on most days. Several of the films play twice. Why not visit Manchester for the day? You can download the festival programme from its homepage. Our first report will come later next week.

LFF 2012: #2: 3 (Uruguay/Argentina/Germany/Chile 2012)

Graciela, Ana and Rodolfo en famille in Rodolfo’s car

Uruguay is the richest country in South America, but it also has the smallest population. No surprise then that this film is a co-production. For a country with such a small population (under 4 million), Uruguay produces some major talents in football and cinema and this film is a worthy addition to the national output.

I thought at first that this was going to be a drama. I was surprised by the ending but on reflection it all makes sense. Perhaps a ‘comedy family melodrama’ is the best description? Director and co–writer, Pablo Stoll, has previously made dry comedies such as the international hit Whisky (2004) with collaborator Juan Pablo Rebella. 3 is his second solo film and it was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2012.

Rodolfo and Graciela are divorced. Rodolfo is in a second marriage, but that too is failing and his contact with his teenage daughter Ana remains important and brings him back to Graciela’s apartment, now sadly neglected. Rodolfo is a roly-poly dentist with an obsession for order, a love for his collection of houseplants and a passion for football which he still plays quite well, despite his weight. As one marriage deteriorates he finds himself increasingly trying to patch up his old one — literally in terms of falling plaster and damp on the walls and, in human terms, with his daughter.

Graciela is introduced as a harassed mother and single woman who nightly visits the hospital where her spinster aunt is gravely ill. At the hospital she meets a younger man who is similarly visiting as a ‘carer’. The two hospital patients are never seen, joining Rodolfo’s second wife, whose recent presence is signalled by ashtrays full of cigarette butts (everyone smokes with a passion), as unseen but narratively important characters.

Ana is a typical adolescent, first introduced as the bright girl being cautioned by a tutor because her lateness and frequent truancy are likely to see her repeating the year. She is also sporty, playing on the school handball team and taking after her father in a way. Ana discovers boys, alcohol and other means of spending her time. She is well-played by Anaclara Ferreyra Palfy, who at 20 manages to look 15 most of the time – although the traditional school uniform doesn’t help. She also bears some resemblance to Sara Bassio as her mother, so the casting works well.

3 has excellent music, some good laughs, terrific performances and overall offers decent entertainment. It should do well on the international market, though at 115 mins it is perhaps a tad too long. If I was being hyper-critical, I’d suggest that the narrative favours Rodolfo just a little too much. I liked him as a character but I’d have liked to know more about Graciela. There is a useful ‘official website‘ (in Spanish and English).