The Forgotten Films of Latin Cinema

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For as long as I have been a journalist, critic and curmudgeon extraordinaire, I have watched with some amusement how around this time every year countless mainstream outlets—and some Latino ones—pull out all the stops to highlight and celebrate Latino contributions to this country… and, well, why not… the world. We are flooded with tons of well-deserved profiles of community leaders, artists and historical figures, as well as tons of “Latino Films You Should Watch,” “Latino Books You Should Read”-type stories and listicles, along with the regular features: “The Best Mofongo/Ropa Vieja/Carne Asada/Ceviche Recipes on the Planet!!!”

I myself, as a reporter and editor for ¡Exito!, HOY and Café Magazine, partook in such shenanigans while questioning why. Aren’t we, as a Hispanic/Latino/Latinx/Latiné/whatever outlet, supposed to be celebrating our culture, our people, our history, even as we acknowledge its imperfections, 365 days a year? “It’s about ad revenue, stupid!” was the response back then, as I suspect it still is today.

What bugs me most about these stories, especially the ones on Latino arts, is their narrowmindedness. Take those “Essential Latino Movies” articles you see everywhere on the web. Outside of a few exceptions, the same titles keep cropping up over and over: Selena, Stand and Deliver, El Norte, La Bamba, Amores perros, Y tu mamá también, Like Water for Chocolate… Nothing wrong with those films. But more often than not these articles fail to acknowledge the rich and diverse history of Latin American and Latino cinema in this country.

Rarely do I see the likes of Robert M. Young’s powerful 1982 film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, featuring an outstanding performance from Edward James Olmos, mentioned in these stories. Or Luis Valdez’s exciting straight-to-screen adaptation of his Broadway production of Zoot Suitwhich, like Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Hair, showed me that the movie musical could be so much more than the studio-bound, happy-go-lucky, song-a-minute extravaganzas of the MGM Studios. Or how about the pivotal work of such Latin American filmmakers as Felipe Cazals (Canoa, 1976), Miguel Littín (El chacal de Nahueltoro, 1969; Alsino and the Condor, 1982), or Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Glauber Rocha’s entire filmography.

By focusing exclusively on those fims/books/records/songs/plays released in the last 20 years, such articles ignore the groundwork laid by hundreds of Latin American and U.S. Latino artists that came before, who struggled against all odds, sometimes with very little financial support, to bring their art to life.

Even so, I must tip my hat and scream a proud Wepa! to one of those stories. In Elle‘s “40 Essential Latinx Films to Watch Year-Round,” Gabriela Burgos, Ana Sofia Cintrón, Josie Meléndez and Juan Mojica rightfully acknowledge and celebrate the vibrant new movies coming out of Puerto Rico since the turn of the millennium that have been ignored by mainstream and Latino critics. The article shines a light on such iconoclastic and groundbreaking recent productions as Arí Maniel Cruz’s Antes que cante el gallo (2016), Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz and Mariem Pérez Riera’s street savvy and poignant comedy Maldeamores (2007), and Lo que le pasó a Santiago (1989), one of Jacobo Morales’s best films and Puerto Rico’s official entry to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language film category (before the Academy pulled Puerto Rico from the category due to its colonial status).

So here I am, once again writing a Hispanic/Latino/Latinx/Latiné/whatever Heritage Month piece. But instead of doing the same-old same-old, I want to celebrate los olvidados del cine latino, those films and filmmakers whose works have slipped through the cracks of cinema history. I dug deep into my own personal clip file to pull out these pearls. It’s by no means a complete list. I did not go as far back as I wanted to originally. But like many other films in danger of extinction—just recently one of the Cinemateca Brasileira’s warehouses burned to the ground, obliterating years of archival material and negatives that are now lost forever—you can thank President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-culture policies for that—these films deserve not only our attention but critical reappraisal. 

 

I begin with the works of a pioneer filmmaker whose films are hard to find: Argentinian director María Luisa Bemberg. Bemberg was, alongside Mexico’s Marcela Fernández Violante, one of the most prolific Latin American women filmmakers of the ’80s and ’90s, leaving behind seven feature-length films before her death at age 73 in 1995.

With the exception of her last film, I Don’t Want to Talk About It (1993, starring Marcello Mastroianni), all of her films center on women who struggle against a hostile and unfair world, who stand up against the socially and sexually repressive forces of their time, whether in an ultra-conservative society that condemned an illicit love affair with a priest (the Academy Award-nominated Camila, 1985), or against an entire patriarchal system that tries to suppress their intellectual curiosity (the 1990 Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz biopic, I, the Worst of All, based on Octavio Paz’s biography of early Mexican poet and, in my opinion, Bemberg’s masterpiece).

 

One of the founding fathers of what later became known as the New Argentine Cinema—a movement inspired as much by Italian Neo-Realism as it was by the politically committed Latin American cinema of the ’60s and ’70s—Pablo Trapero exploded onto the international film scene with Mundo grúa (Crane World, 1999), a gritty black-and-white verité-like story about Rulo, a former rock star now turned day laborer who will take whatever job is available in order to make ends meet. A friend finds him a job as a large crane operator and from this vantage point Rulo watches the world go by. But after being fired from his job, a new opportunity outside of Buenos Aires pops up.

After several equally minimalist efforts, Trapero would go on to direct more ambitious, politically-engaged films like Carancho (2010), the story of a lawyer/ambulance-chaser played by the always reliable Ricardo Darín, and El Clan (2015), the chilling story of the Puccio Clan, a well-connected family that led a kidnapping and murder ring at the height of Argentina’s Dirty War, featuring a spellbinding performance from Guillermo Francella.

 

Any mention of Darín and Francella inevitable recalls the actor Federico Luppi, El papá de los pollitos, a man who was the face of Argentine cinema for more than three decades, starring in such landmark films as Time for Revenge (1981), Funny Dirty Little War (1983) and Martin (Hache) (1997). He’s most known in this country for his collaboration with Guillermo Del Toro (Cronos, 1993; The Devil’s Backbone, 2001; Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006).

If he’s so well known, why am I including him among los olvidados? Because he starred in a film that seems to have disappeared into thin air: John Sayles’ Men With Guns (1997). Sayles was no stranger to Latin American politics and culture when he wrote and directed Men With Guns. A year before, he released Lone Star starring Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Peña, one of the definitive border movies. And in 1991 he published what I consider one of the best movies about the Cuban exile community, Los gusanos.

In Men with Guns Luppi plays Humberto Fuentes, a wealthy doctor in an anonymous Latin American country who is close to retiring when he finds out one of the students he trained to work in the rural regions of the country has disappeared. The farther inland he travels, the more he finds out about his student’s fate at the hands of those so-called “men with guns,” guerrilla and government forces alike.

 

Because Spanish-language television in the United States was over-saturated with B-movie offerings about drug cartels starring the likes of Los Hermanos Almada, it’s easy to forget that Mexican directors like Felipe Cazals and Arturo Ripstein were working in the margins of the industry, making films that spoke of that country’s social, political and even sexual ills, movies which were mostly seen in film festivals and art houses, if they were ever released at all in this country. It is also easy to forget that before the Iñárritu-Del Toro-Cuarón triumvirate, films like Luis Estrada’s La ley de Herodes (1999), Fernando Sariñana’s Todo el poder (2000) and even Alejandro Springall’s Santitos (1999) were paving the way for that country’s new auteurs.

Of the three, my favorite is still Todo el poder, the story of a videographer (Demián Bichir) who decides to take matters into his own hands after he is once again robbed by a band of criminals in cahoots with the local police. Featuring a kickass soundtrack, Todo el poder gave a much needed shot of adrenaline to contemporary Mexican cinema, and it’s about time it’s given its due.

 

Just like Todo el poder in Mexico, Raúl Marchand Sánchez’s 12 horas (2001) marked a before-and-after for Puerto Rican cinema. Outside of Linda Sara (1994), a high profile (and really mediocre) effort from Jacobo Morales—one of the island’s most prolific filmmakers—native production was pretty much at a standstill during most of the ’90s. But then came Marchand Sánchez’s feature debut, a ride on Puerto Rico’s wild side, shot mostly by hand-held in the streets of San Juan on a Friday night to tell the intersecting stories of, among others, three divorced ladies out on the town, a teenage girl who reluctantly sets out to lose her virginity, an entertainment reporter capturing the scene, and a taxi driver who works the overnight shift to pay for his wife’s medication.

Marchand Sánchez captures the energy of the San Juan metro area, its diverse inhabitants and an underground music scene that was beginning to emerge (its soundtrack features a who’s who of the island’s nascent rock en español, alternative, and urban music artists). But most important, the film showed younger Puerto Rican filmmakers a new way to make movies. No longer would movies in the island be well-mannered, theatrical, stuck in the past. From then on they would be gritty, real. They would embrace genre, and speak to Puerto Rico’s current conditions.

 

From the streets of San Juan to the streets of New York, 2001 also saw the release of Piñero, León Ichaso’s impressionistic biopic of poet, playwright and Nuyorican Poets Café co-founder Miguel Piñero, memorably played by Benjamin Bratt. Piñero moves to the rhythm of a conga drum, of Andy González’s bass, of Willie Colón’s and Eddie and Charlie Palmieri’s salsa beats. And its editing recreates the syncopated jazz-like beats of Piñero’s own verses. Bratt recites each verse with a contagious groove of his own. He digs deep into Piñero’s soul, he channels his energy, but he never overplays his hand.

The film captures the cultural tension between Puerto Rico’s intellectual class—which turned its nose up at any art form that came from New York’s Puerto Rican community—and the Nuyorican artists, the sons and daughters of government-sponsored migration to the United States. I remember one scene very well, how Piñero answers the island critics, and thinking “about bloody time.” It’s also about bloody time this film gets rediscovered.  

 

You could argue that Héctor Babenco’s Carandiru (2003) is part of an unofficial trilogy about urban poverty in contemporary Brazil and the government’s ruthless campaign against the favelas and the poor, which includes Fernando Meirelles’ and Kátia Lund’s dynamic and unforgettable City of God (2002), or José Padilha’s harrowing investigative documentary Bus 174 (2002), about how the hijacking of a bus in Río de Janeiro by a young petty criminal from the favelas became a media sensation. Unfortunately Carandiru hasn’t received the recognition it deserves and, alas, it’s not carried by any of streaming services, at least in this country.

Carandiru marked Babenco’s return to Brazilian cinema after directing several English-language productions (The Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985; Ironweed, 1987; At Play in the Fields of the Lord, 1991) and one Spanish-language film (Corazón iluminado, 1998). As gritty as his legendary Pixote (recently restored in 4K by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project and released by The Criterion Collection), Carandiru tells, through the eyes of a physician who tested prison inmates for AIDS, of the events that led to the Carandiru prison massacre on October 2, 1992, when military police stormed the penitentiary after a prison riot, resulting in the death of 111 unarmed prisoners. Babenco weaves the stories of close to half a dozen characters, particularly those prisoners who controlled the facility. It’s a brutal and compassionate film.

Carandiru stands as proof of what happens when countries turn their backs on their cultural legacy. Carandiru lies forgotten somewhere, probably caught in licensing hell—like so many Latin American films—while streaming services inform what viewers see and watch, entire collections at the mercy of algorithms. Or they may be facing a worse fate, stored in canisters somewhere, under terrible conditions, about to turn to dust or, in the case of films shot on nitrate celluloid, go up in flames.

 

Featured image by DAV.es/CC BY 2.0

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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