6 Latin-American Films You Must-Watch

Toti Sarasola
7 May 2014

Latin American films tend to tell dramatic and emotive stories about characters to whom we cannot express apathy. Directors seem to emphatically create a very accurate and veridical depiction of a particular context: these films occur in a determinate space and time, which is key to the story. Although they are narrowly contextualized, many of the themes explored in one country can easily be extrapolated to others, given the common history shared by many of them. Political at their core, these films touch time and again on the corruption of the authorities, the social inequalities present in the region and the suffering caused by many of its totalitarian regimes.

Strawberry and Chocolate

(Cuba/Mexico/Spain, 1993, dir. By Tomas Gutiérrez de Alea)

film4In the midst of the post-Cold War years, a homosexual middle-aged intellectual with an expertise in literature and visual arts ends up having a cup of tea with a young communist militant in La Habana. One thing unites them – the passion for literature – while each has his own interests in mind. The first wants to get the young revolutionary into bed, while the second wants to discover whether this eccentric character who drinks Johnny Walker is a spy for the “enemy”. The initial intolerance and prejudices slowly evaporate, giving rise to a fruitful friendship where conversations on literature, art, politics, homosexuality and love shed light on two key issues of the time: the power of state propaganda to influence the minds of young militants and the oppression of this totalitarian state on the homosexual community.

Set in a time of political uncertainties, Strawberry and Chocolate portrays the tense atmosphere in an identity-seeking Cuba without the support of the URSS. Censored on Cuban television since its release, the deep questions asked back then about feelings of homophobia spread amongst the Latin American populations have – sadly – not yet been answered 20 years after its first screening.

City of God

(Brazil, 2002, dir. By Fernando Meirelles)

When the protagonists of this story – Cohete, Ze Pequeno and Bene – are just kids, the City of God is a new community recently created in Rio de Janeiro for people to start over. As these characters grow up, the initial Robin Hood crimes of the first scenes escalate into hard-core drug trafficking involving daily assassinations in a city, which has grown to become a favela of impunity due to the corruption of the authorities. Ze Pequeno’s gang begins an intense and everlasting war against Carrot’s gang for the control of the drug traffic in this God-less city. Cohete’s initial premonition, “Fight and you’ll never survive. Run and you’ll never escape” is defied by his own dream to become a photographer.

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The innovating aspects in cinematography and editing take the aesthetics of this film to another level: cuts in time, repetitions of scenes from different angles, sudden close-ups into grotesque images and challenging the 180 degrees rule are just a few examples. Apart from depicting the harsh reality lived in a favela, the film also highlights the responsibility of corrupt cops, stating a fact hard to assimilate: the quasi-utopian chance of escaping the criminal world in which these children live.

The Motorcycle Diaries

(Argentina, 2004, dir. By Walter Salles)

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Knowing that this films narrates a fragment of “Che” Guevara’s life, the average spectator will be baffled by the absence of that bearded revolutionary wearing a military boina while holding a machine-gun, a renowned image for t-shirts, tattoos, key holders, mugs and more. This film does not narrate the story of “Che” Guevara but of Ernesto Guevara. Interpreted by a colossal figure in Latin American cinema, Gael Garcia Bernan, Ernesto is a young, handsome medical student who lives with his affluent family in Buenos Aires. A dream of his that grows to become an urge forces him to abandon this comfortable life: launching a journey with his biochemist friend – Alberto Granado – in an old motorcycle to see as much of Latin America as they can. Even though one of the initial motivations for this trip was something as frivolous – and funny – as sleeping with a different girl in each South American country, this journey shapes the mentality of one of Latin America’s most influential figures.

Based on the actual diary of Guevara, but translated majestically to the screen, this film offers a unique depiction of Latin America’s geographical and social diversity through the eyes of a figure who cannot remain passive at the sight of inequality. Focused on the oppression and alienation towards peasants, indigenous groups and leprapatients, one does not need to be a Marxist to be moved by this film.

The Pope’s Toilet

(Uruguay, 2007, dir. By Cesar Charlone)

Based on a true story, the film begins when Pope John Paul II is about to visit the provincial Uruguayan town of Melo to give a speech, something that – believe me – will cause even more fuss than Hillary Clinton visiting St Andrews. The director effectively depicts the setting of this story as a gloom and unattractive place to live: the colours brown and grey predominate the film, while the verdancy of the Uruguayan fields appears only sporadically in moments of hope. The characters look as grey as their town: forced to live as smugglers who cross to the Brazilian side of the border to bring goods to Uruguayan merchants, their illegal life is at constant risk and they can barely make enough money to escape poverty. The inhabitants of Melo, however, find refuge: the Pope visits along with 100.000 tourists, creating an unprecedented economic opportunity. While a great part of the town invests in buying traditional food to sell to tourists – chorizos, torta fritas – our protagonist comes up with an idea that can only make him rich: building a public toilet and charging a fee for its use during the Pope’s visit.

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By means of a very naturalistic portrayal of the story, this film raises questions about the lack of opportunities and under-paid jobs that the inhabitants – not only of Melo, but of the whole Latin American countryside – experience on a daily basis, while they remain hidden or forgotten behind ‘first-world’ cities like Buenos Aires, Santiago or Lima. The failed dream of becoming rich in one day by pretending to be a speculator comes to symbolize the dislocation between the economic system ruling the world and the people that it leaves behind.

The Secret in their Eyes

(Argentina, 2009, dir. By Juan Jose Campanella)

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A beautiful and recently married 23 year old is raped and murdered by an assassin who did not force his entry into her house. Twenty-five years after the events, the now retired criminal investigator who worked on the case, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), seeks closure in his life, and this unresolved case prevents him from sleeping at night. Far from being a simple criminal thriller, Campanella effectively intertwists past and present to tell a gripping and chilling story about the search for an elusive maniac, allowing the spectator insight into the protagonist’s existential dilemmas at a crucial point of his life: How can one live such a vague life without questioning it? When is it too late to act? How can everything in life change, while love and passions remain pure through decades?

The spectator will also dwell into many of Buenos Aires’ emblematic scenarios –its coffee-shops, bars and even a football stadium – while understanding the corruption and inefficacy of the Judicial System during a period of extreme tension and political instability: the Dirty War. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2009, ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ made Argentina the first Latin American country to win this prestigious award twice.

No!

(Chile, 2012, dir. By Pablo Larrain)

Chile, 1988. As October approaches, a glimpse of hope is seen at the end of the tunnel – a dark military tunnel in which the Chileans were stuck for 15 years of death, torture, desaparecidos, exile and repression under the orders of Augusto Pinochet. The pressure of the international community forced this military regime to call for a plebiscite, which asked: Do you want Pinochet to keep his presidential position? A hypothetical triumph of ‘Yes’ would extend his presidency for 8 more years, while a victory of ‘No’ would call for democratic elections one year after. Silenced for 15 years, the opposition is allowed a small voice in the midst of hours of state propaganda: a publicity space of 15 minutes every night on the TV to convince the people to vote ‘No!’

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The ‘No’ campaigners face three main challenges: i) how to fit 15 years of repression into 15 minutes per night; ii) how to convince the fearful adult population that the economic ‘stability’ they achieved during the dictatorship depends on the poverty of a great part of Chile; and iii) how to persuade young pessimistic voters convinced that the military regime will not accept a hypothetical defeat to go and vote anyway. For this purpose, a young and successful publicist – Renee Saavedra, interpreted again by Gael Garcia Bernal – is called to the opposition headquarters to design the campaign. His unorthodox and risky approach, initially resisted by many, is recognized as a key element in Chile’s transition to democracy.

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