Central and South American Cinema

Will Spencer 24 January 2013

Since attracting significant attention in the early 2000s with films such as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores Perros (2000), the world profile of Central and South American cinema has steadily grown. The success of the former was replicated in Hollywood by Inarritu in the form of 21 Grams and the multilingual film Babel, which garnered over $135 million at the box office. His most recent film, Biutiful, on the other hand, is filmed in Spanish but set in Barcelona, rather than in Latin America.

Though Inarritu’s first three films form a so-called “death trilogy”, death is not the only aspect of his films which makes them universally appealing. His ability to transcend cultures is most obviously borne out by the settings of all his films in disparate countries. With Biutiful, for instance, he follows directors like Guillermo del Toro in straddling the Hispanic divide between Iberia and Latin America. The success of both these directors, however, is down to more than cultural cross-referencing alone. In del Toro’s case, films such as El espinazo del diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) and his most famous work, El Laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) tackle the effects of Franco’s regime on Spain, but infuses this subject matter with mystery and fantasy, whose implications extend beyond Spain itself. Biutiful, meanwhile, though not Inarritu’s most successful film commercially, deals with personal struggle in the face of death and social strife, elements which strike a chord universally. Another Mexican director to achieve international recognition by traversing cultural boundaries is Alfonso Cuaron, whose unrestrained coming-of-age film Y tu mama tambien (2001) led to a successful foray into Hollywood with Children of Men in 2006.

Fernando Meirelles’s’ 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God), with its gritty depiction of life in Brazil’s favelas, awakened the world to the stark reality not only of shanty towns in the region, but of absolute poverty as a mode of existence. Despite its financial difficulties in the early 2000s, Argentina was another significant contributor to the worldwide emergence of Latin American cinema. Films such as 2004’s El abrazo partido (The Lost Embrace) and the 2007 feature XXY tackle cultural and genetic identity, the latter centring on the life of a 15-year-old intersexual and the consequent social stigma. El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) truly confirmed the arrival of Argentinian cinema on the world stage, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2009. Ostensibly, the film is a murder mystery, but the film’s comment upon the poignancy of the past renders it successfully meaningful as well as accessible.

It is perhaps the overwhelming reliance of the film industry on Hollywood which ultimately dictates the role of Latin American cinema. It is undeniable that success in Latin America is often a stepping stone to Hollywood, and this largely ensures that Central and South American directors achieve greater fame, and maybe even recognition for their earlier domestic work. However, even domestically, the films with the most commercial success in the last five years have predominantly been Hollywood imports, painting a rather bleaker picture.

Will Spencer