“New Transnationalisms” in Latin American Cinemas

By Dolores Tierney*

Guillermo del Toro speaks on a panel

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who won the Oscar for Best Director last month. / Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

When Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro won the Oscar for Best Director for The Shape of Water last month, it was another example of the “new transnationalism” of contemporary Latin American cinemas.  Working across cultures while preserving his Mexican creative identity, del Toro follows in the footsteps of his compatriots, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Best Director for Birdman in 2014 and The Revenant in 2015) and Alfonso Cuarón (Best Director for Gravity, 2013).  An examination in my recent book of these and three other Latin American directors – Brazilians Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, and Argentine Juan José Campanella – finds that their work is part of a broader shift toward transnational filmmaking: films made in one country produced with capital, creative input, or paradigms borrowed from another, and actors and directors making films in nations other than their own.

  • To a certain extent, Latin American filmmaking has always involved the use of personnel, equipment, and cinematographic styles from Europe and the United States. This comingling has become more radical, however, since the early 1990s, when neoliberal policies in the three major filmmaking nations – Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina – in particular led to a withdrawal of government financial support for the industry.  State-owned film infrastructures, including film institutes, distribution companies, and theater chains, were dismantled.  Production numbers fell from close to 100 annually in each country to less than ten, and Hollywood films increasingly dominated box offices.  In Mexico, government patronage still contributed to Cuarón and del Toro’s first features, respectively Sólo con tu pareja (1991) and Cronos (1993), but large numbers of directors, cinematographers, and actors left to look for work in the United States film industry.

At the turn of the century, however, production shifted toward a new model of transnational production.  Mexican cinema experienced a box office and critical renaissance because deregulation of movie ticket prices encouraged investment in new U.S.-style multiplex theatres situated in upscale shopping malls and neighborhoods.  Among the hits were Amores perros; Y tu mamá también; El crimen del padre Amaro; and Sexo, pudor y lágrimas.  The new multiplex-goers welcomed a range of Hollywood-derived genre films (romantic comedies, teen films), narratives, and practices (tie-in soundtracks) that reflected Mexicans’ own evolving tastes – finding common ground between Mexican and U.S. culture even if, quantitatively, “Hollywood” films still dominated.  In the same general time period, moreover, Mexican state support shifted toward a new model of privately and transnationally financed filmmaking that includes funds from European countries, other Latin American countries, and the United States.  Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro straddled two markets and two cultures, and excelled in both.

  • A similar evolution took place in Argentina and Brazil, with state withdrawal in the early 1990s and then a push to filmmaking in a reformed model of co-production in more recent years. Brazil and Argentina’s most successful domestic films are made with a combination of funds from the state (or state-owned businesses such as Petrobras) and private companies working with foreign partners, such as the Spanish Telefe and U.S.-based Disney affiliate Miravista (in Argentina), and a consortium of foreign firms partnered with Globo in Brazil.

Latin American film critics often lament that the region’s transnationalized cinemas borrow too much from the aesthetic models of the north – the genre templates of the crime film, melodrama, and romantic comedy among others.  But closer analysis shows that, while such artistic appropriation and the international co-producers’ distribution muscle are important, the films’ success also depends on their strong elements of “local exceptionality.”  Transnationally funded artists whose films circulate successfully in Europe and North America have leverage to tackle important sociopolitical aspects of their respective national histories.  Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (La ciénaga, La niña santa, La mujer sin cabeza, Zama) and Peruvian Claudia Llosa (Madeinusa, La teta asustada) are able to get around funding bodies’ prescriptive demands to make films that challenge stereotypes of developing nations.  In his recent Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water, del Toro has made an English-language adult fairy tale with nods to science fiction, spy thrillers, and the musical, but it is much more than a product of U.S. industry.  It is a transnational film that reflects what del Toro refers to as the contradictions of his Mexican identity – a mixing of the “dark” and the “good” – and explores how Latin American and Latinness function in the U.S. political and racial imaginary.  His transnational film doesn’t diminish his Mexican voice; it enhances it.

 April 2, 2018

* Dolores Tierney is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex and former CLALS Fellow.  Her book, New Transnationalisms in Contemporary Latin American Cinemas, was published by Edinburgh University Press last month.

Argentina: Wild Tales, Indeed

By Jeffrey Middents*

Photo Credit: inigo_montoya_es4 / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: inigo_montoya_es4 / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Latin American film of the moment – Relatos salvajes or Wild Tales – is not just a cultural phenomenon in Argentina, but perhaps a political touchstone as well  Damián Szifrón’s madcap dark comedy about revenge won this year’s Goya Award for Best Iberoamerican Film and was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.  It has also been a box-office powerhouse, easily becoming the top-grossing movie of the year at home in Argentina and gaining significant financial success in Spain, Italy and throughout South America.  In the United States, the film’s slow roll-out over the last two weeks since Oscar weekend earned a remarkable $385,000 in just 28 theaters nationwide.  This is particularly impressive since its format – an anthology of six short films that are narratively unrelated – historically results in a somewhat uneven cinematic experience that plays poorly with audiences.  Relatos salvajes bursts at the seams with the hottest Argentine movie stars of the moment: Ricardo Darín from El secreto de sus ojos/The Secret in Their Eyes, Dario Grandinetti from Almodóvar’s Hable con ella/Talk to Her, Leonardo Sbaraglia from Plata quemada/Burnt Money and especially Érica Rivas from Coppola’s Tetro.

The film’s real impact, however, comes from its contemporary themes, which resonate strongly, especially with Argentine audiences.  It has inspired new slang: on the streets of Buenos Aires, “Bombita,” the nickname of the character played by Darín, now refers to the welcome rage against an impossible system.  “Pasternak” also has taken on special meaning that, without spoiling one of the most delicious segments of the film, refers to a low-flying plane involved in a hilarious act of ultimate revenge.  So memorable is this name that, in a public speech about a new train project around the Buenos Aires airport, President Cristina Kirchner last September 8 used it when joking with reporters about the number of low-flying Aerolineas Argentinas flights.  Szifrón even noted her “official support” by posting the clip on his Facebook page.

Kirchner may be ruing the day Relatos salvajes ever appeared in theaters.  Although the film is explicitly unpolitical, commercial cinema – yielding its sharpest dagger against the most universal circumstances of contemporary society writ large – it has steered directly into Argentine politics.  The mysterious death of whistleblower prosecutor Alberto Nisman, blamed on the President, has prompted calls for revenge against her.  The film’s premise – people exacting revenge on the powers they cannot otherwise fight – has surfaced as a common point of departure in several biting op-eds in Argentine newspapers in the last month, referring to the “wild tales” the Kirchner government has been telling to cover up the growing scandal.  “Like the memorable film that arrived on the red carpet this year from the points of the cinematic world,” Federico Sánchez Chopa wrote in Tandil Diario, “Kirchner’s regime wants to launch the last act of its tale in a wild way.”  Nelson Salvidio takes the concept even further in a scathing indictment: “Cristina, Néstor [her husband, and the former president] before her, and their quarrelsome followers can be credited for crafting images and acts so that half the country believes their tales.”

With his midnight-dark, hyper-stylized fable, Szifrón may have inadvertently captured Kirchner in his lens.  In the last segment of the film, the bride exhorts the videographer at her wedding to capture the mayhem she has caused, resulting in another line that has become an Argentine catchphrase: “Shoot this, Néstor!”  We shall see whether Argentina’s real-life revenge narrative will be as entertaining.

March 9, 2015

*Jeffrey Middents is an Associate Professor of transnational cinema and literature at American University, with a particular interest in Latin American narrative. He is currently working on a book on director Alfonso Cuarón.