“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.