Two Driving Forces of Latin American Cinema

in 5th Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival

by Edouard Waintrop

The “Festival do Rio 2003” was a perfect place to observe and assess the changes in Latin American cinema. As expected, we found that the two driving forces of this cinema were the Brazilian documentaries and the new Argentinian features.

Brazilian Documentaries

Last year, the jury gave its award to Onibus 174, directed by Felipe Lacerda and José Padilha, a horrific (and wonderfully made) documentary. The story of a bloody event that took place in Rio in June 2000, when a bus was hijacked by an armed youngster. The ability of the directors to turn a simple crime story into a complex analysis in images, with the help of archive footage and of all sort of witnesses, was outstanding.

We find these same qualities in O Prisioneiro Da Grade de Ferro directed by Paulo Sacramento; its subtitle, “autoretratos” (self-portraits), indicates how it was partly made. In the few years that preceded the demolition of the immense Carandiru Detention Center in 2002, cameras were lent to prisonners so they could show what their lives were like. The result of this experience was then mixed with scenes filmed in the same jailhouse by Paulo Sacramento himself . After editing, we have an impressive documentary about broken lives and a good view of the hell Carandiru really was. It also gives the movie an unexpected depth.

In Fala Tu, another Brazilian documentary, Guilhermo Coelho chose three cariocas whose lives are divided between their need to earn money and their passion for urban rap. Macarrao, the eldest of the three heroes, supports his family (a wife and two daughters) by taking bets on horses. Toghum, the other fellow, sells esoteric products, and Combattente, a girl and the youngest of the three, is a telemarketing operator. All three are trying to focus exclusively on their music but none of them will succeed. The sad tone of the end of Fala Tu transforms the movie, which could have been a flat plea for the redemption of the poor through music, into a beautiful blues.

Argentinian new fiction

Since Mundo Grua (directed by Pablo Trapero in 1999) almost everybody knows that things are happening in the Argentinian cinema. In a domain that we could call new Neo-realism, we find directors like Trapero himself or Adriano Caetano. A good and very “noir” movie about three losers on the run like La Cruz del sur, directed by Pablo Reyero and shown in Rio, belongs to that category.

Other directors, less interested in the social context, are trying to bring a new and more contemporary type of smile to comedy. Martin Rejtman was, with Rapado (1992) and Silvia Prieto (1999) the pioneer of the new Argentinian cinema. He strikes again with The Magic Gloves, a funny comedy of situations. To the story of a taxi driver who doesn’t know exactly what to do with his life and sells his cab to regret it immediately, the movie adds a story of a nervous breakdown which passes from one character to another. Based on a subtle vis comica made of the repetition of the same empty sentences spoken by different characters in different circumstances, of attitudes not adapted to the situations and full of people who never listen to others, Magic Gloves looks like Antonioni’s work revisited by Preston Sturges, or like a Ionesco play adapted by a post-punk director.

Ana y los otros by Celina Murga can also be considered as a comedy. A cruel one. A young girl born in north Argentina comes back to her birth place after spending a few years in Buenos Aires. She is trying to find the young man with whom she was in love a few years before. On the way, she meets some married women who were her friends when they were teen-agers, another man who was, and still is, in love with her, and a young boy. The charm of this movie, which is the first feature directed by Celina Murga, is proportionate to the great gifts of the young director for the “mise en scène”, and also to the fragility of the narrative.

These last movies show how to tell stories with a remarkable coolness. Which doesn’t exclude feelings, on the contrary, and which favours the blossoming of these feelings in the audience. The Minimalism of the Argentinian features makes a strong contrast to the breadth of Brazilian documentaries: it’s maybe the major paradox of Latin American cinema.