Latin American Cinema

Latin American Cinema
Latin American Cinema

Motion pictures arrived in Latin America not long after the Lumière brothers debuted their invention in Paris in 1859. Lumière agents fanned out across the globe to sell projection equipment, cameras, and film stock wherever there was a market to support it; in Latin America, this meant chiefly the large, stable economies of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

Early filmgoers in South America invariably saw European imports; Italy had become the dominant force in the fledgling film industry by 1912. During World War I, however, American companies used the disruption of the European film industry to gain a foothold in the market, and by 1926 an estimated 95 percent of screen time in South America went to American-made films. Local filmmakers could barely compete in this monopolized marketplace. Most were restricted to newsreels and documentaries.

The situation was particularly bad in Mexico, which was dominated from the start by the nearby U.S. film machine. Promising young stars like Lupe Velez and Dolores del Rio were lured to stardom in nearby Hollywood, while American directors exploited Mexican locales (and locals) for increasingly popular westerns.

During the Mexican Revolution, rebel army leader Pancho Villa signed with an American film company to film him in action—even going so far as to restage battles and skirmishes if cameramen had failed to get good shots during actual combat.

Appalled by being shown to world audiences as uncultured savages, early Mexican film directors like Manuel de la Bandera and Mimi Derba dedicated themselves to producing films that showed the "goodness and greatness" of their culture. Without the backing of the state, there was little they could do to counteract the endless output of American studios.

Things were only slightly better in Brazil and Argentina. Local feature films were eschewed by theater owners in favor of more profitable and American imports. However, film historian John King notes that several films produced during the period showed glimmers of what was to come. In Brazil, a 22-yearold director named Mario Peixoto created Limite (The boundry, 1931), chronicling the struggle for survival on a small boat after a wreck at sea.

In Argentina, King identifies three films that presage the socially conscious films of the 1960s and 1970s: El ultimo malon (The last Indian attack, 1917), a fictionalized retelling of a turn-of-the-century uprising; Juan sin ropa (Juan without clothes, 1919) by the French Georges Benoît about a massacre during a contemporary strike; and Frederico Valle's El apostol (The apostle, 1917), a political satire of the presidency of Hipolito Yrigoyen and the first full-length animated feature in film history.

Sound films arrived in Latin America in the late 1920s, but the technology was expensive and its distribution uneven. Many countries would not have "talkies" for years. Even in the few countries that had a well-developed film industry, it was a struggle to compete against the hegemony of the U.S. industry.

But the period also saw the rise of Latin American musicals, including the tanguera in Argentina, the chanchada in Brazil, and the ranchera in Mexico, that blended indigenous songs and dance traditions of those countries with the formulas popularized by North American studios.

Thanks to wartime changes in the U.S. film industry and a decline in the powerful Argentine film industry, the 1940s became known as the "Golden Age" of Mexican cinema. The key film of the era was Maria Candelaria (1943), which brought together famed director Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and actress Delores del Rio. With the end of World War II, Mexican film slipped back into decline, where it would remain for more than a decade.