Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 273-282
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Insights into Mexican, Latin American, and Brazilian Cinema
Most film students in the United States see films from Latin America only sporadically, when a movie of great power such as Pixote, or wide popular appeal such as Like Water for Chocolate, cannot be ignored. These films are seen, however, with limited awareness of their cultural or historical context, so that appreciation of their impact is based on one dimension of the texts, such as the level of plot or acting performances. The three critical works discussed here provide sufficient cultural/historical background and textual analysis to enlarge informed viewers' understanding of the multiple levels of meaning of films from Latin America in general, and more specifically Mexico and Brazil. My discussion of these critical works points out some of their critical insights, as well as noting briefly some of the most imaginative films in world cinema.
Deborah Shaw organizes her study of ten Latin American films by including in each of five chapters two films from the same country which complement or contradict each other. She makes clear that her purpose is not to offer definitive readings of her selections but instead what she hopes is a contribution "to the growing field of Latin American film studies" (7). Thus her readings are grounded in social and political contexts of the respective countries, as well as the current status of their [End Page 273] national film industries. She chooses films from countries whose film industries are distinguished, and her criteria for selection are choices from the 1980s and 1990s that gained national and transnational attention. Shaw seeks to explain how and why these films have achieved international recognition.
Shaw begins her analyses with one the strongest national cinemas in Latin America, that of Cuba. Its most renowned director, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea was one of the founders of ICAIC, the Cuban Institute of Art and Industry which was, Shaw points out, itself part of the revolution. Shaw discusses Gutiérrez Alea's 1968 Memories of Underdevelopment, based on Edmundo Desnoes's novel of the same title. This film, now a classic view of early post-revolutionary Cuban society, was voted best third world film of the 1968–78 decade.1 It focuses on Sergio, a handsome but idle intellectual aesthete who observes the struggles of the revolution. Sergio views selections of documentary footage of the Bay of Pigs invasion with a detachment suggesting that Cuba, suddenly changed, is no longer his country. As his friends abandon Havana for Miami, Sergio remains, complacent in his comfortable but isolated life in Cuba. The shot of Sergio surveying the city below through a telescope from his balcony defines visually the distance between Sergio and other bourgeois intellectuals like him from the changes in post-revolution Cuba.
By 1993, the Cuban Revolution had become totalitarian and repressive. Gutiérrez Alea's disappointment and alarm with Castro's disregard for human rights is the topic of Strawberry and Chocolate, a film that, like Memories of Underdevelopment, explores the relation of intellectuals and high culture to the revolution. The intellectual in Strawberry is a talented, cultured young man whose homosexuality brings out the homophobia of Castro's Cuba and the cultural isolation of the revolution. Castro's remark in an interview to the effect that a homosexual can never be a revolutionary echoes the rhetoric of Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain in which tolerance and cultural openness were to a great extent criminalized (29). Shaw points out the silent dialogue between...