Latin American Cinema. Stephen M. Hart. London: Reaktion Books, 2015. 223 pp.
In Latin American Cinema, Stephen M. Hart diverges from the more widespread materialist approaches to film analysis, which focuses on thematic content, historical context, production, and financing. Instead he sets out to reexamine Latin American films from 1896 to 2013 by focusing on film-technology innovations. He extends Lev Kuleshov’s thesis about the importance of blending theory and practice when approaching film, by arguing that it is impossible to adequately analyze films without also looking at the evolving technologies that enable their making. As such, Latin American Cinema offers a swift historical expedition that highlights the development of the technical machines behind visual and aural images. Organized in four chapters, Hart’s study smoothly enters and exits national borders to trace, instead, transnational associations between current films and their forebears.
Titled "Inauspicious Beginnings (1895-1950)," the first chapter points to the emancipation of movement as the phenomenon that separates "primitive cinema" from what Hart, citing Deleuze, describes as narrative cinema. Cataloguing films across national boundaries for the first half of the twentieth century, the chapter notes that the first narrative films in Latin America were documentaries about famous individuals, such as El fusilamiento de Dorrego (Mario Gallo, Argentina, 1910) and A vida do Cabo Joao Candido (unknown, Brazil, 1910) among others. These are followed by fictional narrative films like El automóvil gris (1919). The other two films that stand out from the extensive catalogue are two Mexican films: Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1931) and Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950). Hart notes how both filmmakers usher European, surrealist elements to a Mexican filmmaking industry that by the mid-twentieth century was “still playing out the last runs of its Golden Age years, in which men were strong, women beautiful and love a word with a romantic aura” (28). In Hart’s exacting genealogy, Los olvidados and ¡Que viva Mexico! represent not only stylistic alternatives to the dominant ways of filmmaking in Mexico, but also “the bedrock in which Latin American film directors would thrive” (31).
Chapter 2 focuses on the influence of Italian neo-Realism and French New Wave on Latin American cinema. Hart begins with Cuban filmmakers Julio García Espinosa and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón), who collaborated on the film El Mégano (1955) to create a realistic depiction of life in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Following in the footsteps of their European counterparts, Latin American filmmakers attempted to create “social consciousness” through their films to counteract the action-packed entertainment films made by Hollywood (57). In Brazil, similarly, filmmakers such as Glauber Rocha promoted Cinema Novo as an attack on “cinema as entertainment” with the goal of promoting a new and authentic Brazilian politique des auteurs (43). In subsequent pages, Memorias del subdesarrollo and Yawar Mallku stand out for their incorporation of political history and what Deleuze conceives as time-image with its temporal ambiguity and chronological disruptions. Discussing Memorias del subdesarrollo, Hart notes Gutiérrez Alea’s dexterous integration of documentary footage into fictional narrative, thus promoting genre hybridity in the service of political historicizing (49). The chapter concludes with a brief review of political documentaries (1970-75) with Patricio Guzmán’s La batalla de Chile (1973) as the “landmark documentary,” whose raw footage enhances its feel of authenticity and spontaneity (61).
In the following chapter, Hart mobilizes what he calls the nation-image paradigm to discuss several films (from 1976 through 1999) that offer a sociological vision of Latin America’s political history. Beginning with Gutiérrez Alea’s La última cena (1976), Hart discusses a series of films that function primarily metaphorically. Pixote: a lei do mais fraco (Héctor Babenco, 1980), Camila (María Luisa Bemberg, 1984), La historia oficial (Luis Puenzo, 1985), and La boca del lobo (Sendero Luminoso, 1988) are some of the films closely looked at to show how private stories carry in them the collective tales of national political realities. Regarding Puenzo’s Oscar-awarded film, Hart incisively remarks on how the filmmaker employs cinematographic focus to express “the atmosphere of secrecy and covert spying, techniques that were part and parcel of culture animating the Guerra Sucia” (81). The second half of the chapter argues that films like Cronos (Guillermo del Toro, 1993) and Como agua para chocolate (Arau, 1993), unprecedentedly large and expensive productions in Mexican cinema, mix genres and styles to attempt yet fail to be political allegories while proving, on the other hand, commercial successes. Highlighting the documentary aesthetics of Walter Salles’s film, Hart points to Central do Brasil (1998) as the most successful and final example of the nation-image dramas.
For the contemporary films (2000-2014) Hart discusses in the final chapter, Deleuze’s concept of time-image helps to elucidate how the real and imaginary no longer remain in a dynamic of rigid opposition. With the digital image since the 1970s, Hart adds, real time and imagined time form a continuum (108), which translates into productions that combine probing social themes and aesthetic experimentation enabled by the plasticity of digital film and camera. Inheritors of the 1960s Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano, Amores Perros (González Iñárritu, 2000), Cidade de Deus (Meirelles, 2002), and El espinazo del diablo (del Toro, 2001) are some of the examples that have afforded Latin American films World Cinema status. Many of these Latin American filmmakers, notes Hart, begin to head multi-national productions for a cinema that can no longer be affixed to a particular region or local history, without for that reason sacrificing the political urgency of the realities films like 21 Grams (González Iñárritu, 2003) and The Constant Gardener (Mereilles, 2005) represent. Amounting to almost half the book, chapter 4 surveys a wide corpus of films whose connecting thread appears to be the political impetus of the Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano and digital Weltanschauung, which “allows for new ways of seeing reality to emerge” (130).
Hart’s analysis of experimentalist films points out how Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma (2006) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) combine varying filmic language with auteurist experimentalism (150). He offers an astute, albeit brief, criticism of Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Babel (2006) for its naïve plot, absurdity, and meaninglessness (153) while highlighting some of the filmmaker’s signature fingerprints, such as the use of a hand-held camera, visual rhyme, silence, and the ‘floating camera’ (157). His extensive survey concludes with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, both of which received critical and popular acclaim in 2013. Unlike previous chapters, the final chapter focuses on box office earnings in an attempt to demonstrate the success that Latin American directors have garnered internationally, leaving the reader with a primarily quantitative approach made of plot summary and numerical data. Upon finishing the chapter, one is left with the nagging feeling that filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel and Claudia Llosa could have been studied more closely, especially considering the exquisitely tense space their films straddle between local filmmaking and world cinema.
Hart offers a full but not exhaustive survey of Latin American cinema today. While the survey is extensive and accompanied by numerous illustrative images, the thorough theoretical analysis of each film clearly falls outside the book’s scope. For this reason, the book may not satisfy scholars in search of filmic analysis with greater reach in film theory and cinema studies. And while Deleuze’s philosophical concepts serve to broadly frame many of Hart’s film discussions, the book does not offer a focused engagement with Deleuze’s theories on film. Those case studies that receive more sustained attention are mobilized to signal key transformative moments in the history of cinema that the book assembles. The deftness with which Hart moves from one film to the next, or from a celebrated filmmaker to a more obscure one, owes to the author’s comprehensive grasp of the subject matter. The final pages include a brief biography of a select group of filmmakers, which may come handy for both educator and student. Covering expansive ground, Latin American Cinema stands as a valuable resource for the reader looking for a historical account of Latin American films that can be reconsidered outside of strictly national frames to foray into, as the book’s title anticipates, a continental approach, if not altogether global.
Eunha Choi, California State University, Long Beach
Anahit Manoukian, California State University, Long Beach