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Latin America and Cinema Novo

13.01.2011

Mexican cinema in the 1960s was in a period of artistic and commercial decline, unusual for such an otherwise rampantly productive decade throughout the rest of the world. Luis Buñuel continued his string of highly idiosyncratic films with the political satire La Fièvre monte à El Pao (Republic of Sin, 1959) and the disturbing La Joven (The Young One, 1960). Then, as noted, he took a quick trip to Spain to make Viridiana in 1961 and promptly got kicked out of the country. Returning to Mexico, he made the scathing comedy of manners El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962), in which a group of bourgeois Mexico City residents find themselves unable to leave a dinner party and are compelled by some mysterious force to stay in the dining room for days until finally the spell is broken.


Following this was the allegorical featurette Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965), in which a religious fanatic stands on top of a giant pillar in the desert for years on end to prove his religious faith, until the Devil finally tempts him into renouncing his claim to near-sainthood and whisks him off to a cavernous New York nightclub. But Buñuel was practically the sole exception to the general rule of mediocrity. Indeed, the quality of Mexican films in the 1960s was so poor, with a wave of cheap horror films, comedies, and musicals, that the Arieles, the Mexican Academy Awards, were canceled from 1958 to 1971. Buñuel himself soon left the country, finding greener pastures in France for his final group of films, such as his late Surrealist masterpiece La Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972).


Fernando Reyas Don Rafael in Luis Buñuel’s probably in Brazil, home of the Cinema Novo (New Cinema) movement. Its foremost exponent was Glauber Rocha, who was born in Brazil in 1938. Attracted to the cinema at an early age, Rocha became a journalist and then studied law, but soon abandoned both professions to pursue film full time. In 1962, after making several short movies, he took over the direction of the feature film Barravento (The Turning Wind), which examined the plight of Brazil’s poor black fishermen in a direct and accessible manner.


But Rocha was more of a mystic, and his first wholly personal feature was Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964), which he directed at the age of twenty-five. In this cinematic allegory, a young man named Manuel kills his boss and then flees with his wife, Rosa, to follow the messianic preacher Sebastiao and meets the notorious hired gun, or jagunço, Antonio das Mortes. What follows is a series of brutal encounters that suggest that only violence will help those who are sorely oppressed, a theme Rocha embellished in O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (Antonio das Mortes, 1969), his first film in color, in which the hit man of Black God, White Devil becomes a hero by joining a peasant war against a brutal landlord. The Marxist implications of Rocha’s cinema are hard to miss; sick of a society that placated its citizens with an endless procession of genre films and chanchada (musicals), he posited the existence of a cinema that would instruct and enlighten the public. But political conditions in Brazil meant that he was always working in an unstable environment, and he left Brazil to work abroad, making one of his finest late films, The Lion Has Seven Heads (Der Leone have sept cabeças, 1971), on location in the Congo with Jean-Pierre Léaud in a pivotal role as a possessed cleric. Other key films of the Cinema Novo movement include Ruy Guerra’s Os Fuzis (The Guns, 1964) and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês (How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, 1971).


In Argentina, Santiago Álvarez, Octavio Getino, and Fernando E. Solanas created La Hora de los hornos: Notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), an epic paean to revolution. In Cuba, the new government of Fidel Castro encouraged filmmakers such as Santiago Álvarez, who directed the political documentaries Hanoi, martes 13 (Hanoi, Tuesday the 13th, 1967) and LBJ (1968), as well as the earlier, controversial short Now (1965), which used images of race riots in the United States, underscored with a Lena Horne vocal, to urge violent resistance to police brutality in the battle for civil rights; the film ends with the word “Now” spelled out in a hail of machine gun bullets. Other important Cuban filmmakers included Humberto Solás, director of Lucía (1968), as well as Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, whose Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) was also an impassioned plea for social equality.



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