Bemberg, María Luisa 1922-1995

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BEMBERG, María Luisa 1922-1995

PERSONAL: Born April 14, 1922, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; died of stomach cancer May 7, 1995, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; married (divorced); children: four. Education: Attended Lee Strasberg Institute.

CAREER: Film director and writer. Founder of Teatro del Globo (theater company).

AWARDS, HONORS: Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film, 1984, for Camila.



Cronica de una señora (title means "Chronicle of a Woman"), 1971.

El mundo de la mujer (short), 1972.

Triangulo de cuatro, 1975.

Juguetes (short), 1978.

(And director) Momentos, 1981.

(And director) Señora de nadie (title means "Nobody's Woman"), 1982.

(And director) Camila, 1984.

(And director) Miss Mary, 1987.

(And director) Yo, la peor de todas (title means "I, the Worst of Them All"), 1990.

(And director) De eso no se habla (title means "I Don't Want to Talk about It"), 1993.

SIDELIGHTS: María Luisa Bemberg entered filmmaking at the age of forty-six, after being married and divorced and raising her children. Despite her relatively late start as a director and screenplay writer, she quickly rose to become one of the most popular and important Argentinean directors, gaining acclaim in Europe and the United States as well.

Bemberg's first screenplay, Cronica de una señora, is a semi-autobiographical work that won praise as a contemporary domestic drama. It focuses on the way in which a regressive political system affects a female protagonist. After making this film, Bemberg was determined to exert more control over her screenplays. To accomplish this she spent three months as an actress at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York before returning to Argentina to direct.

In 1982 she caused a stir with Señora de nadie, which features a friendship between a gay man and a separated woman and challenges the sacred notions of marriage, family, and the Catholic Church. Released the same day Argentina invaded the Malvinas—Falkland Islands—the film's impact was somewhat overshadowed by political events as well as by censorship. At this point in time Argentina's government exerted so much control over the country's film industry that by the late 1970s only twelve films were being produced per year. The crumbling state of the military regime ultimately helped the film succeed, however. Hugely popular with female audiences, Señora de nadie provided an overtly feminist message to a culture crippled by its own repression and machismo.

After the overthrow of the military regime in Argentina, and the nation's humiliating defeat in the Falklands War, Bemberg continued to focus on conflicts involving the country's collective identity. She felt that her role as a filmmaker—and as a woman in a fiercely patriarchal society—was to explore political oppression by using it as a backdrop and context against which to depict intense interpersonal conflict. Her films explore Argentina's troubled past, and suggest that only by coming to terms with that history can the nation—and the individual—move foreward.

In 1984 Bemberg directed Camila, the first Argentinean film ever to break into the English-language market. Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film, Camila is particularly notable because many directors had wanted to film this true story of illicit love between a priest and a young woman in 1847 but had been prevented from doing so by Argentinian censors. Though the two protagonists eventually acknowledge their forbidden love and find happiness together under assumed names, their union is short-lived. Pursued by the government, they are tracked down and executed. By casting the priest as a beautiful object of desire and Camila (historically portrayed as the innocent victim) as the temptress, Bemberg creates a passionate melodrama in which she consciously moves away from her harsh domestic dramas into a more emotional, lyrical sphere.

The historical basis of Camila also provides Bemberg with a mythical arena in which to explore very real contemporary political concerns. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in a New Republic review, "Bemberg weaves into the film much of the caste rubbings in this society, a strong strand of political oppression, and some color of a passion that won't be stayed. The picture is slightly silly as well as moving, but then, so long as you're not personally involved, so are many heavy romances."

Miss Mary continues to focus on contemporary, political concerns, exploring the British influence on Argentina's upper class in the years before World War II. Rleated through a nanny's eyes, politics and history are expressed through family structures, sexuality, and human behavior. Female characters, even the repressed and unsympathetic nanny (played by Julie Christie), are portrayed with understanding. Although Miss Mary is a reactionary agent of oppression, the film explores why she is so, thereby analyzing the forces that have created her and the sick family for which she works.

Bemberg's last film before her death in 1995, De eso no se habla, is one of her most peculiar works. The story concerns a widow named Leonor, who refuses to acknowledge in any way that her daughter, Carlotta, is a dwarf. Leonor manages to accomplish this by convincing everyone in her town to treat her daughter like a person of normal height and by putting all her efforts into giving Carlotta an exceptional education that includes studying French and the piano. In this way, Carlotta becomes an extraordinary young woman who calls herself Charlotte instead of Carlotta. Though her mother continues to try to hide her daughter's dwarfism, Charlotte flaunts it and becomes an independent spirit who wins the love of a visiting Italian named Ludovico D'Andrea, whom she marries.

"The fetishization of the dwarf is an inevitable risk of a picture like this," remarked Karen Jaehne in a review of De eso no se habla for Film Quarterly, "and Bemberg steers a discreet course around it. She makes it quite clear that Charlotte herself is a sexual creature: the young girl prances before a mirror; we see flirtation in her eyes;. . . . Charlotte is a full, complete woman with a psyche as strong as an Amazon."

In the end, Leonor's plans to nurture her daughter into an extraordinary woman prove to be only too successful. Charlotte becomes so independent and confident that she is able to extricate herself from her mother's well-meaning control and become a fully realized individual. This realization includes acknowledging herself to be a dwarf, and at the end of the movie she joins a circus—the very place Leonor has forbidden her to go—where she can be with others who are like herself and who welcome her for what she is. Yet the filmmaker manages to avoid making this ending either farcical or melodramatic. As Jaehne pointed out, Bemberg "shows Charlotte riding away on her white horse, wearing a crown. The paradox is that the less said, the more metaphoric and less pathetic is the creature." Critics generally praised Bemberg's handling of her subject in De eso no se habla, Michael Sauter concluding in Entertainment Weekly that this "haunting love story . . . unfolds with exquisite grace."

Camila, Miss Mary, and De eso no se habla all depict characters being repressed by either society, the government, or family. This repression can be seen in other Bemberg films, such as Yo, la peor de todas. Set in Mexico during the seventeenth century, the heroine of the film is a nun whose thirst for knowledge eventually leads her to butt heads with her country's misogynistic archbishop. Some critics have felt that the repression of female characters in her work reflected Bemberg's own frustrations over postponing her career in film. Although she began making movies late in life, she nonetheless transcended the political and social forces in her country, and made some of Argentina's most acclaimed films.



Americas, March-April, 1994, Caleb Bach, "María Luisa Bemberg Tells the World."

Cineaste, Volume 14, number 3, 1986; Volume 16, number 1-2, Lynne Jackson and Karen Jaehne, "Eavesdropping on Female Voices: A Who's Who of Contemporary Women Filmmakers."

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 1995, Michael Sauter, review of I Don't Want to Talk about It, p. 73.

Film Journal, September, 1994, "Bemberg's Late-blooming Career Thrives with Mastroianni Starrer."

Film Quarterly, winter, 1994, Karen Jaehne, review of I Don't Want to Talk about It, p. 52.

Guardian (London, England), December 10, 1982, Monika Maeckley, "Machismo Takes a Knock."

New Republic, April 15, 1985, Stanley Kauffman, review of Camila, p. 26.

Village Voice, February 10, 1987, B. Ruby Rich, "After the Revolutions: The Second Coming of Latin American Cinema."



Times (London, England), May 19, 1995; May 22, 1995.*