From the Silent Film to 1990

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From the Silent Film to 1990

Cinema has played a vigorous role in shaping Latin American popular culture and in portraying Latin America to the world. Its economic history has been influenced by the role of the state, positively and negatively, through nationalization, subsidies, government development corporations, exhibition quotas, and censorship. In the last years of the nineteenth century, from the capitals of Mexico and Argentina to the highlands of Bolivia, entrepreneurs trucked film equipment and novelty shorts. In clubs, cafés, and theaters, audiences watched comedy routines, advertisements, images of great rural estates, and scenes of military and political pomp.


Silent films became entertainment staples in urban Latin America, accompanying immigration and industrialization. Production remained, however, artisanal, complementing the burgeoning products of European and U.S. studios, which occupied 90 to 95 percent of screen time. World War I, which limited European film production, benefited U.S. producers. U.S. distributors offered U.S. films, which had recouped costs at home, at rates far lower than those Latin American producers could afford to charge for their films. Latin American productions often mimicked competing products from Europe or the United States. In Brazil, for example, directors making "Westerns" even took Anglo-Saxon pseudonyms. Nonetheless, an indigenous film culture was born. In Mexico, silent-film actresses became national icons; in Brazil, the "golden age" (1898–1912) was marked by romantic, even idyllic versions of the countryside and portraits of fashionable society.

Documentary subjects predominated, with some filmed theater and occasional fiction, such as the wildly successful Mexican María (1922), drawn from the romantic novel by Colombian Jorge Isaacs. Censorship honored the power of the documentary as early as 1913; newsreels in many places, already flickering reflections of the powerful, came to have something of an officialist character. Sometimes fiction subjects were drawn from headlines, such as the murder tale El pequeño heroe del arroyo de oro (The Little Hero of the Arroyo de Oro [Uruguay, 1929]) or the Mexican crime story La banda de automóvil gris (The Gray Car Gang [1919]). Religious and historical subjects were also popular.

Working-class culture gradually became a theme of popular silent film. The Argentine José Agustín ("El Negro") Ferreyra made films about the life of the arrabales (working-class suburbs) such as La muchacha de Arrabal (Neighborhood Girl [1922]), which incorporated a tango played by an orchestra. The Brazilian Humberto Mauro explored the relationship between country and city in several films, including Braza dormida (Dying Embers [1928]). Rarely was film a medium for the fine arts, with the notable exception of Mario Peixoto's Limite (Limit [1929]).


When sound film was introduced in 1929, U.S. studios produced simultaneous remakes in Spanish and later dubbed (in hilariously heterogenous Spanish) versions in response to audiences' clamor to see the original stars. The U.S. Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s vigorously fostered free-trade agreements backed strongly by U.S. industry groups, establishing a diplomatic tradition of U.S. cultural export. Latin American sound-film production thus was low throughout the 1930s.

National industries in Mexico and Argentina were fostered by corporatist states in the 1930s. There, as in lesser production centers such as Brazil, Peru, and Cuba, radio provided an important source of stars, plots (especially from soap operas and series), themes, styles, and soundtracks. The studio model was borrowed from the United States, often with integrated exhibition. One indication of U.S. dominance was Brazil's first sound film, Broadway Melody (1929; original title in English), which was about Brazilians backstage in New York.

In Argentina, sound films started early. The tango generated a popular musical genre that developed within a decade from vigorously populist to cloying cliché as the cinema sought a middle-class audience. The star Carlos Gardel made several tango movies before continuing his career in Europe. Some productions went beyond populist celebration, for instance, Mario Soffici's 1939 Prisioneros de la tierra (Prisoners of the Land), about the exploitation of maté workers, and the psychological dramas of Leopoldo Torres Ríos, such as La vuelta al nido (Return to the Nest [1938]), about a family in crisis. Import-substitution policies, urbanization, and cutbacks in Spanish-language competition because of the Spanish Civil War fueled the business. However, Argentina's neutrality in World War II caused the United States to suspend shipments of raw stock, further intensifying national filmmakers' demands for state protection. After 1946, Juan Domingo Perón introduced quotas, government loans, and an admissions tax; production was boosted, but churros ("quota quickies," low-quality films made simply to fill mandatory screen time) were also common.

In Mexico, the Lázaro Cárdenas government established a tradition of heavy state involvement, bankrolling studios, and establishing loan policies as well as quotas from 1935 on. U.S. support during World War II, quotas, and state financing—including the purchase of some distribution com-panies in 1947—garnered 15 percent of the home market for Mexican production. A studio system flourished, complete with major stars such as María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, and Dolores Del Rio, and the 1940s became the "golden age" of Mexican commercial cinema. Genre films arose, such as the cabaretera (brothel) films, comedias rancheras (cowboy films), historical films of the Revolution, and redolent melodramas playing on the virgin/whore female image. Among the best-known directors of the period was Emilio ("El Indio") Fernández, who produced a trilogy on the Mexican Revolution and has been compared to John Ford for his creation of a national iconography. Cantinflas, the comedian whose character and films have had enduring popularity throughout the region, rose to celebrity in the late 1930s. As the system consolidated, state support for studios also entrenched a group of veteran filmmakers and, along with the international market, encouraged filmic clichés. Centralized distribution after 1953 fostered the production of churros.

The uncompleted epic work of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in Mexico in 1930–1931 acquainted several Mexican filmmakers, including the renowned cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, with his vision and style. (By contrast, the Spanish exile Luis Buñuel's postwar stay in Mexico, while resulting in some remarkable films, had little stylistic impact except on the work of his associate Luis Alcoriza.)

In Brazil, whose major trading partner was the United States, and whose options to control film production were correspondingly reduced, mild quotas from 1930 on encouraged entrepreneurs. They produced films that sentimentally celebrated the lives of the poor and disenfranchisesd, such as Humberto Mauro's Ganga bruta (Thugs [1933]) and Favela dos meus amores (Slum of My Desires [1935]), and also films that transformed radio musical tradition into the chanchada musical. A clutch of production companies, including Cinédia—started by the self-styled nationalist entrepreneur Adhémar Gonzaga—were formed, featuring carnivalesque films that were precursors to chanchadas. The Rio production company Atlántida, later to become a foremost producer of chanchadas, was founded in 1941 to produce films involving themes of daily life; Moleque Tião (Kid Tião [1943]) featured the great black comedian and actor Grande Otelo. Vera Cruz was started by a São Paulo industrialist in 1949 to upgrade Brazilian cinema and appeal to an international audience. It produced the internationally acclaimed O cangaceiro (The Bandit, [1953]), a film about backlands bandits that showed the influence of the U.S. Western genre, but also treated a national subject that would be well worked in Cinema Novo. However, the U.S. studio Columbia Pictures owned international distribution rights to Vera Cruz, and it calculatedly failed to find the international audience. The company went bankrupt in 1954, a year after O cangaceiro won a prize at the Cannes film festival.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, Mexican cinema became preeminent throughout Latin America, and Mexicans both produced and influenced production in other countries, such as Guatemala, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba. Argentine cinema—both its capital and talent—spread to Chile and Uruguay. The forms pioneered by both cinemas became models, even to the extent that Brazilian movie music sometimes had a Caribbean flavor. Censorship affected the choice of subject and tone. For instance, Manuel García (Cuba [1941]) was censored in Cuba for its Robin Hood-like theme. Mexican censorship forced a happy ending in the first of Fernando de Fuentes's films about the Revolution, El prisionero trece (Prisoner Number Thirteen [1933]).


In the 1950s, studio production declined and an energetic wave of film production developed on completely different terms, for a variety of reasons. It came to be called Nuevo Cine Latino Americano after a film festival in Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1967. U.S. wartime support for national production did not continue, and the trade association Motion Picture Export Association zealously guarded distribution networks for U.S. films. Film audiences declined and film studios collapsed for other reasons as well. Latin American government production policies all too often produced low-quality films, and admission prices set by the state limited capital. Television proved a fierce rival for cinema.

At the same time, political forces—the rise of postcolonial nations in Africa and Asia, the Cuban Revolution international lending policies for development, and U.S. diplomacy—fostered nationalist and populist rhetoric. Culturally, Italian neorealists and the French New Wave variously demonstrated the creative power of the socially engaged or dissident artist.

In Latin America, middle-class, mostly male youths typical of the international youth and student culture of the 1950s—both political and individualistic, in opposition to and yet part of the nation's cultural elite—established film clubs, film magazines, and cinematheques. In Argentina in 1956, Fernando Birri, who like several other Latin American filmmakers had studied with the Italian neorealists, founded a production center at the National University of the Littoral in Santa Fe, soon known as the Documentary Film School of Santa Fe and inspiring among others a center called Cine Experimental at the University of Chile.

Some strove to be missionaries of "cultured cinema" and to produce personal artistic statements within the dramatic conventions of international feature film. Argentine Leopoldo Torre Nilsson's Bergmanesque elaborations on middle- and upper-class alienation; Argentine Fernand Ayala's Paula la cautiva (The Captive Paula [1963]), portraying a decadent artistocracy; the Brazilian An-selmo Duarte's O pagador de promessas (The Given Word [1962]), a tale of a backlands simpleton who comes to the city to fulfill a promise to an Afro-Brazilian saint; and several Mexican adaptations of Gabriel García Márquez stories, including Arturo Ripstein's Tiempo de morir (A Time to Die [1965]), each demonstrate a simultaneous search for indigenous themes, a personal style, and a conformity to existing conventions of feature cinema.

Many strove to both reflect and to affect social reality, while also reaching mass audiences. This goal took many expressive forms. Films such as Venezuelan Margot Benacerraf's Araya (1958); the early films of the Argentine Santa Fe film school, such as the documentary Tire dié (Throw Me a Dime [1956–1958]) and the fiction feature Los inundados (The Flooded Ones [1961]); the early films of Brazilian cinema novo leader Nelso Pereira dos Santos, including Vidas secas (Barren Lives [1963]); Argentine Leonardo Favio's Crónica de un niño solo (Tale of an Orphan [1964]); Chilean Aldo Francia's Valparaíso mi amor (Valparaiso My Love [1968]); and Chilean Miguel Littin's El chacal de Nahueltoro (The Jackal of Nahueltoro [1969]), refracting the mandate of Italian neorealism, plunged with documentary or documentary-like realism into long-hidden social realities. In some cases film served as exposé and testament, as in the Mexican Central University of Film Studies El Grito (1968), the chronicle of the Mexican student movement whose clash with authorities resulted in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.

"Militant cinema" called for a divorce both from studio and art cinema and from traditional lowest-common-denominator goals of entertainment, aiming instead to provoke heightened political awareness. Aesthetic polemics ensued over what was variously called "the cinema of hunger" (the Brazilian Glauber Rocha), "imperfect cinema" (the Cuban Julio García Espinosa), "revolutionary cinema" (the Bolivian Jorge Sanjinés), and "third cinema" (the Argentines Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino). Stylistically innovative films, whose formal challenge was motivated by a desire to break through social clichés and stereotypes, included Jorge Sanjinés and Oscar Soria's Revolución (1964); Glauber Rocha's astonishingly rich opus Deus e o diabo na terra do sol (Black God/White Devil [1964]); Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's La hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces [1968]); Argentine Raymundo Gleyzer's México: La revolución congelada (Mexico, the Frozen Revolution [1970]); Cuban Manuel Octavio Gómez's La primera carga al machete (First Charge of the Machete [1969]); Cuban Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's abundant and brilliant opus, including his early Memorias de subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment [1968]); and the early work of Chilean Raúl (later Raoul) Ruíz.

This spectacular flourishing of cinematic creativity was heralded in film festivals and international retrospectives worldwide. This recognition also made possible some international coproductions, such as those between Italian national television and Jorge Sanjinés in the production of El Coraje del Pueblo (The Courage of the People [1971]). The Latin American audience, however, was always sparse for such films, partly because they were often formally challenging and partly because of political suppression, especially in the Southern Cone. Governments increasingly censored, exiled, and even "disappeared" filmmakers. Works of distinction were produced in exile, including the remarkable three-part documentary of the Allende regime Batalla de Chile (Battle of Chile [1975, 1976, 1979]). In a few cases institutions endured, such as the Cinemateca Uruguaya, which resisted censorship and kept open doors throughout military rule.


Even governments that found the Nuevo Cine Latino-americano profoundly threatening sought to promote quality cinema. In Argentina, the National Institute of Cinema, offering loans to filmmakers from box-office taxes, was responsible for a rise in cinematic production in the mid-1970s, including Héctor Olivera's internationally acclaimed La Patagonia rebelde (Rebellion in Patagonia [1974]). In Brazil, Embrafilme was launched in the early 1970s, the result of filmmakers' lobbying, and thereafter perpetually reorganized until its abolition in 1990. In the mid-1970s it controlled some distribution, produced up to half the Brazilian films made, and exercised a screen quota. Brazilian commercial production tended to be raucous and rowdy, with the pornochanchada, a debased form of the earlier musical genre, flourishing along with slapstick comedy.

In Mexico, the state continued to play a powerful, controversial, and erratic role. In the early 1960s a corrupt and financially stagnant industry produced low-quality films with a virtual government guarantee of profitability. Independent filmmakers of the Nuevo Cine generation agitated and developed projects. Beginning in 1970, the Luis Echeverría Alvarez government founded new film institutions and supported many independent filmmakers, including Arturo Ripstein, Jaime Hermosillo, Felipe Cazals, Luis Alcoriza, and Paul Leduc, but his successor, José López Portillo, quickly reversed much of this policy. The presidency of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado reinstated the goal of producing quality cinema by creating the Mexican Institute of Cinema (IMCINE), which coordinated state roles in production, distribution, and exhibition. Occasional works of quality have emerged, although most Mexican movies have been low-quality features aimed at a Mexican and U.S.-Hispanic audience.

Other governments throughout Latin America supported cinema as a tool of cultural self-discovery, with mixed results. In 1952 a nationalist military government in Bolivia established the Bolivian Film Institute, which lasted for more than a decade and involved Bolivia's major film producers, Antonio Eguino, Oscar Sonia, and Jorge Sanjinés, who headed it briefly. After a tempestuous history, the institute was shut down by a military government in 1967. In 1968 Peru's nationalist military government stimulated film production, mostly in shorts, by invoking quotas and lifting import fees on equipment. Francisco Lombardi's 1977 Muerte al amanecer (Death at Dawn) was a rare box-office success; he later enjoyed several others. In Colombia, entertainment taxes were targeted from 1971 to support cinema, in combination with mandated screen time, and in 1978 a development company, Focine, was established. Several interesting Colombian films resulted, including Carlos Mayolo's Carne de tu carne (Flesh of Your Flesh [1983]) and Luis Ospina's Pura sangre (Pure Blood [1982]), both obliquely referencing Colombian politics through vampire metaphors. In Venezuela, where oil profits were fueling cultural policy, state film financing and required exhibition of national films promoted cinema from 1975 on. Additional support came from the Venezuelan development company Focine, a mixed public-private corporation founded in 1981 that was responsible for an uneven record of commercial production. In Panama, the left-leaning Torrijos government established in 1972 the Grupo Experimental de Cine Universitário, which produced several shorts and maintained a magazine and film exhibition center. The Chilean national film institute did not survive the 1973 coup.

The Cuban government's Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry (ICAIC), established months after the revolution, was a uniqe institution, with profound effects for Nuevo Cine. Growing from an aggressively experimental documentary and newsreel base—one that drew heavily on the montage tradition of early Russian formalists—the small industry soon began producing fiction features on themes of revolutionary life. After a censorship controversy in 1961, Fidel Castro described the industry's role with the dictum, "Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing"—a phrase that did not inhibit a vigorous internal history of conflict over aesthetics and politics at ICAIC.

ICAIC became an important coproduction and postproduction site for Latin American left filmmakers under pressure at home by the late 1960s. By 1979, Cuba was ready to offer an international showcase for Latin American film in its annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. For a decade, before Cuba began suffering from the collapse of its socialist allies, it flourished as the premier Latin American film festival and became a major marketplace as well (although the Latin American marketplace for Latin cinema continued to be poor). In 1986 an international school of cinema and television, headed by Nuevo Cine veteran and visionary Fernando Birri, was founded in Cuba to foster a new generation of socially conscious filmmakers. By 1990, it had weathered several crises, some caused by the clash of expectations between teachers and highly diverse students, but had an uncertain future. At the same time the Foundation for Latin American Cinema, an international organization headed by Gabriel García Márquez and also based in Cuba, experimented with international coproduction with mild success. On the model of ICAIC, the Nicaraguan Sandinista government established in 1979 a national film institute, INCINE, which produced some provocative documentaries and newsreels with ample help from ICAIC and international media makers, but was crippled by lack of resources and the gradual collapse of the Sandinista government.


As civilian rule was restored in the Southern Cone in the 1980s and film clubs revived, Nuevo Cine veterans began making films with a social edge and high production values, such as Brazilian Ruy Guerra's Eréndira (1982) and Argentine Fernando Solanas's Tangos: El exilio de Gar del (Tangos [1985]). Others who had trained in advertising also made films that offered social criticism along with entertainment, including Marcos Zurinaga's La gran fiesta (The Grand Ball, Puerto Rico [1986]) and Argentine Luis Puenzo's La historia oficial (The Official Story [1985]). Women met internationally, formed production units, and produced documentary and fiction work. Among the leading female directors were Brazilian Suzana Amaral (A hora da estrela [Hour of the Star, 1985]), Argentine María Luisa Bemberg (Camila ;ob1984]), and Mexican María Novaro (Danzón [1991]).

Although European television programmers created funding possibilities for filmmakers, satellite signal piracy also fostered the growth of low-cost television services throughout Latin America. Movie attendance shrank dramatically with hard times, unrenovated theaters, and the threat of street crime at night. The collapse of the socialist bloc, long a dependable if not lucrative venue, especially for documentaries, also affected the market. International coproductions often lacked a distinctive style. Thro-ughout Latin America, national film boards and institutes were battered by economic crises in the late 1980s. Argentina's INC was repeatedly threatened with abolition under sweeping and draconian economic measures; Brazil's Embrafilme was abolished in 1990, and with it much of Brazil's production.

Some of the producer/distributor cooperatives begun in the 1970s, including the Colombian Cine Mujer, the Mexican Zafra, and the Peruvian Grupo Chaski, seized on the grassroots potential of video. Left-wing media makers increasingly turned to video as a mode of communication. The Brazilian Workers' Center, part of a large metallurgical union, launched ambitious grassroots video production, and grassroots video burgeoned in Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere. In some areas, particularly lowlands Brazil, indigenous groups experimented with video. In El Salvador, video became a propaganda weapon.

For some filmmakers, the advent of portable video and digital editing, combined with economic recession and the high cost of film, suggested the end of filmmaking as they had known it. But some of the old guard of Nuevo Cine held out hope that video makers of tomorrow would continue the social inquiry of new Latin American film. As Paul Leduc said to his colleagues at the Havana film festival in 1987, "Cinema, the cinema we always knew, is a dinosaur becoming extinct; but the lizards and salamanders that survived the catastrophe are beginning to appear…. Dinosaur cinema is extinct! Long live the salamander cinema!"

See alsoAlcoriza, Luis; Armendáriz, Pedro; Bemberg, María Luisa; Buñuel, Luis; Cantinflas; Cinema Novo; Del Rio, Dolores; Félix, María; Fernández, Emilio "El Indio"; Figueroa, Gabriel; García Márquez, Gabriel; Gardel, Carlos; Grande Otelo; Guerra, Ruy; Gutiérrez Alea, Tomás; Hermosillo, Jaime-Humberto; Leduc, Paul; López Portillo, José; Mauro, Humberto; Ripstein, Arturo; Rocha, Glauber Pedro de Andrade; Santos, Nelson Pereira dos; Solanas, Fernando E; Torre Nilsson, Leopoldo.


Jorge A. Schnitman, Film Industries in Latin America: Dependency and Development (1984).

Paulo Paranagua, Cinema na América Latina: Longe de Deus e perto de Hollywood (1985).

Tim Barnard, ed., Argentine Cinema (1986).

Julianne Burton, ed., Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers (1986).

Randal Johnson, The Film Industry in Brazil: Culture and the State (1987).

Peter. B. Schumann, Historia del cine latinoamericano (1987).

Patricia Aufderheide, ed., Latin American Visions (1989).

Carl. J. Mora, Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, rev. ed. (1989).

Jorge Sanjines and the Ukamau Group, Theory and Practice of a Cinema with the People (1989).

Julianne Burton, ed., The Social Documentary in Latin America (1990).

John King, Magical Reels: A History of Cinema in Latin America (1990).

                                  Patricia Aufderheide

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From the Silent Film to 1990

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From the Silent Film to 1990