Bemberg, Maria Luisa

views updated Jun 27 2018

BEMBERG, Maria Luisa

Nationality: Argentinian. Born: Buenos Aires, 1925. Family: Divorced, four children. Career: Established Argentina's Teatro del Globo theater company, 1950s; wrote her first screenplay, Cronica de una Senora (Chronicle of a Woman), 1971; moved to New York and attended the Strasberg Institute, late 1970s; returned to Argentina and directed her first feature, Momentos, 1981. Died: 7 May 1995.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:


Momentos (Moments)


Señora de Nadie (Nobody's Woman)




Miss Mary


Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of Them All)


De eso no se habla (I Don't Want to Talk about It) (co-sc)

Films as Scriptwriter Only:


Cronica de una Señora (Chronicle of a Woman)


El Mundo de la Mujer (short)


Triangulo de Cuatro (Ayala)


Juguetes (short)


El Impostor (The Imposter) (Maci)


By BEMBERG: articles—

"Maria Luisa Bemberg: El rescate de la mujer en el cine Argentino," an interview with J.C. Huayhuaca and others, in Hablemos deCine (Lima), March 1984.

Interview with K. Jaehne and G. Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.

Interview with Sheila Whitaker, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1987.

Interview in Cine Cubano (Havana), 1991.

Interview with Z.M. Pick, in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), Fall-Winter 1992–1993.

Interview with B. Olson, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 36, 1994.

"Accents and umlauts," in Films in Review (New York), September-October 1994.

On BEMBERG: book—

King, John, and Nissa Torrents, The Garden of Forking Paths:Argentine Cinema, London, 1988.

On BEMBERG: articles—

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

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

Jackson, L. and Jaehne, K., "Eavesdropping in Female Voices," in Cineaste (New York), no. 1/2, 1987–1988.

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

Obituary in Film-dienst (Cologne), 23 May 1995.

Obituary in Classic Images (Muscatine), July 1995.

Obituary in Time, 22 May 1995.

Obituary in Village Voice, 30 May 1995.

Obituary in Angles (Milwaukee), vol. 3, no. 1, 1996.

* * *

Maria Luisa Bemberg entered the filmmaking world only after leading an "asphyxiating and uneventful" life (her own words). Born into one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires, she entered the film industry at age forty-six after her children had grown and she had obtained a divorce. Despite her belated entry into the profession, Bemberg became one of the most subversive and popular Argentinian directors of the twentieth century. In addition, she has been acclaimed in Europe and the States.

Bemberg's first (semi-autobiographical) screenplay, Cronica de una Señora, gained acclaim as a contemporary domestic drama, focusing on a regressive political system as it affected the female protagonist. Wishing to exert more control over her screenplays, but with no formal training, she spent three months as an actress at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York and returned to Argentina to direct. In 1982 she caused a stir with Senora de Nadie, which featured a friendship between a gay man and a separated woman, challenging in one swoop the sacred notions of marriage, family, and the Church. Released on the day that Argentina invaded the Malvinas (Falklands), the film's impact was overshadowed somewhat by political events, but the crumbling state of the military regime (which had exerted so much censorship and control over the country's film industry that by the late 1970s only twelve films were being produced per year) ultimately helped the film succeed. Hugely popular with female audiences, it made a powerful and overtly feminist intervention into a culture crippled by its own repression and machismo.

After the overthrow of the military regime, and the humiliation of defeat in the Falklands War, Bemberg still saw much to come to terms with and much to struggle against in her national identity. She felt that her role as a filmmaker, and as a woman in a fiercely patriarchal society, was to explore political oppression as a backdrop and context for intense personal conflict. Her films dwell anxiously on Argentina's troubled past, and suggest that only by coming to terms with it can the nation—and the individual—put it to rest.

In 1984 Bemberg directed Camila, the first Argentinian film ever to break into the American market. Recipient of an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, it is all the more remarkable in that many other directors who wanted to film this true story of illicit love between a priest and a young woman in 1847 had previously been prevented from doing so by the government. By casting the Priest as a beautiful object of desire and Camila (historically portrayed as the innocent victim) as the temptress, Bemberg created a passionate melodrama in which she consciously moved away from her earlier, hard-bitten domestic dramas into a more emotional, lyrical sphere. The historical basis of Camila offers a mythical arena in which to explore her very real contemporary political concerns.

Miss Mary continues to focus on these concerns, exploring English influence over the Argentinian upper class through the crucial figure of the nanny in the years before World War II. Politics and history are expressed through family structures, sexuality, and human behaviour. 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 works to explore why she is so—in an attempt to study the forces that could create both she and the sick family for which she works.

Bemberg's strong sense of the melancholy is an integral part of her work, causing an uneasy tension in all her films: while all her works indict the reactionary political system, they are also impregnated with a tragic sensibility that presents events as somehow out of the protagonists' control. The bleak endings (in which transgressors are punished and traditional structures remain apparently intact) of Bemberg's films might seem pessimistic. But the very expression of transgression in the films—along with the tentative exploration of the disruptions that inevitably threaten an apparently monolithic system—by an individual who could so easily be a victim of that system (female, bourgeois, divorced), is not merely laudable, but remarkable.

Camila and Miss Mary remain exceptional films, the former a passionate and profound examination of a doomed romance and the latter a sumptuous, evocative account of a repressed woman. If both films are not overtly autobiographical, they do deal in very personal ways with Bemberg's own identity as a woman existing in a male-dominated society. A third, most impressive, feature from Bemberg is I, The Worst of Them All, set in Mexico during the seventeenth century. Her heroine is a nun possessed of a deep thirst for knowledge who becomes a writer. She also is destined to becomes the antagonist of her country's misogynist archbishop. Bemberg followed that up with what would be her final directoral effort, I Don't Want to Talk about It, a fitfully interesting drama about two women—one a dwarf and the other her physically appealing but obnoxiously controlling mother—who become involved with an aging but still-suave bachelor (impeccably played by Marcello Mastroianni).

The unfortunate aspect of Bemberg's career is that it began so late in her life, thus robbing her of time to write and direct other films. Still, before her death in 1995 she was able to transcend the repressive political forces at work in her country and the constraints placed upon her because of her sex. Moreover, her films show her ability to discerningly philosophize about these aspects of existence in her country.

—Samantha Cook, updated by Rob Edelman

Bemberg, Maria Luisa

views updated May 29 2018

Maria Luisa Bemberg

Director Maria Luisa Bemberg (1922–1995) developed into one of Latin America's most significant female filmmakers, according to critics. The brief nature of her career—she started making films at age fifty–nine—did not detract from her accomplishments in depicting and portraying modern women.

Early Life

Maria Luisa Bemberg was born April 14, 1922, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to one of the area's most affluent families. She was raised largely by servants, and educated in the feminine arts by a series of governesses who lived with her family on their sprawling, private estate. Her parents, German immigrants, were prominent in Argentine society, and Bemberg experienced both the spoils and the scars of a privileged upbringing.

Bemberg considered herself a feminist from childhood, even before she could have understood the concept. She and her two older sisters were sharply aware of their father's unjust treatment, and felt the sting of gender prejudice from an early age. Bemberg remembered keeping a list of all the things her brothers were allowed to do because they were boys, such as attend school. She recalled in an interview, "They got Ph.Ds. I never went to school at all. Once, I asked my father if I could work in his office. He said, 'What would you do except turn the heads of the male staff?' "

Bemberg described her young – adult life as "asphyxiating and uneventful." Interviewer Caleb Bach in Américas, described the Argentine cultural environment as "suffocating propriety, empty lives of appearance over substance, [with] creativity and intellect permitted only within the narrowest of bounds." Bemberg quickly developed a blunt, defiant character amid social constriction.


Bemberg never obtained a high school diploma or college degree, marrying in 1942 at age twenty, and mothering four children. It was not until her children had grown and she divorced her husband in 1952 when she was thirty–five, that she began to focus on how she might try to further the social positions of women. She told Bach she decided to try to provide society with "images of women that are vertical, autonomous, independent, thoughtful, courageous and spunky"—using the medium of film to evolve how society looked at women.

Bemberg, though not allowed to enroll in any academic institution, learned to read. She recalled devouring Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex when it was translated in 1953, and in 1971 she began to build a career. She had written and sold a semi–autobiographical screenplay, Chronicle of a Woman, which was made into a film, and called herself a feminist during a newspaper interview. Soon after the article's publication, another feminist from Buenos Aires phoned Bemberg, and they collaborated to found the Union Feminista Argentina. "We read everything," Bemberg remembered in the Stone interview, "did consciousness–raising, tried to shake things up."

Life as a Filmmaker

In 1972, Bemberg financed and filmed a documentary called The World of Women, and another titled Toys, (1974), which argued that the gender bias surrounding children's' toys affected self–esteem. Not fully trusting a male director to produce her decidedly female vision, she wanted more control. She took a three–month acting seminar at New York's Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, hoping to better understand actors, then returned to Argentina and began to direct.

In 1981, at 59, Bemberg directed and wrote her first feature film, Momentos, which she financed herself. She followed in 1982 with Nobody's Woman, an intimate look at the relationship between a woman and a gay man. The same day Nobody's Woman was released, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands—an event which drew attention away from the film. However, the defeat of the Argentine military government that had only sanctioned twelve films a year for production, and he return of democratic rule opened up public access to Bemberg's work.

In 1984 she wrote and directed her best–known film, Camila, which one reviewer described as "a melodrama of an aristocratic young woman who seeks romantic happiness with a Catholic priest." It received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film in 1985; it was the most popular Argentine film of its time, and the first to make a name for itself and its director in the United States. The film was based on the true story of a pair of lovers in 1847—Camila O'Gorman and Father Ladislao Gutierrez—whose illicit relationship forced them to flee society. They were caught and executed, despite Camila being pregnant. Previous governments had denied the requests of other filmmakers who had wanted to use the story, but President Alfonsín outlawed the censoring of film in 1982, which enabled Bemberg to co–write the screenplay and direct the film—at age 62.

Though reviewer Stanley Kauffmann cited soft cinematography in Camila, writing, "you can't see through any window [in the indoor scenes] because of the halation," he praised Bemberg for providing the view with the "color of a passion that won't be stayed." In 1987 she wrote and directed Miss Mary—the story of an affluent Argentine family's struggles with a British governess. Ms. magazine reviewer Laurie Stone described how the spoiled children welcomed their new governess "with a perfume bottle full of urine," and how their father "instructs the governess, 'Give themplenty of religion; it keeps women out of trouble.' " Stone praises how the film "documents a society (Argentina's upper classes) little seen in cinema," and commends Bemberg's "arresting visual style and layered tone, by turns lyrical, satiric, and caustic."

In 1990, Bemberg wrote and directed I, the Worst of Them All, which depicts real–life poet and Mexican nun, Juana Inés de la Cruz. She followed with her final film, I Don't Want to Talk About It (1993), starring Marcello Mastroianni and Alejandra Podesta. The film explores a conflicted love affair between a world–wise older man and a vibrant and beautiful young woman who was born a dwarf. Reviewer Michael Sauter said Bemberg's direction "displays such a delicate touch that even the ache of her bittersweet ending feels lighter than air."

According to Bemberg, film was one way Argentines could overcome their oppressive identities, individually and culturally. Her cinema explored the female experience as it existed within what one critic described as a "culture crippled by its own repression and machismo." Though melancholy punctuates her films, Bemberg explores socially sensitive issues through a strong voice.

Feminist Film Found a Voice

Bemberg died of stomach cancer in Buenos Aires on May 7, 1995, at 73. Stone complimented Bemberg's ability to "achieve much with a few deft strokes," and provide a "[perspective on ] [women that] is particularly intimate." In her 1987 interview with Ms., Bemberg admitted she grew up watching her "mother [live] a frustrated, aimless life," and that directing from a feminist perspective was one way to "avenge her" and escape the same fate. Asked if she had any regrets, Bemberg told Stone, "I wish I'd started working earlier." Her fleeting career was rich enough to transport her viewers beyond gender and political constraints.


International Directory of Films and Filmmakers: Directors—Fourth Edition, St. James Press, 2000.

Women Filmmakers and Their Films, St. James Press, 1998.

Women in World History—Volume Two, Yorkin Publications, 1999.


Américas, 1994.

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 1995.

Ms., February 1987.

New Republic, April 15, 1985.

Time, May 22, 1995.

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