Five classic films by Latin American women | Bleader

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María Luisa Bemberg's Camila
  • María Luisa Bemberg's Camila
For certain film lovers, April is all about Lucrecia Martel. The Argentine director's first feature in almost a decade, Zama, continues at the Gene Siskel Film Center for another few days, and her acclaimed "Salta Trilogy" begins on Friday with The Headless Woman. We celebrate the return of one of contemporary cinema's great filmmakers by taking a look back at five other women directors who made a mark on Latin American cinema: Margot Benacerraf (Venezuela), Sara Gómez (Cuba), María Luisa Bemberg (Argentina), Suzana Amaral (Brazil), and Maria Novaro (Mexico).

Araya
Margot Benacerraf's poetic tribute to the centuries-old traditions of Venezuelan salt miners caused a sensation at Cannes in 1959 and then went largely unseen for decades. This meticulous restoration dazzles with crisp, formally rigorous black-and-white images and a complex sound mix, as its minimalist story of three families of manual laborers unfolds against a harsh, barren peninsula. A little girl collects seashells to decorate graves while her mother hawks fish, the only food source, and a long line of men snakes inland to build towering pyramids of salt. The director scripted and staged the action to extol the working poor, finding strength and dignity in their almost balletic rituals. But she doesn't explore beyond the picturesque, thus suggesting little hope for the community when the specter of mechanization abruptly arises. In Spanish with subtitles. 83 min. —Andrea Gronvall

One Way or Another
This extraordinary film, the first Cuban feature by a woman, has been celebrated as feminist by some critics, partly for its story but also for its narrative style. It follows the relationship between schoolteacher Yolanda (Yolanda Cuellar) and factory worker Mario (Mario Balmaseda), but instead of imposing a patriarchal authorial voice, director Sara Gomez provocatively combines fiction sequences with documentary footage, and her playful use of form is both startling and purposeful. The film begins abruptly, as if in midscene, with a documentarylike record of a workers' meeting; the credits are followed by an actual documentary segment on housing development in the early 60s, complete with didactic voice-over. Sections that seem to be dramatic are later revealed to be documentary, while other apparently dramatic scenes are interrupted by discursive sequences. The film's form questions itself, as do the characters: Mario, torn between machismo and his growing revolutionary commitment, turns a malingering worker in to the group, but then worries that doing so was “womanly.” Most importantly, the editing encourages an active viewing process—when the lovers meet a man named Guillermo, a title asks “Who is Guillermo?” and the film then cuts to a slightly closer shot of the same title—just as the overall film encourages us to seek wider interpretations. Sadly, Gomez died in 1974 while the film was being edited, and it wasn't completed until three years later. 78 min. —Fred Camper

Camila
A melodrama of doomed love in the tradition of Elvira Madigan and Mayerling, this 1984 feature is set in Buenos Aires in the 1840s and follows a spirited upper-class girl (Susu Pecoraro) as she enters into a dangerous affair with the priest (Imanol Arias) who's her confessor. Maria Luisa Bemberg's film has a few whacked-out moments—Pecoraro bolting from the funeral of her beloved grandmother to visit her lover as he twists in a fever dream—that communicate a spirit of romantic transgression, but mostly it's a very conservative, flatly shot rendition of a time-tested formula. With Hector Alterio. 105 min. —Dave Kehr

Hour of the Star
Brazilian filmmaker Suzana Amaral's acclaimed debut feature (1985), about a slovenly young secretary, 19 years old and still unhappily a virgin, searching for romance and fulfillment among the marginal employables of Sao Paulo. The story is almost too precious, with harsh urban reality grinding provincial innocence to dust, though to her credit Amaral eventually moves beyond dreary third-world stereotypes to meet underdevelopment on something like equal terms. Her (literally) unwashed heroine isn't always miserable (only sometimes) and resists the ideological obligation to be nobly oppressed: she entertains regressive fantasies of movie stardom, consults fortune tellers, and acquires a bizarre education by listening to the radio and watching TV soaps (she tries to impress her boyfriend with her knowledge of houseflies, but he just tunes her out). None of this is especially fresh, though it does open out in formally arresting ways, and Amaral's clean, precisely structured images (remarkably controlled for a first-time director) show that she's learned her Akerman lessons well. With Marcelia Cartaxo, Jose Dumont, and Tamara Taxman; based on a novel by Clarice Lispector. 96 min. —Pat Graham

Danzón
A single mother (Maria Rojo) who's pushing 40 spends every Wednesday night dancing in a Mexico City ballroom with a 50ish partner (Daniel Rergis); when he mysteriously runs away to Veracruz, she goes looking for him. In the course of her search she redefines herself through her friendship with a drag queen and her affair with a younger man. This 1991 feature, the second by Mexican filmmaker Maria Novaro, is leisurely paced and unemphatic but firmly conceived and executed, with a lot of feeling for female solidarity. It deliberately wanders, getting your mind to wander as well before finally taking you somewhere—an agreeable if far from earthshaking experience. It may also serve as an antidote to Strictly Ballroom, another picture about ballroom dancing that puts me in mind of chalk scraping across a blackboard. With Carmen Salinas, especially good as a world-weary landlady. In Spanish with subtitles. 120 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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