The Faber Book of New South American Cinema - Demetrios Matheou
“This book is very much concerned with personal filmmaking”, Demetrios Matheou insists in the introduction to New South American Cinema, a book of interviews with various filmmakers from the region. But South American film seems as close to the Korean or recent German Cinema, as to the Romanian, Iranian or Taiwanese waves in that it produces not only, or even especially, the critically acclaimed, personally oriented filmmaker, but also the commercially viable. While certain cinematic waves seem chiefly a product of expert praise and festival airings, other countries or regions appear more obviously to be producing work playing into the idiom of commercial filmmaking. Numerous German films from their movement of the last decade – films like The Lives of Others, Head On, The Edukators, Downfall, Edge of Heaven – are arthouse mainstream, cash cows that help keep the small cinemas going even if they don’t always move cinema forward as an art form. Others waves like the Romanian one, are more innovatively searching out a new weight to the shot: often holding to a fixed frame, or creating sparse camera movement within minimal eventfulness, evident in The Death of Mr Lazarescu and Police, Adjective. Even Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days plays up the arduous specificity of abortion: it is a dramatic event, but the film dolefully dawdles over the smallest of social details as it is set during eighties Ceausescu Communism. The films might make money but hardly a fortune as they seem to be creating fresh possibilities in the image; not expansive viewing figures.
South American film is a combination of the two, producing singular talents and commercially viable names. Though it is personal filmmaking Matheou says his book is interested in, he also acknowledges the importance of relative commercial success. “City of God...was undoubtedly the hot ticket that year” at Cannes in 2002, he says, and “The Secret in their Eyes was a box office hit at home”. He also quotes Elite Squad director José Padilha saying what was great about City of God was that director Fernando Meirelles said, “let’s make a movie that has social content, but it’s gonna grab you by the balls.”. Nine Queens “reached a local cinema audience of 1.2m people.”
Clearly certain filmmakers are interested in the complexity of new cinematic forms, and others in the limit residing in an audience’s expectations. Walter (Central Station) Salles is hugely important to South American cinema, gets more space than anybody else in Matheou’s book, and makes one of the most useful insights in it. “You know, the problem between cinema and television is that you always make cinema – at least the independent cinema that interests us – against something, either from an aesthetic or a political standpoint. And television is exactly the opposite of that: television, especially commercial television, is for something.” This sense of being against something, though, (especially formally) is much more present in films by Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Paz Encina, and Pablo Larraín than in his own work. What we notice in the films of the more commercially oriented directors is an interest in at least two things: relative sympathy or at least ready comprehension of character, and propulsion of event.
In many of the most successful South American films – Central Station, City of God, Nine Queens, The Secret in their Eyes, The Motorcycle Diaries – the notion of character is less important than characteristics; the event secondary to the story. In The Headless Woman and La Cienaga (by Martel), Los Muertos and Liverpool (by Alonso), Paragyuan Hammock (Encina) and Tony Manero (Larraín) it is the other way round.
For example in The Headless Woman the central character isn’t ‘characterised’: possessed of an immediate set of character traits that locate her in a recognisable socio-psychological landscape so evident in Campanella’s The Secret in their Eyes. In the latter we know very quickly that the central character, criminal investigator Ricardo Darín, is one of life’s charmers who nevertheless will fall hopelessly and forlornly in love with the new boss, a lawyer who studied at Cornell and comes from a wealthy Argentinean family. His love for her is laid out categorically by his colleague and friend when talking of the nature of passion: the buddy’s is for booze, he says, while for Darin it is love for his superior. The gap between Darin and the lawyer is also made clear: another character and one of the film’s nemeses has Darin and the lawyer in his office and points out the social differences between them, leaving Darin humiliated. This is characterised cinema, where surprise resides chiefly in plot, not in subtlety of characterisation.
It is true also of event giving way to story. Where Sight and Sound in a recent issue touching upon Latin Anerican Cinema can refer to Lisandro Alonso’s work (and specifically La Libertad) as neither documentary nor fiction, it is partly because the event is more important than the story to which it lends itself. In Campanella’s film the scene is not an event, but a component, a scene to move us onto the next scene of suspense and surprise as we wonder whether Darin and the lawyer will get it on, and whether the killer of a young woman will be captured and brought to trial. We can usually say quite clearly what the scene is doing: what its narrative purpose happens to be.
For other Latin American filmmakers like Martel and Alonso, as well as Paz and Larraín, the narrative purpose is secondary to the scene. When we see the main character in Liverpool working on the ship, or trudging through the snow, we don’t know why this scene and not another, why this event especially over another one that could apparently equally express his life and journey to the South of Argentina. The film creates a sense of importance in the event it films; not only provides the obligatory scene the story requires. Even in the very stylistically different work of Martel, the aesthetic wants to create a mystery around the character more than around the story. While the character believes she has run over an indigenous child, Martel isn’t at all interested in what might happen to her narratively – whether she will be found out and arrested – but in what is happening inside her as the film hints at her thoughts and feelings; and also outside her: how people from her comfortable social class react to the incident. As opposed to characterisation and story, the most interesting South American filmmakers are searching out character and event.
The personal filmmaker surely attends to the latter more than the former, yet Matheou’s book gives itself over as much to the brilliant but impersonal filmmakers as to the personal ones. Though Salles name-checks a series of films that are very much about character and event, including Alice in the Cities, Kings of the Road and In the White City, his own work generally doesn’t quite share Wenders’ claim on Narrative Technique in his essay collection The Logic of Images. Salles might agree with Wenders’ claim that “my stories start with places, cities, landscapes and roads. A map is like a screenplay to me”, since a number of Salles’s films are also road movies – including Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries – but when Wenders insists that in his films “the images don’t necessarily lead to anything else”, in Salles’s films they very much do. Though he give as he says the images time to breath, the beginning of The Motorcycle Diaries is a stock family situation, and the two friends taking off on the spluttering motorbike a broad depiction of innocence about to go abroad. There may be development of character as Che Guevara is politicised on his journey, but the changes are quite obvious reactions to very external events, like when he falls in love and at the leper colony. Salles remains a filmmaker interested in a certain typology of character, rather than subtlety of inner revelation, evident when he describes the personalities of Che and Alberto in The Motorcycle Diaries: Alberto’s been “dreaming about this journey through Latin America for years”; Ernesto…comes from an upper middle-class family, but his curiosity and interests go way beyond the limits of his class.” The film reflects this categorisation, no matter Salles’s strenuous respect for locale that made the film hard work to shoot.
We needn’t attack filmmakers like Salles, Meirelles, Padelho and Campanella for their commercial eye, but we can differentiate it from the ‘personal eye’ of others. It makes absolute sense that Campanella’s smooth craftsmanship often lends itself to American television: directing shows like Law and Order, 30 Rock and House.Is Campanella more for something than against it, taking into account the Salles comment earlier?
However, there are filmmaker more clearly against something than others, more willing to generate fresh form out of the image; while others settle for impressive but relatively commercial form. It makes sense that films like The Secret in their Eyes and The Motorcycle Diaries make more money than Liverpool and The Headless Woman. And it might have to do with the relative absence of personality in the former, and its abundance in the latter. But if Martel, Alonso and others give South American cinema its personality, directors like Salles and Campanella give it a robust financial base. Indeed, the very differences needn’t demand acrimoniousness, but even generosity of spirit. The personal if not always radical Argentinean filmmaker Daniel (Lost Embrace) Burman notes that working with Salles on The Motorcycle Diaries was “one of the most important experiences of his life”, and admires Salles’ “pan-regional vision of cinema and [his] incredibly stimulating way of going about the process of filming.” Campanella says in the recent issue of Sight and Sound on Latin American Film, that he and Martel “have a very good relationship.” What is useful is to differentiate the personal filmmakers from the skilful craftsmen, but at the same time condemn too readily the latter because they work more commercially than the former. South American film is it seems a healthy combination of commerce and art, of earning money and making light.