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Take two on video.

From the classics to recent hits, Latin American film on cassettes is becoming more available throughout the Hemisphere

THE EMERGENCE OF VIDEO CASSETTES has revolutionized our lives. This highly lucrative phenomenon has changed our movie-going habits, as well as the very perception of the art form. No longer do we have to rush to see a film because we know that we will find it at our local dealers. We can also build a film library at home with selections ranging from the great classics to whatever insignificant fluff might catch our fancy. Collecting film cassettes can be an excellent way of learning about the history of the seventh art, especially when it relates to the rich heritage of Latin American cinema, largely unrecognized by the general public.

Latin American cinema is as varied and dynamic as the painting, architecture, music and literature of that region. The same can be said about its Iberian counterpart, especially Spain. For decades, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico have been the premiere centers of Spanish and Portuguese language film-making, although significant activity has also taken place in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and elsewhere. While films of relatively recent vintage are easily found in video centers, others are harder to come by. A temper tantrum by spitfire actress Maria Felix, the baroque exuberance of director Glauber Rocha, the heartfelt singing of Libertad Lamarque, the flawless beauty of actress Sarita Montiel or the cool sophistication of director Leopoldo Torre Nilson are rare and isolated vignettes. Although largely unknown in Anglo America, throughout Latin America these are "larger than life" superstars. With patience and diligence a copy of some of their much sought after films might be found in the more obscure shops.

The turn of the century marks the birth of Argentine film history with a one-reeler entitled "La Bandera Argentina" (The Argentine Flag) produced in 1897. The Salon Nacional, Argentina's first movie theater, was built in Buenos Aires in 1900; and the first dramatic feature, "El Fusilamiento de Dorrego", was produced in 1908. Thus began an industry replete with studios worthy of Hollywood or Berlin, such as EFA, Pampa, Artistas Argentinos and Sur. By 1912 the Sociedad General Cinematografica, (established that same year) began to dictate certain rules to the young industry.

Among the early triumphs of Argentine cinematography were the nationalistic "Nobleza Gaucha" (1915) by Eduardo Martinez de la Pera and Ernesto Gunche, based on the national saga of Martin Fierro; "El Tango de la Muerte" (1917) described by its director, Jose Augustin-Ferreyra, as a "cinema-drama of the life of Buenos Aires"; and the socially conscious "Juan Sin Ropa" (1919) by Hector Quiroga "Munequitas Portenas" (1931), also by Ferreyra, would be the first talking picture achieved through Vitaphone. The fare was as diverse as in other major film centers; musicals coexisted with crime stories, adventure, romance and historical dramas. Angel Mentasi, the so-called Tsar of Argentine cinema who ran Argentina Sono Film, produced "Tango" in 1931. Mentasti was a rival of Ferreyra, whose vision of cinema was decidedly different from his own. "Besos Brujos" and "Madreselva" featuring the incomparable Libertad Lamarque (who is still active today) and the films of Carlos Gardel, known as the king of the tango, are examples of the kind of films the public devoured in Argentina and the rest of Latin America in that period. "Madreselva" is on the "Ciclo de Oro" selection of Sono Film cassettes. The complete films of Gardel are on a collection put together by a company called Beverly Hills in Buenos Aires, which is dedicated to distributing films of a national musical nature.

By the end of the 1930s the industry was in full swing with the creation of La Academia de Artes y Ciencias; its prestigious award, El Condor, was first given to Francisco Mujica for his 1939 film, "Ahi es la vida". A 1940's film, "La Prodiga" (originally banned) was aired recently on television. This film, staring Eva Duarte, better known as Evita Peron, demonstrates the future first lady's screen presence. Her feud with the queen of Argentine cinema, Libertad Lamarque, who is known as "La novia de America" is legendary. Evita had been shunned by the mega movie star. Lamarque, fearing the worst kind of retribution, went into self-imposed exile in Mexico when Evita became politically powerful. Only after the fall of Peron did Lamarque return home triumphantly to conquer the Buenos Aires stage, starring in several productions including the Argentine version of "Hello Dolly", with the audience chiming in "Hello Libe" every night.

Some of the foremost directors in that period of Argentine cinema include Luis Saslavsky, Luis Cesar Amadori and Mario Soffici. However, the most internationally renowned of them is Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, who started his career in 1939 at the early age of 15. Torre Nilsson learned his art and craft as an assistant to his father, Torre Rios and by 1950, they codirected "El Crimen de Oribe." This early invaluable experience gave Torre Nilsson the secure touch of a master prematurely in his career. He easily won the confidence of the powerful, older generation, with Sono films producing some of his early films such as "Para vestir Santos" (1955). "Graciela" (1956) and "El Protegido" (1956). Several of his most important works such as "La Casa del Angel" (1957), which is part of the Sono Film cassette collection Ciclo de Oro, and "La Mano en la Trampa" were based on novels by his wife, Beatriz Guido. Although Torre Nilsson was a great connoisseur of European films, his own films were decidedly nationalistic and based on local preoccupations. His obsession with certain themes, such as decadence, was his succinct Argentine response to much of what was happening in European cinema labeled "art film". For a span of several years his work was not only the most important of Argentina, but it also represented the far reaching cinematic manifestation of Latin American film. Some successful Argentine films of more recent vintage that can be seen on video are: "Funny Dirty Little War" directed by Hector Olivera (1983), "Camila" directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg (1984), "The Official Story" directed by Luis Puenzo (1984), and "Veronico Cruz" directed by Miguel Pereira (1988).

As in the case of Argentina, the early Brazilian films are poorly represented in selections of available international cassettes. In simplistic terms, the image of Brazilian cinema was personified and popularized by one of its expatriots who made it big in Hollywood, Carmen Miranda. However, many are not a aware of Brazil's rich film culture that dates back to 1898. The Brazilian film industry developed into a full-fledged, "assembly line" system, but managed to maintain a generous amount of true poetry. In 1903, an attempt was made to combine cinematography and phonography in a primitive adaptation of Euclides da Cunha's "Os Sertoes." Brazilian film-makers also experimented with color tinting, a technique that was prevalent in Europe and the United States. It was not until 1906, however, that Affonso Segreto, who had shot the first cinematic scenes of Brazil in 1898, gave that country its pioneering cinematic form of expression with his "Rocca, Carletto e Pegatto na casa de Detencao." In 1908, Francisco Serrador would produce a genre of early films known as "Illustrated Songs", including "Os Estranguladores" and "Os Guaranys" by Antonio Leal and "Nho Anastasio Chegou de Viagem" by Julio Ferrez. The following group of crime films including "O Crime de Mala" by Alberto Botelho were co-released with three different versions of the very popular operetta, "A Viuva Alegre". Botelho's "O Guarany" of 1920 was so successful that it was remade in 1926 by Vittorio Capellar. Film studios began to emerge as early as 1919 with the Rossi Films of Sao Paulo. Activities were varied and wide ranging, including documentary news coverage such as "Rossi Actualidades" and "Sol e Sombra" both in Sao Paulo, as well as a wide assortment of cinema periodicals such as "A Scena Muda" and the very popular "Cinearte" which covered not only the national cinema but kept a tab on the Hollywood scene as well. The profusion of film magazines from 1912 through the 1940s is tangible evidence of the avid interest in Brazil for the art form. Brazil also boasted an impressive selection of film companies such as Independencia Omnia Film, Campos Film, Guarany Film, Santa Therezinha Film, Sul America Film and Rex Film. By 1928, with films like "Barro Humano" by Adhemer Gonzaga, Brazilian cinema demonstrated a maturity comparable to the more accomplished international films.

"Limite" (1929) by Mario Peixoto is a movie that even by today's standards is avant-garde. The New York "Underground" films of the 1950s the Antonioni oeuvre of the early 1960s pale by comparison. One of the most enigmatic films of all times and the only work by its director, who was only 18 years old when he created it, "Limite" took twelve years to restore. It is available on Globo Video, which along with Manchete Video are the greatest source of important cinematic works on cassette in Brazil. Another important film from the period is "Ganga Bruta" (1933) by Humberto Mauro, considered the first Brazilian "auteur". Glauber Rocha said that Mauro's film contained "the impressionism of Renoir, the audacity of Griffin, the force of Eisentein, the humor of Chaplin, the shades and lights of Murnau, mingled with a profound lyricism? These films are two of the greatest accomplishments of the Brazilian cinema and were held in the highest esteem by forthcoming generations, especially the Cinema group, who found in them a sense of traditional and decisive models.

Among the many director building on Mauro's generation. Alberto Cavalcanti particularly outstanding. Although most of his films were made in Europe, Cavalcanti returned to Brazil in 1949 where he made three films in the early 1950s. Lima Barreto's "O Cangaceiro" (1953), also on Globo Video, became the first international Brazilian bit winning many awards throughout the worlds including the prestigious French Cannes. Another international hit, although produced and directed by the French, is "Orfeo do Carnaval" (1958) which was filmed entirely in Rio with a Brazilian cast and an unforgettable score written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is available both in the Conoisseur Video Collection, and Globo Video collection. But the crowing achievement of the Brazilian film is the Cinema Novo movement (1962-1969). Films such as a Os Cafajestes" (Ruy Guerra), "Assalto ao Trem Pagador" (Roberto Farias), "O Pagador das Promessas" (Anselmo Duarte), and "Barravento" (Glauber Rocha) represent the beginning of one of the most prolific eras in Latin American film history. In 1969 works like "Antonio das Mortes" also by Glauber Rocha and "Macunaima" by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade offered the purest, most uplifting essence of Brazilian culture. The more recent Brazilian films available on video cassette include: "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" directed by Bruno Barreto (1978), "Bye Bye Brazil" directed by Carlos Diegues (1980), "Luzia" directed by Fabio Barreto (1988), "Amor Bandido" directed by Bruno Barreto (1981), "Opera do Malandro" directed by Ruy Guerra (1987) and "Pixote" directed by Hector Babenco.

Film activity in Cuba began in 1898 with the short documentary "Simulacro de un Incendio" by Frenchman Gabriel Veyre. During the War of Independence documentary footage was taken by North Americans and in 1906 a couple of attempts at short publicity films were made. But the first Cuban feature film was "Manuel Garcia o el Rey de los Campos de Cuba" in 1913. Early attempts at starting a national cinema were inevitably interrupted by periods in which the native filmmaking was swamped by Hollywood imports or co-productions with foreign film companies like PELMEX (Peliculas Mexicanas). It wasn't until 1959 when a politically conscious program was started that the cinema really took off in Cuba. Revolutionary films, laden with a political message, were created with a sense of cinematic sophistication, as well as an eye towards entertainment. New York Films has a representative selection of some of the best Cuban Revolutionary films that are modern classics. Called Cuban Cinema, this cassette series features "Death of a Bureaucrat" (1966), "Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968) and "The Last Supper" by Tomas Gutierrez Alea; "Lucia" (1969) by Humberto Solas and "Portrait of Teresa" (1979) by Pastor Vega.

The flowering of a native Cuban cinema founded on the revolution had its equally important counterpart in the anti-Castro movement. An impressive documentary "Improper Conduct" (1982) by two Cuban exiles, the late Nestor Almendros and Orlando Jimenez-Leal, vividly exposes the butchery within the regime of Fidel Castro. This important film is available on Cinevista Video Collection cassette. Born and bred in Barcelona, Almendros emigrated to Cuba and became one of the early victims of the Castro dictatorship. He subsequently established himself as one of the world's most outstanding cameramen. Almendros was behind the lens on many of the films of Francois Truffaut, as well as many U.S. productions such as "Sophie's Choice" (1982) and "Places in the Heart" (1984). "El Super" (1979), directed by Leon Ichazo and Orlando Jimenez-Leal, and "Crossover Dreams" (1985), directed by Leon Ichazo, are both good examples of what could be called "Cuban Film in Exile" at its best.

Mexico seems to be the Latin American country that is most accessible on video, with a vast selection that ranges from the earlier classics to the more recent. The beginning of its national cinema could be divided into two periods. The first, 1896-1916, saw the prevalence of documentary cinema with such films as "Viaje de Porfirio Diaz a Yucatan" (1906), and the films of the Revolution such as "La Vista de la Revuelta" and "El Viaje del Senor Don Francisco Madero de Ciudad Juarez a esta Capital. "The second period, 1917-1930, demonstrated a preferences for fictional films. Among the important early silent films are "El Automovil Gris" (1919) by Enrique Rosas, Joaquin Coss and Juan Canals de Homes, a 15-part serial that was one of the most ambitious projects of its time and did exceedingly well commercially, and "El Caporal" (1921) by Miguel Contrera Torres, Juan Canals de Homes and Rafael Bermudez Z. The highly successful "Alla en el Rancho Grande" (1936), however, would signal the arrival of the golden age of Mexican cinema. The director Fernando de Fuentes along with Julio Bracho, Alejandro Galindo, Ismael Rodriguez and Bustillo Oro are some of the prime names in this surge of unforgettable movies. Emilio "El Indio" Fernandez, who was the Diego Rivera of the cinema, was the premier director evoking the Mexican spirit perhaps more clearly than anyone else. An actor as well, "El Indio" shared with other artists of his day a heartfelt pride for an ancient heritage.

Perhaps nowhere, outside of Hollywood, was the star system more promulgated than in Mexico. Actors such as Cantinflas, Tin Tan, Jorge Negrete, Pedro Infante, the Soler "dynasty" (Domingo, Andres, Fernando and Julian), Katy Jurado, Pedro Armendariz and Silvia Pinal defined the success of a film with their box office attractions. Dolores del Rio, who "graduated from Hollywood" with credits in some very important productions, returned to her homeland at the apex of the golden age of cinema. Several of her films especially "Maria Candelaria" directed by Fernandez, were milestones in the cinema of the Aztec nation.

Maria Felix, on the other hand, turned her back on Hollywood, refusing to be cast in the secondary roles she was offered there. She made films in Argentina, Spain, Italy and France but always as the main star. Most notable, perhaps, are her films directed by Fernandez which are on several video collections, including "Enamorada" (1946), "Rio Escondido" (1947) and "Maclovia" (1948). But it is in the stories dealing with the Mexican Revolution that Maria Felix' true persona fully blossoms. Seeing "La Dona", as she is affectionately called, in "La Cucaracha" (1958) and "Juana Gallo" (1960) one gets the feeling that had the Mexican Revolution not taken place, it would have been necessary to invent as an appropriate background to the bold presence of Maria Felix. With the growing North American market for Mexican film, many have been released with subtitles. Some of the better known are "Frida" directed by Paul Leduc (1985), "Erendira" directed by Ruy Guerra (1983), and "Dona Herlinda and Her Son" directed by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo (1987).

The voices of today's film artists are not limited to the countries previously mentioned. The timely works of Miguel Littin of Chile are scarcely available on video. However, Francisco J. Lombardi of Peru, whose film "La Boca Del Lobo" (The Lion's Den), winner of a prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1988, is on a Cinevista Video cassette. Another film from that country. "The Green Wall" by Armando Robles Godoy (1970), which had a moderate commercial success worldwide, is on Facets Video cassette. The first fictional film made in Nicaragua "Alsino and the Condor" (1983), directed by Miguel Littin, is part of the Pacific Arts Video collection. There are also diverse voices throughout the world of Iberoamerican film. Jorge Sanjine of Bolivia, the Corderos of Ecuador, Marta Rodriguez of Guatemala, Pedro Rivera of Panama, Guillermo Vero of Paraguay, Sami Kafaty of Honduras, E. Lopez Neris of Puerto Rico, Jean-Louis Jorge of Dominican Republic, Mario Handler of Uruguay, and Margot Benacerraff of Venezuela are just a random sampling of artists who have made statements on celluloid.

The titanic Luis Bunuel, undisputably the greatest director of the Spanish language film, was part of the pantheon group of universal artists--Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Murnau, Ford, Renoir, Welles and Kurosawa--who molded the seventh art to its ultimate form. His work is a bridge between Spain and Latin America, with some of his most important films created in Mexico. "Las Hurdes" (Land Without Bread), Bunuel's brilliant, poetic documentary filmed in Spain, shares a cassette with his French Surrealist classic "Un Chien Andalou" and is part of the Interama Video Classics collection. Both Viridiana (1961), filmed in Spain, and "The Exterminating Angel" (1962), filmed in Mexico are part of the Hollywood Home Theater collection. The earlier Spanish films are sometimes hard to find, although movies like "Maria de la O" (1936), directed by Francisco Elias, and reminiscent of the work of Rouben Mamoulian, and "Marcelino Pan y Vino" (1954), directed by Ladislao Vajda are available at the Casa de Espana, New York City. This outlet is one of the most impressive sources of Spanish language films.

Spain is also represented by another master, Carlos Saura, with a selection of cassettes that have been done by different companies: "Garden of Delights (1970), on Connoisseur Video, "Mama Turns 100" (1979), "Cria Cuervos" (1977) and "Elisa vida mia (1977) on Interama Inc., of New York, "Blood Wedding", "Carmen" and "The Stilts" on Cinematheque Collection, "El Amor Brujo" is on a Pacific Arts Video, and "Ay, Carmela" (1991) is on Prestige-Division of Miramax.

Pedro Almodovar, currently the most preeminent of Spanish language film directors has had a phenomenal worldwide success that is apparent not only at the box office but in the sales and rentals of video cassettes. An excellent selection, that includes the bulk of his oeuvre is currently available for home viewing on the Cinevista Collection and includes: "Labyrinth of Passion" (1982, "Dark Habits" (1984), "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (1984), "Law of Desire" (1987), "Matador" (1988), "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) and "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" (1989).

The complexity of the Spanish and Portuguese language film world, when considered as an entity, is the reflection of a people who, although sharply different, are united and strengthened by a common heritage. In today's shrinking world of mass media, video cassettes not only preserve a cinematic art form, but serve as a vehicle for disseminating culture beyond the barrier of the spoken word. Federico Suro, a native of the Dominican Republic, holds a masters degree in film from Columbia University. He was Ambassador of the Dominican Republic to UNESCO in Paris and a Representative to the European Economic Community.
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Title Annotation:Latin American films on video cassettes
Author:Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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