Latin American Cinema
Dreams (and Nightmares) on the Big Screen
Latin American hopes and fears have always reverberated through the continent’s films. Critic Diego Brodersen talks about Latin America’s cinematographic dreams of present and future.
By Diego Brodersen
In El blanco afuera, el negro adentro (White on the Outside, Black Inside, 2014), by Adirley Queirós — one of the most radical and imaginative filmmakers of contemporary Brazilian cinema — the past, present, and future coexist seamlessly. Marquim, one of the protagonists, lives locked in a bunker and transmits his vinyl records via radio signals, remembering the tragic events that left him in a wheelchair. Dimas, meanwhile, enters a seemingly abandoned container every day, which really is nothing but a time machine. The city is Ceilândia, a satellite city that emerged after a process of eradicating favelas in Brasilia; the time could be tomorrow, the year 3000, or an alternate past.
Latin American cinema has always had its dreams (or nightmares) that imagine the region’s future with elements bordering on dystopia, more or less linked to the concept of science fiction, almost always tinged with political elements. Ideas of vengeance, cathartic narratives, sublimations of a convulsed present, never stabilized, in eternal movement back and forth. The future is relentless in its enigmatic quality and dreams — the cinematographic and the real — do nothing but reflect the fears and hopes of our present.
Something similar could be said of Bacurau (2019), the film by Brazilians Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, in which the residents of a small town in the hinterland are pushed to rebel against the most unexpected enemies, a commando of foreigners ready to hunt man for man, while the sky is streaked with strange flying saucers. A futuristic fantasy set in the present time, this film, the winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, transforms possible hells (the lack of water, for example) into an amalgam of terror and anxiety in the form of a nightmare, but which curiously becomes a preliminary step toward the dream of a possible utopian community.
In Argentina, images of the future are also part of the audiovisual panorama, beginning with Hugo Santiago’s 1969 masterpiece, Invasión (Invasion). Based on the original ideas of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, the feature narrates the trajectory of an imaginary city called Aquilea whose streets are being invaded by humans whose targets lurk in the shadows and are defended by an armed group led by an old man. Seen today, Argentina’s political situation in the 1970s brings a premonitory component to the narrative, another fine example of the power of metaphor: nightmares can be converted into a sad reality.
The writer Elvio Gandolfo once wrote, provocatively and somewhat recklessly, that Argentine science fiction did not exist. The experimental La antena (The Aerial, 2007) by Esteban Sapir, the apocalyptic tale Los santos sucios (The Dirty Saints, 2009) by Luis Ortega, the groundbreaking Moebius (1996) by Gustavo Mosquera, and the sci-fi diptych composed of La sonámbula (Sleepwalker, 1998) and the recent Inmortal (Immortal, 2020), both directed by Fernando Spiner, prove that, at least in the field of cinema, this statement is not entirely true.
In titles such as those mentioned, and other more popular cuts Fase 7 (Phase 7, 2010), by Nicolás Goldbart, Argentine filmmakers have been able to imagine atomic hecatombs, strict quarantines in the face of unimaginable plagues, parallel worlds, where the living live with the dead and with memory loss as a panacea or curse. And let’s not forget the adaptation of the novel Diario de la guerra del cerdo (Diary of the Wara of the Pig) by Bioy Casares, which Leopoldo Torre Nilsson brought to the screen in 1975, transposing a fable of persecution and death to a particular group that, at present or in future times, may resonate in new and terrible ways.
Beyond a handful of exploitation titles in the strict sense, such as the unbearable El planeta de las mujeres invasoras (Planet of the Female Invadors,1965, directed by Alfredo B. Crevenna) with its beautiful bikini-clad aliens abducting humans at random, El año de la peste (The Year of the Plague, 1979) is perhaps the closest Mexican feature to the idea of nightmare dystopia with its medieval plague (the film is loosely based on Daniel Dafoe’s famous journal about the bubonic plague) conveying a future yet close to the present. With a screenplay by Gabriel García Márquez, Felipe Cazals’s film is a fierce critique of the government’s inefficiency in protecting its citizens over the interests of political survival, wagering the control of information as its first and only measure. Any events resembling those that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be coincidental.
Something similar emerges in Noche (The Night, 2017) by the Chilean Inti Carrizo-Ortiz when the sun’s light is blocked by a mysterious astronomical phenomenon, plunging Santiago’s streets into darkness and its inhabitants into a state of permanent panic. The solution is, predictably, the tightest control of society by the state with tanks in the streets and long lines to receive long-awaited rations of food and vitamin D. The future, once again, looks like a chaotic dream.
In Divino amor (Divine Love, 2019) Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro imagines a 2027 in which traditional carnivals have been replaced with dance rituals rigorously monitored by neo-evangelicals. Meanwhile, in Nuevo orden (New Order, 2020) Mexican Michel Franco examines an attempted takeover by the most marginalized groups, the starting point for the return of state suppression, torture, and submission by all social classes to the central power.
Will there be peace in the future according to the dreams of Latin American cinema? It is difficult to find any examples: conflict is always more interesting and productive than peace. But perhaps the greatest dystopian film produced in the region is not a title marked by the traces of science fiction, but instead a realist story grounded in an eternal present in an imaginary country called Eldorado. In Tierra en transe (Land in Anguish, 1967), landmark film of the Cinema Novo movement, Brazilian Glauber Rocha constructs and describes a carnivalesque society in which the conservative right and the populist left, official religions and pagan beliefs, unrealizable utopian politics and traditions etched in DNA all live together. Desperation and hope are a part of everyday life with a population shaken by political change, but beyond campaign promises and genuine and spurious wishes, it seems marked by the word “failure.”
The cinema, in this sense, is nothing more than a sounding board for the most human fears and illusions, a screen on which images of a possible future can be freely projected: the most peaceful dreams and the most disturbing nightmares.