Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a steady growth in film production from Central and South America, with Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil emerging as the leading countries in the region. I do not propose to deal with any Mexican films here, and will limit my choices to the more recent output from Brazil and Argentina, as well as one from Chile. I have not gone back before the year 2000, as many of the films made since then have a more international flavour, and are more accessible as a result. I have also left out ‘City of God’, a marvellous film, but too well-known. Two of the following recommendations are again among my personal favourites, though I will not say which two, and I really do guarantee that all five films will be worth your time and trouble.
Carandiru. This is the name of the largest prison in Sao Paulo, the most populous city in Brazil, indeed in the whole Southern Hemisphere. As a result, the prison is dreadfully overcrowded, housing almost 8,000 inmates, at the time the film is set, 1992. The film was released in 2003, and is based on the tragic events that occurred in this hell-hole, and the experiences of the prison Doctor. This film tackles some familiar prison story themes, of rape, murder, drug abuse, and corrupt officials. However, it is filmed on a magnificent scale, with imagery that will stay in your mind. Directed by one of Brazil’s best, Hector Babenco, the realism, acting standards, direction and lighting, are all of the highest order. The climax of the film is the real life raid on the prison, supposedly to quell a riot, known in Brazil as ‘The Carandiru Massacre’. This is a long way from ‘The Green Mile’, and ‘Shawshank Redemption’, and whilst they are both excellent films, this one is in another league. This is an official trailer, and will give you the sense of the film.
Tropa De Elite. Brazil again, this time from 2007, though set ten years earlier, in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Before the pope is due to visit the country, the authorities resolve to clear the slums of the warring gangs of drug dealers who control those areas. This task eventually falls to the ‘Elite Squad’ of the title, the B.O.P.E. This is probably one of the best films about policing ever made, and does not shrink from showing their brutal methods, the corruption, and even murder, all done in the name of justice. This film literally has everything. A great cast, realistic sets and locations, and a series of frantic action sequences that had me wanting more. If you ever watch this, I guarantee that you will not be applying for a job in the Rio Police any time soon. Here is your chance to see the whole film, with subtitles. Get to it.
Bombon el Perro. By complete contrast, a gentle film, full of humour and excellent characterisation, and genuinely life-affirming. Filmed in remote Patagonia, in 2004, this film deals with the story of unemployed mechanic Juan, having to live with his daughter, and failing to make a living selling his hand-made knives. His luck changes one day, following an act of kindness. He helps a woman who has broken down, towing her to her destination, and fixing her car. As a reward, he is presented with a pedigree Argentinian Dogo dog, and the film is about his travels with this animal, and the way that it changes his life. The relationship between Juan, and the strange, large white dog, is a complete joy. It attracts the attention of dog-fanciers, and breeders, and he determines to make a life for himself, breeding his dog, and selling the pups. On the way, he encounters various characters, and his formerly shy demeanour changes, along with his outlook on life. A film about a middle-aged man, driving around with a weird dog; is this really one of my ‘best-ever’ recommendations? You will see why. This is the trailer. Check out the marvellous dog.
Nine Queens. This time, a film from Argentina, filmed in 2000, on the streets of Buenos Aires. This is a smart, savvy film, focusing on the lives of two con-men, one small time, the other a master. They get together to pull off a grand scam, and from then on the plot twists, turns, and delivers all sorts of surprises. It has a witty and intricate script, a vibrant setting on the city streets, and a cool cast, all aware that they are in something different, and raising their game accordingly. I am keeping it short, to avoid any plot spoilers, but if you like your films intelligent, and don’t mind having to work a bit when watching them, then this is one for you. This is the short International trailer.
The Secret In Their Eyes. Another film from Argentina, and perhaps much better known, as it won an Oscar in 2010, for best foreign film. This is a stunning film, in every way imaginable. The story, script, acting, and direction are all second to none. I will outline the plot, but urge you not to consider this film just from this alone, as actually seeing it will be something that will stay with you for a very long time. A retired justice official decides to write a novel, drawing on his experiences after a life spent in the criminal courts. He goes back to where he worked, to research the book, and soon becomes involved in re-opening old wounds, both in the cases he investigates, and from his own past. Sometimes slow moving, always emotional, with some distressing scenes, this is as far removed from similar US films as you can possibly get, and something that will rightly be considered, in years to come, as a classic film of the genre. This 2010 trailer has subtitles in English.
That was South America, a vast continent, though relatively sparsely populated. Most of the countries there suffer constant economic calamities, and that reduces funding for their Cinema Industries. Despite this, they still manage to come up with many original, and though-provoking films, and I trust you will enjoy these.