Latin American Filmmakers Touch a Nerve With Politically Charged Movies

Latin American Movies Taking on Political
Courtesy of Sundance Labs

In Latin America, filmmakers have found a political conscience, and with it, touched a nerve at the box office. Films that deal with government and police corruption, corporate irresponsibility and economic inequality are hitting theaters, as well as bubbling up internationally at festivals such as Venice, Toronto and San Sebastian, the last being the biggest showcase for Latin American and Spanish films and kicks off Sept. 18.

The generation that broke through 10 to 15 years ago is now almost all over 40, says Argentine producer Hernan Musaluppi. The subject matter those filmmakers choose reflects a mature, well-rounded world view that includes political and social opinions, he adds.

These films question the limits of real democratic change after the end of the continent’s dictatorships in the 1980s, or seek to deliver a more nuanced and ethically accurate portrayal of countries’ immediate past or abuse-sodden present.

In Pablo Trapero’s 1980s-set “The Clan,” playing in Venice and Toronto, a respectable family in Buenos Aires kidnaps neighbors for ransom, aided by the country’s military police. The film bowed Aug. 13, and has grossed $13 million in its first three weeks for 20th Century Fox in Argentina, becoming the fastest-grossing national film in the country’s history. The picture also has sold to major European territories.

Damian Szifron’s “Wild Tales,” the 2014 hit produced by Argentina’s K&S, El Deseo and Telefe-Telefonica Studios, tells six stories of frustration, rage and hate that explode in violent and sometimes blackly hilarious revenge. The film grossed $17.4 million for Warner Bros. in Argentina, $4.1 million in Spain, $3.6 million in France and $3.1 million for Sony Classics in the U.S., and earned an Oscar nomination for foreign-language film.

Uruguayan-Mexican Rodrigo Pla’s “A Monster of a Thousand Heads,” which opened the Venice Days section of the Italian festival, follows the wife of a dying man who takes matters into her own hands after being told by her insurance company that the family’s policy doesn’t cover her husband’s costly treatment.

Politics looks set to color many of Latin America’s highest-profile productions and festival films next year as well.

Take, for instance, Gerardo Tort’s  “The Broken Years,” slated for San Sebastian’s Europe-Latin America Co-production Forum. The pic seeks to honor the memory of the hundreds of “disappeared” in Mexico’s Dirty War of the ’70s and ’80s, says its producer, Ozcar Ramirez. Meanwhile, Musaluppi, who is bringing Adrian Caetano’s “Under This Burning Sun” to San Sebastian’s Co-Production Forum, says that film takes place in a society where everything is corrupt. “Not just its political class, whose corruption we all know about,” Musaluppi says, “but normal people — you and me.”

In San Sebastian’s upcoming Films in Progress, a movies-in-post showcase, all six productions are based on true-life
cases. They cast a sometimes sardonic gaze on often hot-button issues now driving Latin Americans onto the streets in mass protest, such as the lack of accountability of the rich in “Much Ado About Nothing,” from Chile’s Alejandro Fernandez Almendras (“To Kill a Man”). “Much Ado” centers around a politico’s son, exonerated after a hit-and-run accident. In 2014, after the actual case was closed, Chileans were indignant over the verdict, says producer Augusto Matte of Jirafa Films, which helped the picture get made via crowdfunding.

Also at Films in Progress is “The Princess,” from Marialy Rivas, inspired by a real-life scandal in Chile, follows an 11-year-old cult member accused of giving birth to a new group of leaders.

Fictionalizing real events opens up new fields — “who is in authority, how is authority exercised, how should citizens exercise their sovereignty,” says Juan de Dios Larrain of Chile production shingle Fabula (“No,” “Gloria,” Neruda”).

Films like “The Clan,” which focus on the impunity of power, says K&S’ Matias Mosteirin, may have a wide-ranging appeal that will be determined by festival success and through sales. It’s a theme, he notes, that can resonate anywhere.