A transgender woman is front and center in what many deem the strongest foreign-language Oscar contender from Latin America this year, Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” by Sebastian Lelio. Protagonist Daniela Vega could even be the first transgender thesp to receive a lead actress nod. Sony Pictures Classics snagged North American, Australian and New Zealand rights before its world premiere at the 2017 Berlin Film Fest, where it took home the Silver Bear for Screenplay and the Teddy Award, extended to LGBT-themed pics.
“The press has commented that my recent films, ‘Gloria,’ ‘Disobedience’ and ‘A Fantastic Woman,’ form a trilogy, but it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part,” says Lelio. “But they all explore the lives of women that are somehow at the margins of society.”
Out of the record 16 Latin American films in the race — two more than last year — six, or 37.5%, are directed by women. That tops female representation in the category overall: women helmed 27% of the year’s 92 foreign-language submissions.
Leading the bevy of Latina helmers is Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, whose acclaimed $3.5 million period film “Zama” premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was acquired by Strand Releasing for North America. An adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 epic novel but with interwoven levels of fiction, “Zama” is Martel’s first period film and her first with a male protagonist, a 17th century Spanish officer called Don Diego de Zama who is desperate to be transferred to Buenos Aires from his stifling post in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Mexico’s submission, the multi-prized documentary “Tempest” by Tatiana Huezo, is an evocative account of two women, one who was wrongly sent to a cartel-run prison and another whose daughter has vanished.
Arianne Marie Benedetti of Panama and Ecuador’s Ana Cristina Barragan enter the race with their family-themed feature debuts. Benedetti’s “Beyond Brotherhood,” a box office success in Panama, which touted a predominantly female above-the-line crew, centers on the bond between an orphaned brother and sister while Barragan’s “Alba” is the coming-of-age tale of a pre-teen who struggles to accept her eccentric father as she seeks acceptance among her peers.
Haitian Guetty Felin sets her magical neorealist tale “Ayiti Mon Amour” in the aftermath of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that hit the impoverished Caribbean nation seven years ago. This is Haiti’s first submission in the Academy Awards.
Paraguay’s Tana Schémbori co-helmed another adventure thriller with Juan Carlos Maneglia, “Los Buscadores,” a follow up to their 2012 blockbuster, “7 Boxes.” Sold worldwide by Guido Rud’s FilmSharks Intl., it has surpassed “7 Boxes” to become the No. 1 all-time hit in Paraguay. For the filmmakers, it “represents much more than a second film: it’s the commitment to go on showing Paraguay to the world, one way to bear witness to a little piece of our world, our vision, our way of being,” they said in a statement. A U.S. studio pick-up is imminent.
Oscar-nommed for editing Fernando Meirelles’ seminal 2002 “City of God,” Daniel Rezende reps Brazil with his directorial debut “Bingo, the King of the Mornings,” a wry dramedy based on the true story of an actor whose wildly successful ’80s clown show took its toll on his relationships.
“I wanted to take a deep look at Brazilian society, but through its pop culture, not through the socio-political drama genre quite prevalent in Brazil,” says Rezende.
The bulk of this year’s entries are from first-time filmmakers exploring fresh ways to express their cinematic visions. Debuts include Peru’s “Rosa Chumbe,” Jonatan Relayze’s portrait of a policewoman who needs a miracle to change her life; Costa Rican editor Ariel Escalante whose introspective “The Sound of Things” follows a young, lonely nurse in her everyday rituals.
Hailed as an “accomplished portrait of loss and grief among the contradictions and transformations of the Bolivian mining industry,” Bolivian Kiro Russo’s feature debut “Dark Skull” has been reaping awards on the festival circuit.
Colombian Ivan Gaona’s feature debut “Guilty Men” (“Pariente”) is a love triangle set against a backdrop of the paramilitary scourge that once plagued the Colombian countryside.
Venezuela sent Ignacio Castillo Cottin’s boxing biopic about Edwin Valero, “El Inca,” which screened for barely three weeks before an injunction from the boxer’s family forced theaters to remove it. Castillo won an appeal to re-screen it, but it remains in legal limbo. This is Castillo’s second pic.
Despite being torn by drug and gang violence, Honduras submitted a film for the first time in its history, Hispano Duran’s sophomore pic, “Morazan,” is set in 1842 and centers on the events prior to the martyrdom of Honduran national hero Fernando Morazan.
Based on the novel “Alivio de Luto” and described as a metaphor for the impact of authoritarianism on a country, Guillermo Casanova’s second feature, “Another Story of the World,” reps Uruguay.
Dominican Republic sent José María Cabral’s acclaimed feature “Woodpeckers,” shot in an actual prison, which delves into the unique sign language developed by prisoners in Dominican jails.
“Our film industry is still a fragile industry, if you can call it an industry, but we have to think locally and globally,” says Lelio of Chile but which could be said of the entire region.
Martel concurs: “It is useless to make films if there is no distribution and marketing mechanism that works; our ‘industry’ cannot be left to market forces, not in countries like ours with such fragile economies.”