Film historiography and film studies tend to perpetuate specific approaches to specific films. Camila is generally discussed as a Latin American film concerning gender, Hour of the Star is usually discussed and analyzed as an example of a Latin American film concerning modernity, or sometimes gender, and Blood of the Condor is a presented as a Latin American film concerning anti-imperialism, or sometimes modernity. While these topic specific approaches are not inappropriate, analyzing a group of films in terms of a common element is also rewarding. The common element used for this paper is the representation of gender. Despite the different national origins, time and other circumstances of production, and narratives, each film presents images of men and women in various roles and thus deals to some degree with gender issues. How, and how much, are both discussed for the three films in question. The analysis of these films includes consideration of the filmmakers’ intentions and other writings on the films.
One aspect not being considered is the gender of the filmmaker. The once common assumption that films made by women have a ‘woman’s perspective’ has been “profoundly questioned over the last decades” (Armatage 10). A lack of gender equality may mean a woman has more obstacles to overcome when making a film, and this achievement should not be diminished, but as Diana Saco explains in her discussion of The Piano (1993, Jane Campion), a film may be written and directed by a woman, tell a woman’s story, and tell the story through the woman’s point of view, but still follow mainstream (i.e. masculine) conventions for the portrayal of women in film. If a film made a woman may or may not present a ‘woman’s perspective’, then as sauce for the goose is sauce for a gander it follows that films made by men may or may not present a men’s perspective.
The gender of the filmmaker does seem to matter in some historiography, to the detriment of the analysis. For example, in the chapter “When Women Film” from Brazilian Cinema (Johnson and Stam) the chapter authors draw conclusions about films made by women, after analyzing only films made by women. This approach confuses correlation with causation. Female film makers themselves, including Maria Luisa Bemberg and Suzana Amaral, tend to stress their unique approach as women. Amaral, for example, claims “as a woman, I see what men don’t see,” and claims all male directors “depict women as objects.” She goes on to acknowledge “there are some women directors that direct like men” and notes that women face the same obstacles as men when making films (Martin 329-330). Again, if women can direct like men, it follows that men can direct like women, and the gender of the film maker becomes an irrelevant point.
It should also be noted that discussions of gender representations in this paper are limited to heterosexual representations. This is not to deny other representations, but to acknowledge that the films are primarily concerned with heterosexual representations (perhaps a topic in itself) and space does not allow exploration of issues such as the homosocial aspects of the church and state in Camila, and the conversation between the fortune teller and Macabea in Hour of the Star.
Camila (Argentina, 1984)
Gender issues are overt in Camila, in the narrative, the melodramatic style, and the director’s stated intentions. Bemberg chose to reinterpret the traditional approach to the historical episode by having reversing the roles in an already transgressive relationship and presenting Camila as “the daring one” rather than the passive participant (Pick, Interview, 76). This is in keeping with her goal as a filmmaker: To change the portrayal of women in films away from misogynistic or at best catalytic roles and present them “as beings with ideas“. (Pick, Interview, 76, emphasis in original).
This role reversal was subversively made more palatable to audiences by the use of melodramatic elements such as thematically appropriate weather, and amorous dialogue and mistaken identity at the church confessional. Bemberg claims verisimilitude helps the viewer accept the melodrama (Pick, Interview, 80) but she is not beyond substituting powerful symbolism for verisimilitude. As Donald F. Stevens points out, the midday escape in a black carriage with drawn blinds and a driver is both illogical and inaccurate to the historical records. He claims this choice made it possible for Bemberg to film the lovers embracing during their flight (91). The dark gently bouncing coach, with its plush red interior, also suggests the womb or female fertility and sexuality: it is female desire that carries the lovers away.
During the escape Camila is wearing black, while Ladislao wears white. Clothing in this film, and the others discussed, is significant. Camila draws attention to the clothing through the informative scene on the importance of wearing red, and Camila’s donation of clothing as a complex handkerchief dropping routine. At the start of the film, Camila the child wears white, and later when she first meets Ladislao at the garden party she is also in white, while he wears the black garments of his order. When Camila goes to the ill Ladislao, she wears the black from the funeral while he is in white underclothing. The bell tower rendezvous shows them both in black, but for the carriage and later in jail, he is in white while she is in black. The reversal of colours emphasizes the reversal of roles on display.
Although Camila initiates and pursues the relationship, her daring is otherwise constrained. Like her sisters, she wishes to marry. The only difference is the expectations of the relationship. She wants love, meaning a man she can be proud of, and though she does not reject sexuality, she does not seek it either, despite her initial confession indicating an interest in sex. Ladislao takes the lead in sexual matters. He initiates sexual contact between them, and the two sex scenes at their village home both show him initiating activity and being on top. As teachers, Ladislao stands at the front the class, while Camila supports from the back.
There are other examples of conventional portrayals of masculinity and femininity. According to Kirkham and Thumin, Ladislao’s self flagellation and sweaty fever would be examples of conventional eroticization of the male body (Tarzan 12-13). Rowe warns that male suffering in melodramas tends to enhance the male, as opposed to female suffering which disables the female (185-186). Consider the sexual energy of the fevered Ladislao versus the weakened state of the imprisoned and pregnant Camila.
Camila is attracted by Ladislao’s bravery in speaking out against the government. Historically, this would have been unlikely (Stevens 91), so the speech and its appeal to Camila are inventions of the film which assign conventional gender aspects to both characters. Ladislao is an authority figure, which always combines transgression with attraction. Bemberg notes that Camila defied the fathers of family, church and states (Pick, Interview 79) but her choice was a another father. At the risk getting too Freudian (and skirting double entendres), the film inadvertently suggests that perhaps all Camila really wanted was a father who would accept her kittens.
Another example of male bravery is the decisions of both Camila’s brother Eduardo and Ladislao to enter the priesthood. The historical record indicates Ladislao took his vows against his will and considered breaking them a less serious offense (Stevens 91). By ignoring this anecdote, the film enhances the suffering of Ladislao, and his courage in choosing to live with Camila. The historical Eduardo had two older brothers, but their absence and character Eduarcdo’s enthusiasm for the priesthood allows ignoring the power of the father in shaping the sons’ lives. Bemberg claims she wanted to show expose the abuse of authority and Camila’s defiance of patriarchy (Pick Interview, 79) but she disregards the effect of patriarchy on men.
Camila is frequently the caregiver to Ladislao, mopping his brow just as the servants bathed her, doing the mending and food preparations, comforting him after a procession of the cross upsets him, and dutifully leaving him alone when he needs to be alone despite her need to be with him. The performer portraying Camila spoke of being given the freedom develop Camila’s mannerisms, and how she decided she “had to look as if I were surrendering myself to Ladislao” (Crowdus 25).
Ladislao is discovered while “on men’s business” at a cockfight. The local chief praises the bravery of a plucky rooster that stands up for himself and fights, and although the chief offers escape, to Camila, Ladislao is shown to have taken the braver path, taking his punishment like a man. He would rather be a dead rooster than a live chicken. When Camila sees him at the church, she does not enter – her face shows her realization that he has made his choice, and she accepts this, knowing what it means. In effect, she is sacrificing her life allow her husband to be brave.
Bemberg starts with a powerful female figure in Camila, aggressive and sexual, but her attention to showing the effects of patriarchy on women rather than on all people steers her into more conventional approaches to gender issues. Camila becomes a catalyst to eroticize Ladislao and demonstrate his bravery. This transition within the film may reflect a social reality – transgressive women cannot survive – but Ladislao is also dead at the end. However, as the film title indicates, this is not his story. It is never his story – Stevens claims that the “focus of dramatic and historical attention has always been on Camila, [and] little has been published about Ladislao Gutiérrez and his family” (90). Camila’s mother declares that nobody thinks of Camila. The church thinks of its reputation, her father of his honour, Rosa of his power, and the Unitarians of their ambitions. The objectification of the woman is denounced, but left unsaid is that the man is not even worth objectifying.
Hour of the Star (Brazil, 1986)
A different country, a different time setting, a different social class, and a different focus: Instead of the gender conscious romance of Camila there is a narrative of rural immigrants; the urban imagery of mass transit, zoos, and office work; and the sounds of time that clearly identify this film as an exploration of urbanism and modernity. There is a similarity of plot structure, as the story revolves around a young woman who is introduced, then meets a man, but in this film gender roles are under construction. Gender is presented as one aspect of identity in the urban landscape.
Like Bemberg, Amaral is working with existing material, in this case a novel by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. However, Amaral sought to be “as faithful as possible” to the source material, including presenting Macabea as a symbol for Brazil (West 45). A character makes a better literary metaphor than a visual one, as in a film the character takes on concrete form. Despite attempts to portray her as unattractive or even repulsive, Macabea is the central character, and in Mulvey’s terms, the object of gaze. Mulvey’s work should be applied with caution at the best of times, and a non-Hollywood film featuring a character serving as a metaphor for a country is a particularly risky situation. However, Macabea’s attempts to acquire the identity of an idealized urban woman include being the object of gaze for herself and others. Her stated ambition is to be a movie star – an object of gaze. There are several scenes where she admires her reflection in mirrors and store windows. Dirty cracked mirrors worsen and distort her appearance, but reinforce the frequent narrative injunctions on the importance of woman’s appearance.
It is in a mirror that Macabea proudly expresses her self-identity: “I’m a typist, a virgin, and I drink Coca-Cola.” Employment and ability to purchase items are typically male virtues, but the job and the consumer item are both low status. Macabea’s attention status through employment is repeated when she announces to Gloria that she met a steelworker, but does not know his name. Being a virgin is something of value according to Gloria, who plans to “play the virgin” next time in order to have a stronger relationship, and advises Macabea not to give in too soon. Macabea is uncertain. Unlike Camila, she is shown seeking physical gratification. She enjoys crowding close to men on the subway, emphasized by a close up of her face near a young man’s underarm. The next shot is her masturbating, but then she crosses herself in repentance. Her aunt, who taught her modesty when dressing, apparently imparted other instructions about what good girls can and cannot do.
With Olimpico, she is generally restrained, telling him she is not much of a person, and often sitting apart from him, even in the subway. Her clumsy attempts to engage him are usually verbal and submissive rather than physical. Olimpico rejects conversation, but also hesitates to approach her physically due to his own understanding of good girls and bad girls. He has identified her as a decent girl, too delicate for rough language (“fags” in the English titles), and claims that her quest for knowledge will corrupt her. He tells her that whorehouses are full of girls who asked too much, and that these are bad places – “only men go there.”
Olimpico is expressing a traditional double standard about women, but his beliefs are challenged when he is used by Gloria. He stops hiding his ignorance behind manly bravado such “culture is culture,” and reverts to childhood. Demonstrating purchasing power is a traditional route for men seeking the attention of women, but the garish plush dog is not appropriate. He learns his lesson, and abandons the innocent toy in the street.
Unlike Olimpico, who is alone if not with Macabea or Gloria, Macabea has a co-worker who offers job and relationship advice, and room mates who offer assistance with everything from unpacking to helping her when she is sick. A striking pair of visuals undercuts the value of friends. When the roommates rush to watch a neigbour’s television through the flat window, the first shot is at the back of the room, inside looking out, as Macabea walks over to join them. She is visually isolated on the right side of the window frame within the film frame (figure 1). The next shot is a reverse angle, looking up at the window from outside the building. Again Macabea is visually isolated, but instead of being on the left side of the window frame, she is on the right side (figure 2). The difference between the two shots may be a continuity error, but there would still be two consecutive shots of isolation. Friends may be of value, but identity comes from within.
Gloria’s betrayal of Macabea by her dalliance with Olimpico is another example of a false friendship. The relationship between Gloria and Macabea, and the conversation between the fortune teller and Macabea, combine two previous elements of Brazilian films. On the one hand there is the solidarity among women, new in films of the 1970s, but on the other hand there is the self-interest and betrayal between women of earlier films (Munerato 349).
Clothing is an important part of appearance for men and women, but the film draws attention to the false images clothing can create, again stressing that identity comes from within. Macabea pretends her sheet is a gown, and her bright dress at the end makes her no more noticeable to the driver who hits her. Olimpico wears a jacket and tie for his photo, but after the photo is taken we see they are borrowed, to create a false image. Olimpico’s appearance includes a gold tooth and the promise of more showy false teeth to replace the real, a knife used pointlessly, and a stolen watch.
Olimpico’s stolen watch is his significant action with the motif of time. He takes action, and steals time, but this is a crime of opportunity, passive rather than planned. Macabea passively listens to time, and trusts and absorbs what others offer. The landlady warns her of the risks of this, of being a victim to a crime of opportunity, but Macabea does not give up this trust. Rather than create her own identity as something more substantial than a typist, a virgin, and a Coke drinker, she relies of the reflection of herself in other people. Relying too much on the fortune teller’s prediction instead of her own judgment kills her.
The future does not look much brighter for Gloria. She also watches the passage of time, by years instead of hours, and looks for a husband to complete her identity. Like Macabea, she is relying on the fortune teller’s advice, and the husband she believes has been predicted for her may change her from being “the single one” but her identity may be little more than a reflection of herself as his wife.
Raimundo is a small but interesting character. He is the person most polite to Macabea, appears to have hired her, gives her hygiene and typing tips, and defends her against his boss. He is no angel, comfortable exploiting her with a below minimum wage salary, but he is positive relative to others, and a rare nurturing male figure. Why he treats her with some degree of respect is unclear, but one possibility is that he is from the north himself, and has some solidarity with a fellow immigrant. The performer Umberto Magnani was already a veteran of Brazilian films and television shows, including soap operas, when he appeared in Hour of the Star, and if he was associated with a particular character type, that may inform his character in this film. Regardless, when the orphaned Macabea tells him “you’re like a father to me,” she is imitating Gloria, but ironically stating a truth she is probably unaware of.
Olimpico and Macabea both consume and construct shallow media manipulated images of men and women on top of their rural concepts. Both suffer for it, and Amaral claims this is the nature of Brazilians – to passively suffer the story of cultural imperialism (Martin 326-327). Although Olimpico survives the story and Macabea does not, the film does not suggest her death is gender related. Olimpico is as misguided as Macabea and shares her habit of impossible dreams. His survival is not assured. Amaral notes a possible fate of male immigrants to the south is construction related death (West 45) and while this is not hinted at in the film, the scene under the elevated train line stresses how small both characters are against the modern concrete structure.
Blood of the Condor (Bolivia, 1969)
The third of these three films is significantly different. Jorge Sanjinés does share a goal with Bemberg, in that he seeks to draw attention to a minority group through film, but the group is ethnic, not gender based. Like Bemberg, he wanted to denounce imperialism, but not in all its forms, including the family. Instead, he targeted the “two headed enemy…the ruling class and Yankee imperialism (Sanjinés 38). At the family level, he represents a form of democracy, though this is not immediately obvious. The plot element of forced sterilization appears to foreground gender issues, and the representation of genders initially appears conventional, but the forced sterilization is a metaphor for harm to men and women, and the structuring of the flashbacks and other elements downplay gender in favour of ethnic issues.
The film opens with a drunk Ignacio blaming his wife for the death of their children, while she mends. He spews traditional male sentiments denying fear and claiming punishment of the wrongdoers before moving to his wife. With little context for his behavior, and especially for a post feminist North American audience, Ignacio seems a typical male brute. The scene of burying the idols of the children generates sufficient sympathy that when he is shot, viewers are relieved he has survived. From this point in the timeline, he is wounded, but the film does not exploit his suffering or the wounding to glorify the male body. Instead, the powerful figure in the film becomes his wife.
Pauline takes Ignacio to the city, and stays with him at the hospital. The doctors ignore her and speak to Sisto, though in a later scene this is partially justified by the reminder that she does not speak Spanish. With the structural device of a need to obtaining money established, the film introduces the first of several flashbacks. Significantly, it is introduced and initially narrated by Paulina. Images of Paulina waiting also introduce the next two flashbacks. This makes her a powerful figure in the film. The remaining flashbacks are preceded by images of Sisto. Unlike Paulina, he has no knowledge of the events depicted. The switch to Sisto as the motivator of flashbacks thus suggests not a diminishing of Paulina’s role as much as in increase in the allegorical nature of the film, and hints of Sisto’s eventual return to the village.
The first flashback establishes Ignacio as a figure of authority, but he is shown in this role as a member of the community. His role as head of the community is not connected to his family life, and does not elevate him in the community. This flashback also features an extended family gathering of men and women to discuss the problem of infertility. The last scene of the flashback shows the Progress Corps volunteers demanding eggs from Paulina, establishing both their boorish behaviour and symbolically outlining the cause of the infertility problem.
Sisto’s attempts to raise money are thwarted by a series of powerful women. The restaurant owner is sympathetic but unhelpful, the doctor’s wife (with four children) makes him sit in the back of the car, and the foreign woman in the marketplace with the tempting purse inadvertently eludes him in the crowd. His failures are not presented as weakness as a man, but rather being out of place as an Indian. The marketplace is presented as a series of threatening images, and shots of him at the Doctor’s meeting isolate him from the other men.
Another flashback shows the Progress Corp volunteers distributing clothing that is neither needed nor wanted. This reinforces their misguided efforts, and draws attention to clothing, a common thread among the three films. The Indian men and women dress alike, and peacefully reject western clothes which among other problems distinguish men and women. Sisto’s adoption of native dress at the end of the film changes his failure to save his brother into a gain for the village. Conventional masculine representation involves a never give up mentality (Kirkham, Tarzan 12-13), but this does not apply to Sisto despite his efforts and move to the village. The film has already suggested he belongs to the village by isolating him in the city and linking him through the later flashbacks to village life.
The villagers determine that the maternity clinic is the cause of the infertility. Their concern is gender neutral: “It harms our women, endanger our race.” Whether forced sterilization actually occurred is a matter of some dispute. Sanjinés claims the film is based on real events, but acknowledges the allegorical potential of the issue (40). The camera operator on the film is less direct, noting that in the progress of developing the script, they “came across the denunciation of the birth control practiced by the Peace Corps in the lake Titicaca area” (Eguino 163). Bolivian film writer José Sánchez cautiously describes the film as “a dramatic reconstruction based on actual events published by the press (83). Another source cites a 1971 interview in which Sanjinés claimed to have heard radio reports of sterilization in a remote village (Siekmeier 86). A conventional image of masculinity is that a large family is proof of virility, but the film actively opposes this notion. Child mortality and the survival of the group are at issue. However, some discussions of the film focus on masculinity. For example, James Siekmeier, claims “Bolivian men feared that birth control would give women too much power over the process of reproduction” (80). While this may have been true, it is not depicted in the film.
When the men of the village march on the maternity clinic, the film presents their actions as a defense of the community, not of manhood, and Ignacio is a moderating force. He announces the men from his village want to kill the doctors, but instead, as the doctors have sterilized the women, the villagers will apply retributive justice and sterilize the men. The police shootings of the village men seen at the start of the film now have an explanation, and are seen as excessive in response to the relatively restrained actions of the villagers.
Siekmeier claims the villagers sterilize the female volunteers at the clinic, an odd statement, given the surgical complexity, even if he has not seen the film (81). His article appears well researched, but his summary that the story is “an Indian family’s need to move to the city to find work” is remarkably incorrect. Notwithstanding these errors, his article does raise an interesting question. Citing several sources, he claims the Bolivian government was pleased to have an excuse to remove the Peace Corps, as the development assistance being given the Indians might enable them to question their subordinate status in society (84). From this perspective, Sanjinés well-intentioned film may have done more harm than good.
Among many observations that could be made about the final image is that it is gender neutral. Sanjinés own words support an initial assumption of conventional macho attitudes to women, when he describes his experiences filming Blood of the Condor and notes that village women were “more naturally taken in” by local officials (45), but in his films he achieves equality when representing “the people.”
Sánchez, who uses the term “New Bolivian Cinema,” is clearly wary of including Bolivian cinema in the transcontinental approach to Latin American film, and he rejects labels such as “revolutionary” and “militant,” in favour of viewing Bolivian film” on its own terms – in the context of the politics, cultures, and history of Bolivia” (190). His approach is primarily political, but the experience of Danielle Caillet underlines the importance of not applying foreign concepts of gender. Caillet is a French immigrant married to Antonio Eguino and shot stills for Blood of the Condor among other work. Her short film Woman (Warmi, 1980) is from the viewpoint of Bolivian women, and shows women of various classes. In this film, she presented the notion that women should not fight men for rights, but fight with men against system injustice. This idea is present in Blood of the Condor and also shown in The Courage of the People (Pick “Courage” 115-117), but foreign feminist groups saw only discrimination against women. Caillet described this as a misinterpretation due to foreign ignorance of Bolivian reality. (Sanchez 131).
Like Blood of the Condor, Hour of the Star is about the challenges facing a minority group, but dispersed to the city, the northern men and women have lost touch with the community influence that united them, and are separated by their absorption of shallow media representations of gender. Clothing, for example, is no longer practical and a mark of community. Instead, it is an outward show to meet advertised standards.
Bemberg’s period setting allows Camila to address national contemporary issues such as repression from a safe distance. However, unlike the other films, the story in Camila is driven by active and interesting characters. With the greater personal agency comes a greater emphasis on the representation of these characters, including gender representations. These start unconventionally, but when Camila rejects freedom for love, and Ladislao rejects freedom for bravery, the film is not only reinforcing traditional representations of gender, but reinforcing a submission to authority.
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Blood of the Condor (Yawar Mallku). Dir. Jorge Sanjinés. Ukamau Group, 1969.
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— ed. Me Jane: Masculinity, Movies and Women. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.
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— “The Courage of the People: A Massacre of the Tin Miners.” Positif 164 (1974). Rpt. in Latin American Film Makers and the Third Cinema. Ed. Zuzana Pick. Ottawa: Carleton, 1978. 114-119.
Rowe, Kathleen. “Melodrama and Men in Post-Classical Romantic Comedy.” Ed. Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumin. Me Jane: Masculinity, Movies and Women. 184-193.
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Sánchez-H., José. The Art and Politics of Bolivian Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow, 1999.
Sanjinés, Jorge. “Revolutionary Cinema: The Bolivian Experience.” Trans. and ed. Julianne Burton. Cinema and Social Change in Latin America: Conversations with Filmmakers. 35-48.
Siekmeier, James F. “Sacrificial Llama? The Expulsion of the Peace Corps from Bolivia in 1971.” Pacific Historical Review. 69.1 (2000). 65-87. <peacecorpsonline.org>
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Stevens, Donald F. “Passion and Patriarchy in Nineteenth-Century Argentina: María Luisa Bemberg’s Camila” Ed. Donald F. Stevens. Based on a True Story: Latin American History at the Movies. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1997. 85-102.
West, Dennis. “The Hour of the Star: An Interview with Suzana Amaral.” Cineaste. 15.4 (1987): 45. FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals Plus. Carleton U Lib. 17 Feb 2007.
Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2007, All Rights Reserved.