A journey beyond la frontera of cinema

A Companion to Latin American Film
January 13, 2006

As an academic discipline, Latin American film studies is well established in the British university system. Stephen Hart's companion is a timely and pedagogically useful addition to scholarship in the field, yet one that also implicitly raises essential questions about the supposed unity of its object of study.

Hart begins with a brief history of cinema in Latin America from the 1890s to the present day. He then analyses what he considers to be 25 of the most representative films of the region, albeit not necessarily the best. In three of the first four chapters, Hart offers assessments of movies by directors who were not native to the Americas: Sergei Eisenstein's iQué Viva México! ( Long Live Mexico! ), Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados ( The Young and the Damned ) and Marcel Camus's Orfeu Negro ( Black Orpheus ).

The reason behind the author's choice becomes clear in the case of Bu$uel's seminal work, where Hart seeks to explain how Latin American cinema has evolved historically and how film-makers and critics have understood that evolution. It is unclear, though, why he chooses Eisenstein's work as his first point of reference in this diachronical study when, as Hart acknowledges,  iQué Viva México! (that "Qué" in the title betrays unfortunate ignorance of the Spanish language) did not crystallise in its final form until 1979, decades after its director's death and when Latin American cinemas were well established in their own right. Thereafter, Hart covers an impressive range of national cinemas and genres including Mexico (seven films), Cuba (five), Brazil (four), Argentina (three), Chile (three), Bolivia (one), US (one) and a multinational co-production.

He provides clear analyses in well-organised chapters. Typically, plot summary and analytical overview give way to a sharp but not exclusive focus on formal features of the film (cinematography, montage, camera work and so on) and a final section grounded in a specific critical approach suited to each film. This methodology, together with a bibliography for each chapter, results in numerous insights and user-friendly material for students of Latin American cinema in the UK and the US.

Some of the chapters, such as the ones devoted to Los Olvidados, Amores Perros ( Love's a Bitch ) or Memorias del Subdesarrollo ( Memories of Underdevelopment ), show a profound knowledge of their respective directors'

work and sharp critical acumen: these studies not only provide the reader with insightful interpretations of specific films, but they also facilitate ways of understanding cinema in general. Other chapters, such as those devoted to Como Agua para Chocolate ( Like Water for Chocolate ), Camila or La Frontera ( The Frontier ), seem to point to the obvious and not attend to questions that are raised but left unresolved in the films themselves, or problematise the relationship between each film and its national audience.

What may be lost in depth, however, is gained in scope in Hart's book. And given the scope of his study, when we finish reading A Companion to Latin American Film , we realise there is no Latin American identity encoded in the films made in many different countries since the 1930s. But what Hart shows is that films made in any country in Latin America can be both politically engaged and popular, exemplify "imperfect cinema" or adopt a Hollywood style, be subversive and tremendously successful inside and outside a country's borders, or limited to a moment and a place.

Mar!a Donapetry is professor of Spanish, Pomona College, California, US.

A Companion to Latin American Film

Author - Stephen M. Hart
Publisher - Tamesis, www.boydell.co.uk
Pages - 2
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 1 85566 106 3

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