Top Ten Latin American Films

Latin America is a big, colourful, complex continent – a movie-makers dream.  A long history of coups and revolutions is interspersed with passionate love-affairs, magical realism and fantastic countryside – much of it under threat. Children are often the first victims of violence, and for many of the poor, an answer is illegal migration to ‘El Norte’, the North. There have been many great films about Latin America and below are ten I have seen recently.

I recently did some volunteering with a café in Estelí, which takes tourists to community tourism in rural Nicaragua. One of our activities was a weekly Movie-Night, showing films about Latin America. If tourism is one of the growth industries in Nicaragua, and an important source of income for many people, then it would be good if the tourists would understand something about the countries they are travelling through. So this is the list of ten films we have shown recently, roughly in my order of favourites. You can probably watch most of these from the internet, and all the ones we showed have sub-titles. For more info on each film click on the name of the film

1/The Motorcycle Diaries

This is a great film, and has been popular with our tourists. Based on the travels of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado, on a motorbike in the 1950’s. It’s funny, profound and moving, as the friends travel through Argentina, Chile and Peru. As they spend time with poverty-struck miners in the Chilean desert, you can sense the seeds of Che’s social consciousness growing. Their time volunteering for a while in an isolated leprosy station in the Amazon, will be of interest to the thousands of current travellers who are looking for a ‘volunteering experience’. The film stars the extremely ‘guapo’ Mexican Gael García Bernal, and we watched it in Spanish with English subtitles.

2/ Tambien la lluvia or Even_the_Rain

This is a powerful and fast-moving film set in Bolivia today. When a Spanish film-crew arrive in Cochambamba they coincide with a growing protest movement, challenging the privatisation of water. As the police violently protect the rights of multi-national companies to privatise basic services, the poor are fired upon and the film crew have to decide which side they are on. Tambien La Lluvia also cleverly reflects the conflict between Spanish and Indigenous people from the time of the conquest 500 years ago.

3/  Carla’s_Song

Living in Nicaragua we have to show this great film, and especially living in Estelí, where some of it was filmed. Made by the committed British director Ken Loach, it is set in 1987 at the height of the US-backed  Contra war against the FSLN government. The film doesn’t pull its punches. It was a strong impact to be watching the scenes of war and destruction in places like Miraflor, a rural area an hour outside Estelí, that I have often visited. If you live in the UK, Carla’s Song is one of the many good films you can buy on the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign website.

4/ Frida

Delving into Latin America’s cultural past, this is another beautiful and moving film – a real Hollywood production, high budget and with many stars. It is a bio-pic of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the inter-twined lives of Diego Rivera, the great muralist, and Leon Trotsky in exile in Mexico. Frida overcomes a lifetime of pain to be a free-thinking, sexually liberated, forceful and independent woman. A feel good movie, highly recommended.

5/ La Misma Luna – Under The Same Moon

Migration is a key escape route for millions of the poorest families in Central America (when I visited villages in rural El Salvador recently I was shocked by how many young men and women had migrated illegally to the USA). Under the Same Moon is a moving, real-life depiction of reality, featuring tension, humour, male redemption and a twist at the end. It’s a well-made film that will keep you gripped. Known in Spanish as ‘La Misma Luna’, in many ways it’s an updated version of a 1983 film about migration, aptly named El Norte (The North).  El Norte (film) featured two indigenous Guatemalan Indians escaping the violence and repression of the military dictatorships. La Misma Luna though, is a more cheerful film, and you could (and should) watch it with your children.


6/ 180 Degrees South

This 2010 film brings battles for conservation in Chile to the big screen, or at least in our case, the big white sheet taped to the wall. It’s a U.S. film / documentary – very U.S. I would say, and also male-dominated. But it’s a moving film about the importance of preserving the worlds remaining natural spaces. Very relevant to Nicaragua, where the government needs to do more to protect the good system of national parks, and where the tourism industry can support rural communities by promoting eco-tourism. And if you think 70 year-old men can’t scale mountains, watch this film, it should inspire you in your older age.

7/ House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende is one of the great authors in Latin America and helped put magical realism on the map. House of the Spirits is her first novel, and is a grand sweep through 100 years of Chilean history – (for which you can read Latin American history). From feudal oppression of the peasants in the 19th Century, to the first electoral success of a socialist government (Salvador Allende)  and the crushing response of the CIA-backed military coup.

House of the Spirits felt rather long and a bit dated. If you want a melodramatic two hour introduction to Latin American history, then it’s good value. If you want to see a Latin American ‘Magical Realism’ film with less bombast then you might enjoy Like Water for Chocolate more. Set in Mexico it tells the story of a cook who can change people’s emotions through the ingredients she puts in her cooking. Funny and sexy too and with a big happy ending.

8/ Y Tu Mama Tambien

Talking of sexy, this highly successful Mexican drama, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a coming-of-age film about two teenage boys on a road-trip with an older woman. No need to say more. It’s one of Mexico’s highest-earning films ever, and is poignant, funny (and sexy). If you are a Nicaraguan tourist café or hotel, considering following our example, and showing some of these films to your guests, you might want to avoid showing this one. It’s a great film, but maybe one to watch in privacy at home on a DVD.

9/ La Casa de Mi Padre

Tastes differ, and sometimes the tourists like Hollywood films or ones with ‘big names’. This film is made by and stars Will Farrell, so we got a few more visitors than some times. It’s a weird film, a spoof comedy mocking Mexican dramas. In the UK we would call it a ‘piss-take’. It is funny in parts, but would be better if you knew from the beginning it was a take-off. I would like to know what Mexicans think of it, I imagine they either hate it or think it’s hilarious.

10/ Pablo Escobar: Paradise Lost

We tried to show films from different countries – Frida from Mexico, Carla’s Song from Nicaragua, Tambien La Lluvia – Bolivia etc. Wanting to show a film about Colombia, we chose this film, again U.S. made, but modern, from 2015. About the life of the violent Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar, the film uses the typical approach of a North American young man who falls in love with Escobar’s daughter, and gets caught up in the violent family empire. Of the ten films here it was my least favourite, but if you want to learn about the cocaine trade in Colombia, it is a place to start.

I have enjoyed watching all these films and think it’s great if tourists in Latin America can learn a bit about the continent they are travelling in. Not to mention the numerous expats who live here now. I have been interested in Latin America since about 1979, and cut my political teeth on films like Missing about the 1973 CIA-organised coup in Chile (by Costa-Gavras, starring Jack Lemmon) and  The Mission about the ruthless greed of the Spanish conquistadores (with Jeremy Irons). Another I remember from my formative years was the Kiss of the Spiderwoman  (1985) about the dictatorship in Argentina. Fortunately now in Latin America the dictatorships have ended – but the struggles for justice and peace remain. Of all the films shown here, Even the Rain (Tambien la Lluvia) is the best modern film about the continuing struggles of poor people across the continent.

Which films have you seen that you’ve enjoyed? Which key films have I left out? Please use the comments box below to tell me what I should be watching, and why the ten (13) films above are the right or wrong ones. Gracias.