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.

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26 comments

  1. John Perry · March 26, 2017

    Steve – you missed an excellent recent Nica film, La Yuma, about a teenage girl from Managua who wants to be a boxer. Excellent. John

    Liked by 1 person

    • stevenicaragua · March 27, 2017

      OK I’ll look for it, thanks

      Like

    • Rob Keddy · May 8, 2017

      and by the same director, you can look for http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2801316/ La Pantalla Desnuda (La Pantalla Rota) http://www.camilafilms.com On Nicaragua, Walker by Alex Cox is a bit of a surreal biopic about the filibustero who helped end Nicaragua’s mid 1800s civil war but, set the stage for another conflict just a few years later when Central America decided they might be better off without him. Filmed in 1987 in Granada, Nicaragua and other nearby locales it’s also a bit on an allegory on US Nicaragua relations of that era.

      Like

  2. David Lewis · March 27, 2017

    Hey Steve, I liked your list and there are some films here I will definitely check out. You didn’t include another Colombian film, El Abrazo de la Serpiente (The Embrace of the Serpent) which is a much better film than Paradise Lost, but it is much slower and more “arty.” Also you could have included the sad and moving Salvadorean film about child soldiers being mobilised in the civil war, called Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices)

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · March 27, 2017

      I am still traumatised by watching Voces Inocentes and that was years ago we saw it! I will check out El Abrazo del Serpiente, thanks

      Like

  3. Mary Durran · March 27, 2017

    Good selection, but you have missed a few:
    1. Hija de la Laguna : http://hijadelalaguna.pe/
    a peruvian film about Maxima Chaupe, a community leader defending her lands against a US mining company (I haven’t seen it yet but it looks very good.)
    2. Como Agua para Chocolate (Mexican)
    3. La Boca del Lobo – Peruvian film about a young Peruvian indigenous soldier during the war, caught between the army and its abuses and those of Sendero Luminoso
    4. Another I would like to see is the film based on Vargas Llosa’s novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, about Dominican dictator Trujillo, the novel was excellent.

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  4. stevenicaragua · March 27, 2017

    Good recommendations, thanks

    Like

  5. Maureen Anderson · March 28, 2017

    Nice list. So glad you included Carla’s Song. …Please add to the Nica list the excellent “La Pantalla Desnuda,” directed in 2014 by Florence Jaugey, who also directed La Yuma. Shot in Matagalpa, here’s a synopsis:

    The Broken Screen is about a very special friendship, which turns into obsession for one of the characters and leaves him to use technology, and social networks as a weapon to destroy a love story that stands between him and his friend.

    The story takes place in northern Nicaragua, land of traditions, coffee farms and cattle raisers. Octavio, a young student from a poor family, makes friends with Alex, the charismatic young son of one of the region’s wealthiest families. Octavio’s fascination with his new friend makes him want to sideline anyone who comes between the two of them. From that moment on, nothing will be the same….

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · March 28, 2017

      Wow what a very modern topic for a Nicaraguan film. My wife and I are thinking of going to live in Matagalpa for a while, so it will be great for us to see these films set in Matagalpa. Thanks Maureen.

      Like

  6. Maureen Anderson · March 28, 2017

    I couldn’t help but smile at the 1980s films you mention in passing, on which you “cut your political teeth.” We must constitute an entire generation, we who came of age politically through these films (including El Norte!) which so piercingly exposed USG policies in LA as nothing less than terrorism.

    As a political respite I’d like to recommend the sublime 2012 Argentinian/Paraguayan film, “Las Acacias.” It’s a short film with sparse dialogue – great for non-Spanish speakers! Few films have stuck around with me so persistently in the past few years. And as noted in the NYT review, “The very definition of modest, ‘Las Acacias’ articulates emotional transformation with simplicity and grace. Rarely has a film managed to say so much while saying so little.” (Short NYT review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/07/movies/las-acacias-directed-by-pablo-giorgelli.html ) The film is an understated gem.

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    • stevenicaragua · March 28, 2017

      You are right Maureen, maybe the films (and plays and books) we see when we are in our early 20’s are the ones that affect us most. No other ‘list’ I know rates Missing, but it opened my eyes to the work of the CIA in Latin America.
      I’ve never heard of Las Acacias so I’ll have to go out and hunt it down. Thanks

      Like

  7. Graham Loveland · March 29, 2017

    Like the list Steve. I can’t pretend to have a wide knowledge of Latin American cinema, but one film not on your list that comets to mind is Central Station, a warm and humanist earlier film by Walter Salles, the director of Motorcycle Diaries. Also, A Headless Woman – a rather unsettling allegorical Argentinian film about a woman who accidentally runs someone over. Agree with David’s comment about The Embrace of the Serpent.

    Like

  8. constf · March 29, 2017

    The Pearl Button – Patricio Guzman documentary I saw last year – poetic

    Like

  9. michael · March 29, 2017

    Thanks for all the suggestions, I will raid this page to produce a shopping list!
    I’ll second the vote for Como agua para chocolate, love both the book and the movie. By contrast, as a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels I rather resented the hollywood adaptation of her first one. Generally, the LA films of which I have the fondest memories are often chamber pieces with 3 people and no budget, such as En la cama (inspiration for Julio Medem’s more famous film Room in Rome), or Mapa para conversar. Haven’t seen the Escobar film, but I would recommend Maria llena de gracias on the drug trafficking problem.

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  10. Sorah Broder · March 29, 2017

    Hi. Great list. You missed two big ones that should be way way up on the list: State of Seige, 1972 Costa-Garvas film about the role of USAID in Latin America. A guerilla group in Uraguay (Tupamaros, anyone?) kidnap a USAID functionary to get information . . . Second big one: The Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story, made in 1972 based on his life and murder for struggling to save the rainforest in Brasil. I also want to ditto the comment about Voces Inocentes. Devastating.

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · March 29, 2017

      So Costa-Gavras had an earlier film than ‘Missing’? I was only 13 then, too young to have known about the Tupamaros. Thanks for the additions Sorah.

      Like

  11. Stella from Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, London · March 29, 2017

    Maureen, please edit your description of La Pantalla Desnuda (The Naked Screen) as you give away the whole story. The suspense in the flm is very important. NB. You can buy this film, La Yuma and several other Latin American films on DVD from the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign shop. http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/shop/CDs%20&%20DVDs.htm

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · March 30, 2017

      Friends in Leon suggested these:

      Missing El Topo
      ————————-
      Santa Golde
      Santa Golde Great topic, thanks! I liked Man on Fire (2004) about kidnapping in Mexico
      ————————
      Elfi Littmann-Kaba Great topic and list – thanks Steve
      ——————————————————-
      Monica Alejandra Pacheco Martinez

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sin_Nombre_(2009_film)#

      Sin Nombre (2009 film) – about a Honduran girl trying to immigrate to the U.S.A., and a boy caught up in the violence of gang life

      And – When the moutains tremble and Granito
      … Two films about guatemala civil war

      And – La jaula de oro… https://youtu.be/aPUs19GlwLo

      La jaula de oro Largometraje 102 min. México-España, 2013
      Trailer on YOUTUBE.COM

      Like

    • Maureen Anderson · March 30, 2017

      My apologies! I saw this synopsis, in both Spanish and English, in several places and assumed it was the production company’s standard publicity for the film.

      BTW, how I wish there were some means of seeing these films, including La Yuma other than DVD purchase. I don’t have a DVD player and, living in Leon, don’t currently know anyone who does. Ironically, copyright restrictions seem to prevent me from viewing streaming versions of La Yuma (via amazon) and other Nica films here in Nicaragua.

      Like

  12. Maureen Anderson · March 30, 2017

    PS

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · April 1, 2017

      From Granada folk added the following movies:

      Byron Ortega What about Nicaragua’s Movies? Last one is Great, Kill the Messenger, there are many other too about or film in Nicaragua. Alsino y el Cóndor, etc.

      Steve Lewis Thanks, great. I have never heard of Kill the Messenger

      Joseph S. Robertson Ixcanul (Guatemalan in Mayan on Netflix about disenfranchised indigenous people), Milk of Sorrow (Peruvian/ La Teta Asustada in Spanish) about a generation effected by the trauma of terrorists), Sin Nombre (Mexican/ about trying to escape a mara). I agree with your list especially with Under the Same Moon and Y Tu Mama Tambien.

      Claudia Jouett – Love In The Time of Cholera

      Like

  13. Anamaria · April 4, 2017

    Thanks Steve for the film list espcially because there are films I haven’t seen. I like that most films are made in Latin America instead of the usually mediocre and stereotypical Hollywood portrait of us.

    You have overlooked some of the classic Cuban films that contributed enormously to the Latin American film tradiiton. I would suggest three and you could choose which ones to include in your top ten. In my opinion, any ranking of Latin American films without one of them is incomplete: Memorias del Subdesarrollo (1968) directed by the emblematic Tomas Gutierrez, Alea and Lucia (1968) by Humberto Solas. Another classic is the 1994 Fresa y Chocolate directed by Juan Carlos Tabio and Tomas Gutierrez Alea.

    As one of your preview commentors, I vote to include the Peruvian film La Boca del Lobo by Francisco Lombardi.

    Keep recommending good Latin American films!

    am

    Like

  14. Rachel L. Greenwood · April 8, 2017

    Another good movie is The Official Story, made in Argentina about the dirty war, shortly after it ended. It’s very emotional but not too depressing.

    Like

    • stevenicaragua · April 9, 2017

      Thanks Rachel. Yes the art of these films is not to be depressing at the end. We have to have hope…

      Like

  15. webmaster Escuela2avancemos · April 10, 2017

    nice list, however, i think there is some room for a view:
    1) El secreto de sus ojos (secret in your eyes). Argentinian movie with a very interesting plot and picturing nice the local atmosphere.
    2) La puta y la ballena, mysterious and dense, typical spanish movie with bad kickoff
    3) Amores perros, 3 interwoven short stories about crual life in Mexico.
    4) And based on the novel of the master Marquez himself : love in times of cholera.

    Like

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