La historia oficial (The Official Story; Luis Puenzo)

By Gary M. Kramer.

There is not much new or improved in Keith John Richards’ Themes in Latin American Cinema: A Critical Survey (McFarland, 2020), that this 2011 book warranted a second edition. For starters, there are only 4 Bolivian films out of the 23 covered in this volume that were not included in the first publication. Two introductions have revised titles, but all of them were likely revised and updated. However, in the section retitled, “The Child as Survivor and Paradigm in Latin American Film” – some of the new material appears in untranslated Spanish, which is frustrating for American readers. In the introduction on “Female Roles and Stereotypes” a paragraph mentioning the films Celestial Clockwork, Quinceañera, and Mi Vida Loca, and How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer, is repeated on two consecutive pages. This is just sloppiness.

There are other errors that are equally embarrassing. Richards repeatedly identifies the legendary, Oscar-nominated Argentine actress Norma Aleandro as “Norma Leandro” in the book. He also misidentifies filmmaker Hector Babenco as the director of La historia oficial (The Official Story), when it was, in fact, Luis Puenzo.

Richards often talks around a film rather than about it.

Richards makes other unfortunate mistakes, such as getting dates of films wrong, and misspellings. But what is much more distressing is his omissions of films that would enhance his discussion of a particular subject. In his chapter on sexuality and identity, he fails to acknowledge the landmark Mexican film, Y Tu Mama Tambien. In a section on Jewish culture in Latin America, the Argentine comedy, Only Human, is snubbed. He even ignores the Mexican film, Heli, the Brazilian caper The Man Who Copied, and the Argentine thriller The Secrets in their Eyes, in the chapter on crime. These are all award-winning international titles, so not exactly obscure films floating under the radar.

Richards is, understandably, not intending to be comprehensive here, but there is a concern that he includes a chapter on Loud Whispers, a film that “still had not reached public exhibition at the time of this book’s publication.” One assumes that was the case in 2011, when the first edition was published, but no indication is made of the film’s current availability. Richards does, however, disclose he was personally involved in the film, which may be why he included it.

The author seems to cherry pick the films he writes about, which feels self-serving. One guess is that his selections are based on the interviews he did with the directors. Some are indicated as email exchanges, although, most are unclear as to when, where, and how they took place. Several of the interviews are particularly bad if not downright useless. In his Q&A with director Solveig Hoogesteijn about her film Maroa, she practically contradicts everything he asks. Likewise, in his interview with Guita Schyfter about Novia que te vea (Like a Bride), she dismisses two of his six questions that makes this Q&A not very illuminating. Then there is his extremely brief conversation with the Argentine filmmaker Eliseo Subiela, which fits on half a page. The author says more than the filmmaker. It seems foolish to include these interviews because they lack substance. Better are his lengthy chats, such as one with Juan Carlos Valdivia about his film Ivy Marãey, and the other with Kiro Russo for his film Viejo Calavera (Old Skull), both of which are new to this edition. When given the chance to dig into the themes and approaches to their work, or the state of Bolivian cinema, Richards can get some useful information.

But much of Richards’ work in this book is frustrating. In his chapter on Perder es cuestión de método (The Art of Losing), the author asserts that the filmmaker, Sergio Cabrera, “is one of the most innovating and controversial filmmakers to come out of Colombia.” But he does not explain why he makes this claim, which might have been valuable. There is a brief history of the director being active in the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) as a young man, but that does not have anything to do with his films.

There are a few salient features. One is his insightful reporting about Iluminados por el fuego, about the veterans of the Falklands war screenings in the U.K. and the Falkland Islands. He also has some interesting reporting about the film industry in Paraguay. Themes in Latin American Cinema does showcase mostly work from South America, with Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and Paraguay represented. Films from Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala are also featured, but Nicaragua, Panama, and Honduras, which do produce interesting films, are largely ignored.

Richards also addresses interesting topics, from indigenous images, sexuality, children, women, crime, war, and literature in the seven sections. But there is little overlap in the discussions of the films, which makes these themes feel like silos. In the interview with Paz Encina about Paraguayan Hammock, there is no discussion of her being a female filmmaker, because it is featured in the section about war. But then again, there is also no question about war. Richards often talks around a film rather than about it. Each chapter features a too brief synopsis, a biography of the filmmaker and important players in making the film, a few paragraphs for “cultural understanding,” a brief description of linguistic features, and discussion questions, with a few variations on these points.

The result of all of this feels as if Richards is directing readers, and mostly likely students – although the book is hardly scholarly – to consider the points he raises if they can even view the films (not all are readily available). In this regard, the book is as lazy as it is sloppy, which is a shame given how vibrant Latin American cinema is at this moment.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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