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Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)$

Carolina Rocha

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781786940544

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781786940544.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introduction discusses Argentine cinema’s central role in Argentine cultural life during the 1966-1976 period despite a highly volatile political background. I examine the creation of the cinema school as well as the different laws that regulated national film in Argentina in this period. Theories about national cinema by Andrew Higson and John Hill underpinned the analysis of Argentine cinema as well as theories the role of media in nation- building and the dissemination of narratives about nationhood.

Keywords:   Argentine-ness, Film laws, protectionism

In March 1966, an article about the Argentine School for Cinema in the daily newspaper El mundo urged Argentina to usher in a new era of filmmaking, one that would reflect its country’s greatest hopes, fears, and ideas:

Desde fines del año 1957 recién ahora podemos ponerla en marcha después de tantas esperanzas acumuladas […] Los países más adelantados, Francia, Italia, Rusia, Estados Unidos y Japón y otros envían sus ideas, muestran su país al exterior a través de ese vehículo que es la cinematografía […] El cine argentino debe y puede manifestarse, convirtiéndose adentro del país en instrumento de opinión de todos los argentinos, puede y debe ser fuera de nuestro país el mejor embajador de nuestra industria.

[Since the end of 1957, it is only now that we can implement it after so much hoping […] The most advanced nations, France, Italy, Russia, the United States, Japan, and others, send their ideas, showing their country abroad through the means of cinema […] Argentine cinema can and must manifest itself, becoming a means of expressing the opinions of all Argentines within the country; outside of our country, it can and must be the best ambassador of our industry]

(‘Escuela,’ 1966, 16)

Making Argentine cinema a distinctive brand and establishing a school for cinema in which directors, scriptwriters, and technicians could be trained meant greater professionalization for those involved in film production in Argentina.1 It also constituted a precondition for representing Argentine-ness (argentinidad) on local and foreign screens.2 Just as Andrew Higson explains that tracing the development of British nationhood corresponds to analyzing filmic production of the past (2000a, 35), so presenting the definition of Argentine-ness and its cinematic depiction in the decade 1966–1976 constitutes a central endeavor of Argentine Cinema and National Identity. This study aims to situate Argentine film during those years in its historical context, taking into account the overall landscape of filmmaking in Argentina. Similar to other media in the artistic domain—the visual arts and music—Argentine film was seen as a medium that would allow a dialogue with the (p.2) cinematographic productions of more technologically advanced countries (Giunta, 2008, 23).3 In 1966, Argentine cinema was therefore encouraged to create and circulate images about the nation, providing continuity with the blossoming film production of the late 1940s and early 1950s.4

Cinema played a central role in Argentine cultural life during the period 1966–1976 despite a highly volatile political background.5 This decade, which saw a succession of military and democratic administrations—none of which could finish out its term—ended with the coup d’état of March 1976.6 Thus, in these years, Argentina’s political life was heavily influenced by the participation of the armed forces in civic affairs, the proscription and return of Peronism, and the upsurge in political violence.7 These events had a tremendous impact on nationhood and nation building, particularly because the zeitgeist was characterized by a demand for change that affected both Latin American nations and their cinemas. Ignacio del Valle refers to those processes:

A uno y otro lado del espectro político—aunque con connotaciones distintas—se invocaba la idea de ‘refundar’ la nación, de hacer una patria ‘nueva,’ de emprender una ‘revolución.’ El cine latinoamericano, que vivía entonces su propio proceso de renovación formal, temática y productiva, entroncó bien con ese anhelo renovador.

[At both ends of the political spectrum—albeit with different connotations—the idea of ‘refounding’ the nation, of making a ‘new’ patria, of starting a ‘revolution’ was invoked. Latin American cinema, which was experiencing its own process of formal, thematic, and productive renovation, merged well with that desire for renewal]

(2010, 5)

Influenced by these epochal motivations, Argentine cinema was entrusted with the responsibility of representing the nation—both internally and abroad—precisely at a moment when Argentina was subject to centrifugal forces that jeopardized its viability and cohesion.8 Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Leonardo Favio, Manuel Antín, and René Múgica accepted that challenge and made the representation of Argentine-ness a central concern of their films.

To legitimate the different sectors’ claims about the nation, governments from 1966 to 1976—which included the terms in office of Juan Carlos Onganía, Roberto Levingston, Alejandro Agustín Lanusse, Héctor José Cámpora, Juan Domingo Perón, and Isabel Martínez de Perón—saw film as a particularly important medium to nurture and control. An illustration of the prominence given to Argentine film production is the fact that three cinema laws were passed during this period: 16,955 (1966), 17,741 (1968), and 20,170 (1973). These laws attempted to change the main features of Argentine cinema which, for Pablo Piedras, was in a constant state of dependency and underdevelopment (2011, 45).9 While well-meaning, these pieces of legislation were nonetheless far from uniformly hailed. Problematic aspects of Law (p.3) 16,955 that benefitted producers and directors at the expense of exhibitors and audiences were revised in Law 17,741, while others remained unchanged even in Law 20,170. Although the passing of these laws generated controversy, all three sought to guarantee a steady film production, privileging the representation of national themes through subsidies. Thus, as Andrew Higson explains, ‘in economic protectionism, cultural tradition, national identity, and cultural energy are assumed, negatively, rather than planned for and fostered’ (1995, 12). Indeed, the rationale behind the different laws that regulated film highlighted the urgent need for filmic products of quality in order to receive international recognition and gain access to different markets.

The state’s protectionism of the local film industry came with strings attached. Films were classified according to their content, a step that impinged on their release and distribution, and subjected to censorship. The Film Rating Board sanitized narratives that contravened the ‘desired’ version of what the nation ought to be. Here it is important to consider John Hill’s reminder of the cultural value of national films: ‘the case of a national cinema […] is largely dependent upon cultural arguments. In particular, it is dependent upon a fundamental argument regarding the value of a home-grown cinema to the cultural life of the nation’ (1992, 11). While Hill was applying these concepts mainly to British cinema, the competing relationship between opposed sets of images can also pertain to Argentine cinema produced between 1966 and 1976, with the caveat that censorship was unevenly implemented and forcefully resisted by both those taking part in the creative process of filmmaking and progressive sectors of civil society.

One consequence of the state’s protection is that many critics and scholars have characterized the cinematic production of this period as propaganda. For instance, film director and critic Raúl Beceyro argues that ‘a partir de 1966 se le planteó al cine argentino un nuevo problema: ¿de qué manera escapar a la complicidad, si era posible?’ [from 1966, Argentine cinema faced a new problem: how, if at all possible, to avoid complicity?] (1997, 11). With the exception of directors engaged in political cinema, the accusation of complicity with the military authorities levelled at other filmmakers active in these years has had a significant influence on scholarly publications about the filmic production of this period, which has thus been overlooked and/or disparaged. One of the goals of Argentine Cinema and National Identity is to nuance those traditional views, providing a broader picture that illustrates the trials faced by actors, directors, producers, and exhibitors as well as the opinions of domestic critics and audiences.10

Of particular import in relation to the period 1966–1976 are three popular films directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson which paved the way for the two film genres that will be the focus of this study: the gauchesque and the historical film. In 1968, Torre Nilsson took a daring step when he chose to adapt Argentina’s epic poem, Martín Fierro, for the silver screen. When he received the Silver Seagull at the International Film Festival of Rio de Janeiro for his adaptation, he declared, ‘estoy convencido, que los temas argentinos, muy nuestros, han (p.4) sido hasta el momento increíblemente inexplotados. Y gustan, claro que gustan. Es un aporte nuevo, raro, fresco, a la cinematografía’ [I am convinced that Argentine themes, very much our own, have been incredibly underexploited. And they are liked, of course they are liked. It brings something new, rare, and fresh to cinematography] (‘Martín Fierro es el mejor,’ 1969, 61].11 While Torre Nilsson’s assertion forgets other periods rich in films about Argentine history, such as the 1910s and 1940s (Jakubowicz and Radetich, 2006, 81; Lusnich, 2007, 28), his adaptation of Martín Fierro—which touched on a fundamental aspect of Argentine identity, the gauchesque—marked a distinct point in Argentine film history, putting an end to that absence of Argentine-ness in Argentine films. His belief in Argentine themes and his first-hand experience of the success of Martín Fierro drove him to produce and direct two historical films: El santo de la espada [The Saint of the Sword] and Güemes, la tierra en armas [Güemes, Land up in Arms] (throughout the book, films with an official English title appear in italics, titles that are translations are left in roman). His three films catered to the public’s and the critics’ thirst for motion pictures in which national identity was a central concern.12 Whether the filmmaker promoted an Argentine cinema from altruistic love of his country or for his own personal benefit, in the late 1960s, he understood the importance of the domestic audience’s support for Argentine cinema. In an interview, he held that: ‘el cine argentino no es una responsabilidad de unos pocos hombres que lo hacemos, sino una responsabilidad del país todo’ [Argentine cinema is not the responsibility of the few men who make it; it is the responsibility of the whole country] (Monteagudo, 1998, non. pag.). As if agreeing with Torre Nilsson, popular magazines, newspapers, and trade journals in the late 1960s and early 1970s were unfailingly supportive of Argentine cinema as a national industry with its own star system and as a valid source of work for technicians, cameramen, and those working in movie theatres as ticket sellers, ushers, and projectionists. It is that enthusiasm that this study hopes to describe while examining the imbrication of nationhood and national identity in the cinematic production of this period. Argentine Cinema and National Identity, then, examines Argentine cinema from 1966 to 1976 and explores the ways in which two genres—the gauchesque and historical—shaped, challenged, and reconfigured Argentine national identity during this unstable period.

In addition to political instability, economic conditions were also challenging as Argentina sought to maintain its industrial production while competing with other capitalist nations. One area of that competition was film, particularly Hollywood productions that attracted large Argentine audiences. To frame the way in which that rivalry was played out, this study owes much to Higson’s concepts about national cinema as theorized in Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain. Higson lists the five economic policies adopted to compete with Hollywood productions: collusion, direct competition, product differentiation, production of art cinema, and regulation by the state (1995, 9–12). The three latter policies will inform the analysis of the Argentine films produced between 1966 and 1976 here. Product (p.5) differentiation—that is to say, producing films about specifically Argentine topics that could not be made by Hollywood, and the production of art cinema that was also commercially successful given the size and characteristics of the Argentine market—was the main strategy to which a group of Argentine filmmakers resorted to gain domestic viewers. These bottom-up tactics were complemented by the state’s regulation in the form of loans and subsidies for production as well as the classification of films between those for compulsory and non-compulsory exhibition. If, on one hand, censorship constituted an unwelcome imposition by a paternalist state, on the other, Argentine filmmakers and producers also responded to the emergence of new local social actors—youth, urban middle classes, and intellectuals—and were exposed to the movements for independence and liberation. These developments paralleled and mirrored a tumultuous decade worldwide.

The 1960s were, indeed, years of intense social change all around the world, as they were in Argentina. According to Sonya Sayres, during that decade, a ‘new fight emerged: the demand among workers, some middle class strata and youth for freedom from the institutions of the quotidian’ (1987, 3). These same calls were also frequent in Argentine society, which was polarized around the idea of national development and liberation: many intellectuals and politicians thought that capitalism and the traditions of Western Europe, namely Catholicism, were the solution to the many structural problems visible in the country, while others argued that Marxism would provide the remedy for the social inequalities of the region. These political debates spilled over into the cultural realm and particularly affected Argentine cinema. Political documentary and social filmmaking, which flourished independently from the state’s protectionism, were crucial modes of expression and mobilization in that decade. As Octavio Getino and Susana Vellegia put it, ‘el cine no sólo daba cuenta de la historia sino que se proponía actuar como un fermento de ella’ [cinema not only talked about history, but also proposed to act as its impetus] (2002, 12).13 Directors Fernando Birri, Octavio Getino, Jorge Cedrón, and Fernando Solanas saw film as a powerful medium to enlighten the illiterate rural masses as well as the students and working class who could develop class-based solidarity to fight for radical social change (Burton, 1986; King, 1990; Falicov, 2007; Lusnich and Piedras, 2011; Stites Mor, 2012). They sought to improve Argentines’ awareness of their own country and the region’s dependency and ‘backwardness,’ thus challenging the official discourse of progress.14 Consequently, their films were censored and only circulated privately in Argentina. This study, however, veers away from the consideration of militant, political, and independent cinema, which have been analyzed extensively. Instead, my investigation focuses on the examination of the Argentine film industry: its laws, challenges, and successes vis-à-vis foreign films that circulated in the domestic market. I also concentrate on the way in which a corpus of nine gauchesque and historical films/biopics depicted nineteenth-century founding fathers and caudillos. These films engaged with national concerns such as the birth of the Argentine nation and the (p.6) representation of the country’s heritage. More importantly, they generated great interest during production, were reviewed and featured in newspapers and magazines, and were seen by solid numbers of spectators and discussed upon release as representative of Argentina and Argentine-ness, especially because some of the films were based on seminal Argentine poems and novels. The reception of these films is also, therefore, an area which this study explores in detail. To do so, I pay attention to the four areas of film reception—exhibition, audience, performance, and activation—identified by film scholar Robert Allen (1998, 13–21).15

Because of the importance of Argentine cinema in spreading nationalism, this study is predicated on two fundamental premises. The first is informed by the idea of nationalism as an ideology that sustains the formation and existence of the nation. Benedict Anderson defines the nation as ‘an imagined political community’ (1991, 6), that is to say, a social construct that integrates heterogeneous elements. For his part, film scholar Philip Schlesinger sees the nation as a communicative space (2000a, 19), an environment in which media shapes the discourses about ‘us’ and ‘them’: ‘film studies’ concern with the role of cinema in the nation is inherently internalist. Its central concern is with how—if at all—the production, circulation and consumption of the moving image is constitutive of the national collectivity’ (2000, 24). While Schlesinger suggests that the nation is a monolithic unit molded by media images that distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, Higson proposes that the nation should not be seen as an entity devoid of tension. Rather, he holds that ‘the “imagined community” argument […] sometimes seems unable to acknowledge the cultural difference and diversity that invariably marks both the inhabitants of a particular nation-state and the members of more geographically dispersed “national” communities’ (2000, 66). Higson’s awareness of the variety of existing views at any given moment presents the nation as an amalgamation of different—and sometimes clashing—opinions. His concepts will guide my analysis of Argentine film during a tumultuous period, when diverse national projects competed among themselves to assert what Argentina should be and the images by which it should be represented. Higson’s remarks about cultural difference and diversity are also pertinent to post-1966 Argentine cinema for two reasons. First, if on one hand most of the films to be studied were written and produced in Buenos Aires, thus asserting the cultural prominence of the metropolis over the rest of Argentina, on the other hand, they also depicted provincial lifestyles and rural landscapes as a way of showing the various aspects of the national being.

The second premise of my study, therefore, centers on the idea of nationalism as a fundamental part of the national culture disseminated through films. For Ernest Gellner, nationalism is a deep adjustment between polity and culture (1983, 35), holding that industrial societies that rely on a differentiated division of labor need culture as ‘the necessary shared medium’ that links citizens to the state through discourses that contribute to build the national (1983, 38). Although he takes a different position, sociologist (p.7) Anthony Smith stresses the relationship between nationalism and the past (1995, 3–23) and calls attention to the fact that one of the requisites of the nationalist message is the differentiation between its content and tone: ‘That message is certainly addressed to the imagination of the elite, but even more to the moral will, the emotions and shared memories of the masses’ (2000, 47). Both positions—the one represented by Gellner and the one put forth by Smith—will inform this study as I look at the ways in which different nationalist messages were conveyed through films.

Because of the political tensions of the period 1966–1976, more than one version of nationalism circulated in Argentine cinema. Argentina was affected by the Cold War order of the mid-1960s that pitted Marxism against capitalism. If Marxism was deemed—particularly by the armed forces and Catholic groups—a pernicious system that endangered Western values, Americanization through Hollywood films was seen as equally dangerous to Argentine culture. Even though there was a push for modernization among different local sectors, the imperative to resist external stimuli prompted an attention to domestic issues and a revaluation of Argentine tradition. Therefore, in the state’s protection of and incentives for Argentine films, we can clearly see the overlapping of what scholar Ian Jarvie calls ‘the defence argument’ and ‘the protectionist argument’ is evident (2000, 77). These arguments, which complement the nation-building discourse, justify the need for a national cinema as a way to shield Argentine culture from external influences and as a way to protect a developing industry from competition. I take these arguments into account as I pay special attention to the ways in which the Argentine state encouraged the production and dissemination of certain themes and messages that were transmitted within the Argentine communicative space. I also look at the way films were successfully sanctioned by the state, and thus disseminated forms of nationhood without alienating middle-class viewers.

The main questions of this study are: What were the challenges faced by Argentine cinema as a national film industry from 1966 to 1976? How did Argentine cinema build a sense of nationhood through films about its founding fathers and Argentine heritage? In what ways does this corpus of films help shore up Argentine identity? Argentine Cinema and National Identity investigates the way in which popular actors and actresses attracted the domestic audience and the way in which films consequently took on the mission of spreading values that would help unite a politically and culturally polarized country. I also consider the way in which Argentine filmmakers grappled with both censorship and increased competition from foreign films as well as from new technologies. One of these new technologies was the transition from black and white to Eastman color. Another important development was the introduction of television, which allowed the Argentine public to consume audiovisual products at home. I expand the knowledge of Argentine film production with particular attention to its dependency on state funding. Contributing to the revaluation of a corpus of films that has (p.8) received little academic attention, but was well-received by local audiences, I examine the impact of political events on Argentine cinema and the way in which films were consequently imbued with the mission of spreading values that would help unite a divided country.

This study fills several notable gaps in the existing bibliography. First, while there are many monographs about the history and development of Argentine cinema (Mathieu, 1974; España, 1984; Foster, 1992; Varea, 1999; Getino, 2005; Falicov, 2007; Stites Mor, 2012), with the exceptions of Ana López’s article ‘Argentina 1955–1976: The Film Industry and its Margins’ (1988) and the excellent monographs by Laura Martins (En primer plano: literatura y cine en Argentina 1955–1969, 2001), Laura Podalsky (Specular City: Transforming Culture, Consumption, and Space in Buenos Aires, 1955–1973, 2004), and Claudio España (Cine argentino. Modernidad y vanguardia (1957–1983), 2005), few works pay sufficient attention to the period selected for this study. Second, this study provides an in-depth examination of the cinema laws passed after 1966 and their impact on the Argentine film industry. Therefore my focus on the period 1966–1976 makes an original contribution to the study of Argentine cinema in the twentieth century. Third, in Section II, I group several films—many of which have never been studied before—and read them as examples of ‘heritage films’, that is to say, films that go back to national origins and traditions. Fourth, while some of the films analyzed in Section II and III have been studied in Estela Erausquin’s monograph about mythic Argentine heroes and in articles by Tzvi Tal, Laura Radetich, Diana Paladino, and César Maranghello, there is no comprehensive study of them as popular films whose preproduction was closely followed by the media. Consequently, this is the first English-language publication that touches on key films by Argentine directors Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, Leonardo Favio, Manuel Antín, and René Múgica, who were nationally and internationally known in the 1960s and 1970s, but have not previously been studied together. Fifth, I focus on these film’s blending of features from popular genres, such as the biopic, the war film, and Westerns, and examine the way in which they sought to position themselves as high-quality films that successfully competed with Hollywood products in the Argentine market. Argentine Cinema and National Identity offers significant insights into the relationship between film and other cultural productions, thus complementing existing monographs about cultural studies and political formation of the 1960s and 1970s (Podalsky, 2004; Schmucler, 2007; Giunta, 2008). The scope of this study provides continuity to and dialogues with Ana Laura Lusnich’s El drama-folclórico: el universo rural en el cine argentino (2007), Clara Kriger’s Cine y Peronismo (2009), Matthew Karush’s Culture of Class: Radio and Cinema in the Making of a Divided Argentina, 19201946 (2012), and Currie Thompson’s monograph Picturing Argentina: Myths, Movies, and the Peronist Vision (2014).

In this volume, I combine two methodologies: those of a film historian and those of a film scholar. In Section I, I summarize the main political events in Argentina from 1966 to 1976 and the challenges and laws that influenced (p.9) Argentine cinema during this period. In this section I analyze a variety of primary sources that include film reviews published in several Argentine newspapers, news clippings from Gente, La capital, and El mundo, and film information found in El heraldo and La gaceta, two journals for Argentine film distributors. I gathered these materials during two research trips undertaken in the summer of 2011. I visited the Biblioteca Nacional de Argentina and the library of the Argentine Institute of Film (ENERC). I also collected news clippings from La prensa at the University of Florida, Gainesville. These sources provide quantitative data about the production, distribution, and reception of films, as well as quantitative information about directors, actors, and films. I argue that, on one hand, film production became a central area of concern for the state, which began passing laws and enforcing censorship on this cultural industry. Namely, the state sought to encourage the representation of national themes. Certain films received good reviews and enjoyed strong box office performances, a fact that made domestic cinema an integral part of the national culture. On the other hand, Argentine cinema was subjected to different and contradictory forces: there was also a push to compete with other cinemas and gain international markets.

In Section II, I provide close analysis of several well-received films to illustrate the way they competed with foreign productions for the Argentine audience and garnered prizes and recognition at international film festivals while also proposing civic models for the national community. The current interest in understanding the impact of globalization on national cinemas can be expanded by my examination of the ways in which Argentine cinema grappled with both censorship and subsidies while trying to relate to national audiences and participate in international film festivals. I study the literary adaptations of key gauchesque texts written from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1920s. The gauchesque is a literary genre that was organized around the gauchos, rural inhabitants of the pampas, who were seen as quintessential Argentines. For literary scholar Josefina Ludmer, the genre constitutes ‘a learned use of popular culture’ (2002, 3) for it is based on a ‘delinquent’ or vagrant gaucho who is recruited by force to join the patriotic army. In addition, the genre uses the orality of the gauchos (their colloquialisms and linguistic idiosyncrasies) by an educated author who seeks to include them into the modern Argentine state (post-1880) (2002, 8). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, five films were financed by the Argentine state: Martín Fierro (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1968), Don Segundo Sombra (Manuel Antín, 1969), Santos Vega (Carlos Borcosque Jr., 1971), Juan Moreira (Leonardo Favio, 1973), and Los gauchos judíos [Jewish Gauchos] (Juan José Jusid, 1975). All these films were also directed by well-established directors. In this section, I offer close analysis of these five films, relying on film studies theories on the Westerns (Janet Walker), given that many films were set on the frontier; action films (Mark Gallagher and Yvonne Tasker), because of the many one-to-one combat scenes; and contemporary epics (Robert Burgoyne). I also survey the critical and public reception of these films and examine the ways (p.10) in which they contributed to nation building and the spread of nationalism. My analysis approaches these films as heritage films that resort to depicting Argentines’ cultural and literary heritage. Finally, I look at the ways in which the main characters relate to the state, concentrating on a major feature of Argentine culture: the civilization-versus-barbarism dichotomy. Indeed, this dichotomy allows me to explore the position of each of the main characters in relation to the country’s modernization, and his position in the nation-building process.

In Section III, ‘Representing Founding Fathers,’ I perform close analysis of the cinematic representation of Argentine historical heroes in El santo de la espada (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1970) and Güemes, la tierra en armas (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1971). Traditionally, these films have been read as products of the military government of Onganía given that El santo de la espada was made with state support and both had to have the approval of the Film Rating Board.16 I argue that such generalization does not take into account the political divisions in the armed forces and the different landscapes of production in which both films were made. Unlike previous analyses, I locate these films as part of what James Chapman has labelled ‘a shift towards spectacle on a massive scale’ (2008, 80). That is to say, these are films produced with large budgets, involving hundreds of extras, and expensive costumes in order to compete not only with foreign films but also with television programs as audiovisual forms. As examples of popular spectacle, El santo de la espada and Güemes, la tierra en armas share characteristics with several film genres: the biopic, the war film, and the epic. I rely on film studies theories on historical film (Robert Rosenstone and Pierre Sorlin), biopic (Dennis Bingham and George Custen), and war film (James Chapman and Paul Virilio). In addition to offering an exhaustive investigation of these films, I also look at the ways in which they portray or challenge contemporary versions of Argentine national identity. I also examine Bajo el signo de la patria [Under the Sign of the Homeland] (René Múgica, 1971) and Juan Manuel de Rosas (Manuel Antín, 1972), looking for the ideological representation of the founding father Belgrano and the caudillo Rosas. While at first these films may seem similar to Torre Nilsson’s productions studied in Chapter 2, I argue that Bajo el signo de la patria and Juan Manuel de Rosas share features with historical films. I rely on Estela Erausquin’s monograph about the Argentine founding father represented as hero in Bajo el signo de la patria and Laura Radetich’s insights on the historical reconstruction that takes place in both of these films. In my analysis, I stress the features of the historical film genre present in these films, paying particular attention not only to their production and reception, but also to the ways in which they participated in disseminating ideas about the nation and its identity. Here I counter the argument that these films display an analogous version of nationalism as proposed by Erausquin and Radetich. I use primary sources (interviews, news reports, information from trade journals) to describe the ways in which these films sought to engage the Argentine audience and to (p.11) explain their reception. I complement my analysis with insights on war films (James Chapman and Paul Virilio). This framework allows me to distinguish variations in the representation of the lives of Great Argentine Men and explore, for instance, why filmmakers Leopoldo Torre Nilsson and René Múgica, who were recognized in Argentina and had numerous contacts in Cannes, decided to direct historical films that departed radically from their usual themes and techniques. My examination of the Argentine film production of the decade 1966–1976 surveys the challenges and accomplishments of a national cinematography to differentiate and successfully compete with foreign films in the domestic market. The founding fathers’ biopics and the cinematic adaptation of gauchesque works show the crucial forms in which Argentine cinema attempted to build a national identity through a corpus of audiovisual images.


(1) The Escuela Nacional de Experimentación y Realización Cinematográfica (ENERC) was created in 1965 by Alfredo J. Grassi (1925–).

(2) In Bases de la argentinidad, Enrique de Gandía presented Argentina’s historical evolution and celebrated José de San Martín’s deeds. More recently, Bruno Walter Berg traced argentinidad in the nineteenth century as a linguistic particularity of the Spanish of Argentina, which was first deployed in gauchesque works and then revived with the arrival of immigrants (1997, 23). Irma Lorini conflates argentinidad with ‘la identidad de los argentinos’ [Argentine identity], a topic that appeared in the work of Argentine intellectuals in the 1920s (1997, 73). Argentine sociologist Luis García Fanlo has defined the discourse about argentinidad as ‘el que intenta responder a las siguientes interpelaciones: ¿Qué es ser argentino? ¿Cómo somos los argentinos? ¿Por qué los argentinos somos como somos?’ [that which seeks to respond to the following questions: What is an Argentine? What are we Argentines like? Why are we Argentines as we are?] (2010, 25).

(3) Andrea Giunta holds that ‘para las instituciones argentinas, lo prioritario era tener un arte de vanguardia si se buscaba intervenir en la escena internacional había que presentarse con un arte distinto del que circulaba en los principales centros culturales, un arte diferente y, al mismo tiempo actualizado’ [if Argentine institutions sought to participate on the international stage, it was fundamental to have an art of the vanguard; they had to do it with a different art from what was circulating in other cultural centres, a different art, and at the same time, contemporary] (2008, 27).

(4) During the second Peronist presidency, film was protected by the state (Feldman, 1990, 37). After the mid-1950s, Argentine cinema became an industry protected by the state. As Argentine film scholar Clara Kriger correctly notes, after 1957 a new period in Argentine film history began (2009, 12). Ana López states: ‘Although Argentine production had topped 50 films per year in the late 1940s and early 1950s, by 1957 annual production had dropped to 15 films’ (1988, 93). One of the major dynamics of that (p.12) new period was Law 62/57 or Law 12,909, ratified in 1958, which sought to boost cinematic production. Law 62/57 attempted to reverse the decline by providing a framework for the protection of local audiovisual products, establishing a system of subsidies tied to the quality of films, and also contemplating the creation the National Institute of Cinematography (NIC). This crucial law for both film production and circulation was implemented thanks to the support of General Pedro Eugenio Aramburu (term of office 1955–1958), who saw it as a means to defend a national cultural industry that was gradually losing importance for domestic audiences. Having deposed Juan Perón (1899–1974) two years earlier, Aramburu began a process of deleting the imprint of Peronism from audiovisual legislation and Law 12,909 was an integral part of that endeavor. His brief government, however, inaugurated a string of short presidential terms interrupted by military interventions that continued up until 1976. The creation of a film school was understandably delayed by more pressing political matters.

(5) Ana Longoni explains the importance of 1966: ‘fue denominado por los medios locales “el año de la vanguardia” por la eclosión simultánea y vertiginosa del pop, los happenings, las ambientaciones y los objetos, el minimalismo, los comienzos de lo que años más tarde se llamará conceptualismo’ [local media called it ‘the year of the vanguard’ because of the simultaneous emergence of pop, happenings, exhibitions and objects, minimalism, and the beginnings of what, years later, would be called conceptualism] (2014, 40).

(6) Longoni also mentions that a unifying objective in the 1960s and mid-1970s was the idea of revolution (2014, 21).

(7) Jessica Stites Mor aptly asserts that ‘complicated relationships among film, the left, and Peronismo propelled film activism in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a set of central narratives of film activism and intervention in national politics’ (2012, 7).

(8) Referring to British cinema, Higson states that ‘the unravelling of traditional ideas of British nationhood is increasingly a feature of historical work on the British cinema of the past’ (2000b, 35).

(9) Journalist Fernando Ferreira also states that ‘la existencia de nuestro cine estuvo signada por la crisis’ [our cinema’s existence was marked by crisis] (1995, 16).

(10) Higson defines ‘a national cinema as one that draws on indigenous cultural traditions, one that invokes and explores the nation’s cultural heritage’ (2000b, 36). He challenges readers to consider concepts such as tradition, indigeneity, and the national, and invites them to consider whether tradition is inherited or invented. These are valid notions that will be explored in Sections II and III.

(11) Argentine films produced between 1950 and 1968 prominently centred on the representation of the present. A group of young filmmakers, known as the ‘Generation of the 1960s’, brought new topics and techniques, but their films, shaped by European influences, did not attract domestic viewers or represent domestic themes. According to Simón Feldman, ‘Algunas de las críticas que se hicieron a la generación hablaban de influencias “foráneas”: eran europeizantes, afrancesados o miraban demasiado a los realizadores de la que se (p.13) llamó la “nouvelle vague”’ [some of the criticisms of the generation spoke of ‘foreign’ influences: they were European, French-leaning or looked too much to the filmmakers of what was called the ‘nouvelle vague’] (1990, 50).

(12) Argentine historian Felipe Pigna holds that ‘la historia de un país es su identidad, es todo lo que nos pasó como sociedad desde que nacimos hasta el presente, y allí están registrados nuestros triunfos y derrotas, nuestras alegrías y tristezas, nuestras glorias y miserias’ [a country’s history is its identity, it is everything that has happened to us as a society since we were born until the present, and therein are recorded our successes and failures, our joys and sorrows, our glories and miseries] (2004, 18).

(13) Patricio Guzmán and Julianne Burton explain that ‘in the 1960s and 1970s film-makers, film critics, and film reviewers on the left actively participated in the quest for a revolutionary cinema. But depending on the film-maker, the critic or reviewer, the term “revolutionary” lent itself to many interpretations’ (1987, 219).

(14) Alfredo Grassi described Argentina in the late 1960s: ‘hoy está en expansión. Es un país en constante desarrollo’ [today it is expanding. It is a country in constant development] (1970, 37).

(15) Allen defines exhibition as ‘the nature of the institutional apparatus under whose auspices and for whose benefit films are shown; the relationship between exhibition as that term has been used within the industry and other segments of the film business; and the location and physical nature of the sites of exhibition’ (1998, 15). For him, performance is ‘the immediate social, sensory, performative context of reception’ (1998, 18), while activation refers to ‘how particular audience groups make or do not make sense, relevance, and pleasure out of particular moments of reception’ (1998, 19).

(16) In both films, the army is represented as a heterogeneous institution—with creole officers but mestizo recruits—far from being imperialist. (p.14)