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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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Don Segundo Sombra

Don Segundo Sombra

(p.95) Chapter 6 Don Segundo Sombra
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In this chapter, I trace the motivations and trials faced by Manuel Antín in adapting Don Segundo Sombra to the silver screen. I discuss its casting, production and reception. I also analyse the film, paying attention to the coming of age a gaucho.

Keywords:   Manuel Antín, Adolfo Güiraldes, Gaucho, Coming-of-age

In April 1969, director Manuel Antín (1926–) began shooting Don Segundo Sombra, an adaptation of the homonymous novel by Ricardo Güiraldes (1886–1927).1 Although the Güiraldes family had jealously kept the novel’s rights for years and rejected proposals for cinematic adaptations, a fortuitous meeting between Antín and Buvanahalli Chamne Gonda Ramachandra, Güiraldes’s adopted Indian son, opened the way toward the novel’s filmic version.2 With an preliminary budget of 80 million pesos, the film had the total support of the Güiraldes family, who lent two estancias—La Florida and La Blanqueada, both in San Antonio de Arecofor the film’s locations. Initially, Antín thought about casting either Alfredo Alcón or Hugo del Carril to play Don Segundo, but Alcón was already the face of Martín Fierro and had already signed to play San Martín in Torre Nilsson’s forthcoming El santo de la espada. Del Carril also had previous commitments that prevented him from accepting this role. Consequently, in April 1969, Adolfo Güiraldes, the author’s nephew, who had been hired as a consultant, was cast for the main role of Don Segundo. Güiraldes’s grandson, Juan Carballido Almonacid, was chosen to play the adult Favio Cáceres. Both Güiraldes and Carballido Almonacid were non-professional among a select group of actors including Héctor Alterio (gaucho in black), Soledad Silveyra (Aurora), Luis Medina Castro (Antenor), Juan Carlos Gené (Don Sixto), and Fernando Vegal (Burgos).

For Antín, the shooting of Don Segundo Sombra constituted a novel challenge. Mariana Sández notes that while his first films belonged to the Generation of 1960 school, Don Segundo Sombra began a new creative stage for the filmmaker, characterized by rural productions like Juan Manuel de Rosas (1972), Allá lejos y hace tiempo [Far Away and Long Ago] (1977), and La invitación [The Invite] (1982). Antín explains that his first phase:

termina en el momento en que yo decido hacer Don Segundo Sombra, que ya no es una obra solitaria, sino un poco ajena también por sus problemas, por sus conflictos, por su desarrollo. Curiosamente descubro que al alejarla de mí produzco mi mejor obra. (p.96)

Don Segundo Sombra

Promotional ad of Don Segundo Sombra.

[ends at the moment when I decide to make Don Segundo Sombra, which is no longer a solitary work, but rather a little foreign because of its problems, conflicts, and development. Curiously, I discover that in separating it from me, I produce my best work]

(Sández, 2010, 14)

Like Torre Nilsson, Antín discovered in the countryside, the setting of Don Segundo Sombra, a world of which he was unaware, but one he found deeply inspirational (Sández, 2010, 68–69).

(p.97) Released on August 14, 1969 in the Atlas cinema, Don Segundo Sombra was for the most part well-received. Antín mentioned that it was shown for 13 weeks, unlike his previous films, which were exhibited for a week only (Sández, 2010, 91). In Gente, Leo Sala wrote that Antín’s Don Segundo Sombra was the most faithful document of the gauchesque (‘Don,’ 1969, non. pag.). Reviews in Clarín and La prensa also highlighted the film’s fidelity to the novel, but listed certain flaws as well. For the reviewer of Clarín, two of the film’s weaknesses were the voice-over that accompanies some scenes and the lack of integration of two episodes into the main storyline: the fight between Antenor Barragán and the gaucho in black, and the story of the blacksmith (‘Imágenes,’ 1969, non. pag.). After a complimentary summary of the importance of Güiraldes’s novel, La prensa’s J.P. noted Adolfo Güiraldes’s weak performance and the film’s slow rhythm: ‘el resultado revela cierta frialdad no del todo equilibrada por la exactísima ambientación’ [the result reveals a certain coolness, not at all balanced by the very exact setting’ (‘Don,’ 1969, 11). Similarly, Gente recommended the film and rated it as very good, despite certain shortcomings, such as the absence of passion, which was perhaps as a consequence of Adolfo Güiraldes’s lack of acting experience. Unlike Martín Fierro, Don Segundo Sombra was not characterized as an Argentine Western; nor were some of the flaws listed in reviews of Martín Fierro—frequent shots of the heavens, long titles, and scenes of violence—mentioned in the evaluations of Antín’s work. The reviewer of Radiolandia held that Don Segundo Sombra

es una película que, por muchos motivos, enorgullece al cine nacional […] El cine Atlas vivió en la noche de la ‘premiere’ una de sus jornadas más inolvidables desde el estreno de Martín Fierro, una película que estuvo presente en el recuerdo de todos. Personalidades del cine, el arte, la literatura y el periodismo estuvieron presentes allí y brindaron su aplauso sin retaceos.

[is a film that, for many reasons, makes national cinema proud (…) The Atlas movie theater witnessed on the night of the premiere one of its most unforgettable days since the release of Martín Fierro, a film that was present in everybody’s memory. Important people related to film, art, literature, and journalism were there and applauded warmly]

(‘Don Segundo,’ 1969, non. pag.)

This review correctly summarizes the consensus around the film: it was a point of pride for Argentine cinema which indirectly signified a reappraisal of the novel within Argentine culture.3

The Grupo Cine Liberación recognized the crucial trend of depicting Argentine topics initiated by Martín Fierro and continued with Don Segundo, but had some strong reservations about Antín’s film. The Grupo criticized it on ideological and meta-cinematic points, perceiving the film as a celebration of the upper classes: ‘Llegó Don Segundo Sombra de (p.98) Antín-Güiraldes y la oligarquía argentina ¡al fin! encontró su digno filme y su cineasta’ [Antín-Güiraldes’s Don Segundo Sombra arrived and the Argentine oligarchy—at last!—found a worthy film and filmmaker] (1969, 81).4 The Grupo despised Antín’s film, describing it as applauded by the Anchorena—a reference to a traditional Argentine landowning family—and made for the Sociedad Rural, the most important representative of agro-business in Argentina (1969, 82–84). For the Grupo, Don Segundo Sombra and Martín Fierro shared the same ideology, supported by liberals and nationalists alike in the late 1960s, that is to say, the idea that the country was built by certain individual heroes without the input of the masses and its neocolonial position was strengthened in the concert of nations (1969, 81–84).5 With these remarks, the Grupo conflated a film that brings to the fore the moral values incarnated by an experienced gaucho with an official celebration of Argentina’s rural past. These charges, however, cannot be sustained, since the official policy of Onganía’s government consisted of diversifying the Argentine economy and reducing reliance on the primary sector. In addition, the Grupo’s criticism failed to consider that just as the young character in both novel and film accepts his identity and comes of age, in the late 1960s so too was Argentina expected to finally come of age and become a sovereign nation, independent of the policies of both the United States and the USSR.

Don Segundo Sombra garnered local distinctions and also faced several challenges. It was shown for 13 consecutive weeks in the Atlas cinema and other movie theaters and attracted 2 million viewers (Sández, 2010, 90). It received the Silver Condor for the Best Argentine film in 1970, though it was not as massively watched as Martín Fierro. In an interview, Antín highlighted the film’s special status:

Me da la impresión de que en este momento existe en Argentina un incremento del nacionalismo. Me parece que el cine argentino que siempre tuvo mercados, por lo menos latinoamericanos, con el ejercicio de estos temas, al volver a ellos, una de las cosas que intenta es recuperar esos mercados. En festivales internacionales de Europa, al cine argentino se le acusaba de intelectualizado y europeizado.

[I am under the impression that at this moment nationalism is growing in Argentina. It seems to me that that Argentine cinema has always had markets for these topics, at least in Latin America, and in returning to them, one of the things it is attempting to do is recuperate those markets. At international film festivals in Europe, Argentine cinema was thought to be intellectual and European-like].

(‘Admirable,’ 1969, 59)

Antín’s assessment correctly identifies the domestic audience’s epochal demand for Argentine themes. While there is no data on whether gauchesque films were sold to other Latin American countries, news reports do show (p.99) that there was interest in capturing European markets by using the ‘national card,’ that is, by resorting to the production of unique, non-European films.

Don Segundo Sombra’s attempt to capture foreign markets was indecisive. Of its reception in Spain, La gaceta mentioned ‘elogiosas criticas aparecidas en publicaciones madrileñas’ [positive reviews which appeared in publications in Madrid] (‘Continúan,’ 1970, 2). In February 1970, it was announced that Don Segundo Sombra would not be Argentina’s nomination for the Academy Awards, given that this would have excluded it from being able to compete in other film festivals. The publication reported that Antín’s adaptation was ‘la carta del cine argentino para Cannes este año’ [Argentine’s cinema card to Cannes this year] (‘No va,’ 1970, 45). El heraldo reported that a subcommittee eliminated it from the French competition, however, ‘porque pese a su auténtica calidad es excesivamente localista y tememos que no sea comprendida por el público y por la crítica’ [because, despite its authentic quality, it is excessively localist and we are afraid that it will not be understood by the public and critics] (‘De cómo,’ 1970, 263). Gloria Alcorta notes that the film was exhibited at Cannes in the end, but its screening coincided with that of Woodstock, which received more interest (1970, non. pag.). Days later, another report in the same newspaper detailed the unanimous negative opinion of the film which appeared in the French press: ‘Le monde emplea la palabra “decepción”’ [Le Monde uses the word ‘disappointment’]. In addition, ‘Francesoir comenta: […] este tipo de cine es tan viejo como el mundo y esta obra torpe no resulta interesante’ [France-soir comments: (…) this type of cinema is as old as the world and this awkward work is not interesting] (Mendía, 1970, non. pag.). Don Segundo Sombra was exhibited at Cannes thanks to Argentine diplomatic pressure and reports mentioned that the Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899–1974), a member of the competition jury, personally congratulated Antín (Alcorta, 1970, non. pag.).

Don Segundo Sombra begins with the eponymous gaucho’s arrival in a small town one evening. The camera captures hues of orange and yellow in the sky while his face is in shadow. This image freezes while nostalgic music is heard and the titles roll. The first shots show two gauchos side by side. One is the young Fabio Cáceres (Juan Carballido Almonacid) and the other is middle-aged (Adolfo Güiraldes). They shake hands as the camera focuses on the gray skies, conveying feelings of sadness, but also of restrained emotion. As the middle-aged gaucho rides along, the camera focuses on his young companion. His close-up is accompanied by a voice-over that explains his emotional state about this separation. Ludmer has alluded to the significance of the voice in the gauchesque, evident also in the film, in which ‘a heard voice and written word […] recount his life with the master before transforming himself into the third master’ (2002, 260). In the film, voice is represented through the young character’s point of view. A long shot of the first gaucho during daylight shows a teenage boy (Luis de la Cuesta). Both seem to pass in front of the young gaucho who remembers a period in his life when he met Don Segundo and who later became his mentee. To emphasize the narration (p.100)

Don Segundo Sombra

Young Fabio in the pulpería.

from the perspective of the young man, the camera follows his younger self as the voice-over explains the circumstances surrounding his orphanhood. Lacking a strong paternal figure, the teenager seeks to be accepted into the masculine world of la pulpería [the canteen], for he lives with two single and unaffectionate aunts and refers to their house as mi prisión [my jail]. As one of the aunts chases him away with a broom, it becomes clear that neither of them have maternal feelings for the teenager.6 The sharp division between the masculine and feminine worlds also affects him: in the pulpería, he gets some validation; at home, he is constantly belittled. Thus, besides the transitional state of adolescence, the young boy also suffers from being displaced from these ‘worlds’ and lacks a powerful masculine role model with which to identify. It is at this juncture that Don Segundo appears in his life.

Antín’s film reveals the difference in status between Don Segundo and the adolescent. While the latter supplies the pulpería with fish and makes some pocket money, the former is a respected patron. When he enters, a slow pan from his feet to his head emphasizes Don Segundo’s height. His power fills the imagination of the teenager, who silently admires him while Don Segundo inquires about jobs in the area. When he is challenged by a drunken parroquiano [customer], the teenager quickly rallies to the newcomer’s side, warning him about the man, who is waiting for him in a dark alley. But this treacherous surprise and the ensuing knife fight fail to disturb Don Segundo. This episode makes the youth realize the pettiness of the people surrounding him and provides him with the impetus to leave his suffocating community. To emphasize his lack of belonging, the film shows his uninviting and sparsely furnished room while a voice-over narrates his feelings of despondency. Even though the adolescent manages to flee, his arrival at the ranch, where other seasoned gauchos work, is far from easy: he (p.101) is first ignored and later mocked by these older hands, thus continuing to appear in an in-between state between childhood and adulthood.7 He must prove himself by working hard while he waits for Don Segundo’s arrival. In contrast to the teenager, the experienced gaucho is well-received and inspires deference due to his skill in horse breaking. Despite the youth’s humble position in this new masculine universe, his admiration for Don Segundo helps him to transition in this all-male environment, as he strives to live up to the experienced gaucho’s expectations.

Don Segundo Sombra has many elements of the heritage film. One is the coming-of-age story that sustains its narrative development. Talking about the British heritage film Mrs Brown (John Madden, 1997), Sarah Neely asserts that it ‘is structured as a journey to a “foreign” place that leads to self-discovery and an exploration of class and gender’ (2005, 44, quoted in Vidal, 2012, 48). In Antín’s film, the teenager’s desire to embrace a life of freedom and mobility drives him to places he has never seen before—both literally and figuratively. His journey is as much geographical as psychological; it is a learning process that takes place in close proximity to the land. It is also a development that implies his becoming a young man and understanding his class position. Another important element of the heritage film visible in Don Segundo Sombra is its realism, to which some critics refer as the documentary-style filmmaking of costumbrismo. While some realist scenes certainly slow down the film’s rhythm, they also show the teenager’s immersion into the rural universe and his development as an aspiring gaucho.

Don Segundo Sombra’s realism is enhanced by some unusual takes. For instance, when the adolescent asks for advice about where to buy horses, a bird’s-eye shot captures the gauchos’ living quarters, unobtrusively peeking into the familiarity and camaraderie that prevail in this space. In addition, an aerial shot of the youth’s encounter with Aurora in the corn field produces the sense of prying into their intimate moment. These shots are complemented by ground-level ones and several close-ups that present the same event from different angles. The moving of the cattle is also filmed through aerial shots, which give a broader perspective on the immensity of the land. As the gauchos exhibit their skill in taming horses, folkloric music reinforces their traditional chores. Witnessing their aptitude, the youth learns about this manly task, which ensures his belonging to a masculine realm. Alternating close-ups of the teenager reveal his anxiety and embarrassment when he is still unable to subdue a horse on his own, while diverse close-ups of Don Segundo show the mentor to be attentive to his despondent mood. He urges his mentee to ‘hacete fuerte’ [toughen up] and helps him to train his horse as well as teaching him how to groom it with a sequence of brief and rapid shots accompanied by quick-tempo music. A static shot of the sunset further illustrates the tough gaucho life that requires hard work from dawn to dusk.

The film stresses movement and change as natural aspects of life. If the cattle drive takes gauchos to distant places, the voice-over informs us that the passage of time—five years—also brings about transformations, particularly (p.102) in the teenager, now a young man who has bloomed under his padrino’s patient and wise tutelage. Maturity does not diminish his admiration for Don Segundo, as he continues to learn from him about other aspects of life, such as socialization at a town’s dance, encounters with severe law officers, and oral traditions. Critics have rightfully noted that these episodes seem disconnected, but they provide glimpses into the varied ways in which Don Segundo instructs the young man. In the tale of Misery, for instance, his voice-over introduces the representation of the story, but the presence of a person helping the other actors with the lines may be confusing to viewers. The tale, represented as a play in the film, is about a pact that Misery seals with the Devil. The same actor that embodies the Devil in the play later shows up in the scene of the popular ball and challenges Antenor (Luis Medina Castro) to a duel over a woman. Observing this fight gives the young gaucho the opportunity to absorb the notion that manhood in the countryside is still asserted through physical violence. The camera captures his surprised expression from the point of view of the fallen gaucho as voice-overs reflect on the fleeting nature of life and the instability and problems brought about by relations with easy women.

Camaraderie between mentor and mentee is one of the prevailing tropes of Antín’s film. When Don Segundo and the young man reunite with Don Sixto (Juan Carlos Gené), an acquaintance, they find him unwell. Unable to explain his unkempt appearance, they nevertheless accept his hospitality. During the night, they realize that Don Sixto is accosted by frightening nightmares involving the Devil. Don Segundo’s calm wisdom helps avert a disaster before the young gaucho’s shocked eyes. In another scene, as the young man’s gaze becomes familiar with the sea, his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of his mentor, who then leads him to the cattle drive. This scene shows the way in which the once-rebellious youth has accepted his mentor’s proven leadership. On another occasion, when the youth suffers an accident, Don Segundo gives him first aid. Male camaraderie goes both ways. The mentee also reciprocates: when he is offered a job offer that would separate him from Don Segundo, he declines it, choosing his padrino’s proximity and companionship. The mentor-mentee relationship is also prioritized when the latter receives news of his biological father’s passing: he perceives his inheritance of an estancia as a threat to his relationship with Don Segundo.

The film’s final scenes revolve around several oppositions. One deals with the dichotomy between biological paternity and fatherhood. At first, the up-to-now nameless young character refuses to accept his new identity after his father’s passing. His estrangement was a sign that his biological father had abandoned him, so young Fabio refuses to recognize blood ties. He considers Don Segundo to be his real father, the man who introduced him to ‘las cosas de la vida’ [the things of life] and has been a constant presence in his life over the last few years. Closely related to this, the second opposition concerns property titles: if Fabio accepts to become the owner of an estancia bequeathed to him by his biological father, it is because he has learned all (p.103)

Don Segundo Sombra

Adult Fabio and Don Segundo.

the tasks—no matter how menial—necessary to its running. His voice-over expresses doubts about claiming ownership of land without the proper knowledge and love for it. Thus, familiarity and a strong link with the plains constitute for him the requirements to assert legitimate rights over inherited property. The final dichotomy, which closes the film, revolves around the opposition between a sedentary life and nomadism, and implicates the main characters’ different paths: while Don Segundo departs to continue a life in motion, with few possessions and attachments, Fabio is now a landowner who has adapted to his new title and sacrifices his most stable relationship—that with Don Segundo—to take up his responsibilities to his land. If, as Patrick McGee observes, regarding Western films, ‘masculinity requires its identification with private property’ (2007, 84), Fabio’s acceptance of his paternal inheritance sets the stage for his becoming a man who owns land. Because of his close ties with Don Segundo, the mentor’s departure constitutes an acknowledgment of Fabio’s adulthood. Here it is important to remember that sociologist Harry Blaterrer defines the process of being welcomed into society as full members as ‘one of mutuality. It is a dynamic, intersubjective process of social recognition in which collectivities and individuals are inescapably implicated’ (2007, 2). In learning how to be a gaucho, the young man also attains social respect.

Although Don Segundo Sombra has not been compared to a Western film, it is worth briefly analyzing common features and those that differentiate them. Both novel and film versions bear a striking similarity with this filmic genre. Indeed, Westerns, whose peak was in the 1930–1950s, have a nostalgic tone about American’s westward expansion. Fabio’s memory of the period of his life dominated by the presence of his mentor is also (p.104) imbued with nostalgia as Don Segundo Sombra revisits a crucial period in the life of Argentine society. However, by doing so from the perspective of an orphaned adolescent, neither the novel nor the film delves into the expansionist impetus that, in Argentina, systematically displaced the native tribes southward. While the film shares with traditional Westerns the issue of access to capital, it does not tackle the ‘question of wealth and its relation to force and power’ (McGee, 2007, 39). In Antín’s film, the estancias are already fenced in. Thus, one central Western element that is missing in Don Segundo is the conflict generated by the expansion of capitalism; that is to say, progress is not resisted, nor does it lead to conflict. Nonetheless, Westerns and Antín’s Don Segundo Sombra were produced in modern societies where the countryside and/or the Far West changed dramatically due to modernization. In the 1960s, 73% of the Argentine population and 69.9% of the American population lived in cities (Lindeboim and Kennedy, 2003, 16; US Census, 1960, xix). In that decade, the United States witnessed an unprecedented movement of population from the middle states to those in the West. Westerns continued to be shot, but the subtext changed: they no longer alluded to the continental movement westward; instead they tackled American expansionism in South East Asia. Antín’s film, on the other hand, criticized by the Grupo Liberación for its lack of engagement with the issues of the time in which it was produced, was faithful to Güiraldes’s melancholic tribute to the hardworking gauchos of the turn of the nineteenth century who were being replaced by sedentary workers. As a heritage film, Don Segundo stresses cultural authenticity in the process of identity building: like Fabio, Argentine viewers should remember their origins and pass them on to future generations. For that to happen, a stable image of the past is necessary. Consequently, the film Don Segundo evokes a society free of class tensions. Indeed, even at the end of the film, when Fabio becomes a rich property-owner, he is still indebted to the steadiest masculine figure in his life, a nomadic gaucho of mythic dimensions. In Don Segundo, the mentor’s many qualities are recognized by his mentee. It is this admiration that facilitates the teaching which the seasoned gaucho imparts to Fabio, providing him with moral values and monitoring his experiential learning.

Don Segundo Sombra carefully avoids being considered a reactionary film. Antín’s recreation of a 1920s novel does not speak to the tumultuous 1960s, when a majority of the Argentine youth challenged the moral values and guidelines of their elders. By referring to a past in which the gaucho embodied morality and responsibility, Antín’s film stresses values associated with the national character, independently of political parties. Yet his depiction of Don Segundo is not an endorsement of paternal authority, which could have been interpreted as an alignment with the military government. It is worth remembering that Onganía had confronted rebel youths in the Night of the Long Batons and the Cordobazo uprising. Thus, a faithful adaptation of Güiraldes’s novel resulted in a film that was certainly conservative, but which was also read as a unifying representation of the best that an Argentine (p.105) literary text had to offer to young generations. In contrast to Don Segundo Sombra, political overtones slowly pervade the next two gauchesque films to be discussed: Santos Vega and Juan Moreira.


(1) Before becoming a filmmaker, Manuel Antín published several books of poetry, La torre de la mañana [The Morning’s Tower] in 1945, Sirena y espiral [Siren and Spiral] in 1950, and Poemas de dos mis ciudades [Poems of My Two Cities] in 1952; a novel, Alta de luna [High Moon] in 1954 and Los venerables [The Venerable Ones] in 1955; and plays, El ancla de arena [The Anchor of Sand] in 1940 and No Demasiado Tarde [Not Too Late]. His first film, La cifra impar [The Odd Number] (1961) was based on a short story by Julio Cortázar (‘Cartas a mamá’) [Letters to Mom] which, according to Sanmaritano, ‘lo ha colocado en un preponderante lugar dentro de la reciente promoción de realizadores’ [has placed him in a predominant place among the most recent cohort of filmmakers] (1962, 4).

(2) The book’s rights were sold for 3 million pesos and 20% of the film’s profits.

(3) The reviewer of La razón explained: ‘El saldo es positivo y conforta la presencia de temas esencialmente criollos en la pantalla local como este relato de tan hondo vigor humano’ [The balance is positive and the presence of thoroughly creole topics on local screens, such as this narrative of deep human energy is comforting] (‘Digna version,’ 1969, non. pag.).

(4) The Grupo may have been referring to a very positive article by Victoria Ocampo (1890–1979) that appeared in La prensa (Sández, 2010, 37).

(5) Goebel explains that ‘in the 1960s nationalism was part of the ideology of radical groups of both right and left which did not necessarily use the denomination “nationalist”’ (2011, 109).

(6) For Juan Pablo Spicer, the teenager relies on his picardía [wits] (1993, 366).

(7) Spicer proposes that the adolescent embarks on a journey toward manhood (1993, 361).