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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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Santos Vega

Santos Vega

(p.106) Chapter 7 Santos Vega
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

I provide an overview and analysis of Santos Vega, a less successful film that nonetheless belongs to the gauchesque genre. I propose that its innovation revolves around the use of songs to stress the film’s message.

Keywords:   Carlos Borcosque, Heritage films, José Larralde, Gaucho-singer

On July 22, 1971, Santos Vega, a film produced and directed by Carlos Borcosque, Jr., a 28-year-old former assistant director, was released in Buenos Aires. Two weeks before, it had been pre-released in the city of Bragado, where it was shot during March and April 1971. Like Don Segundo Sombra, the crew also included a historical advisor, but Santos Vega did not have financial support from the NIC, despite its ‘Argentine’ topic. Its total cost of 100 million pesos was similar to previous gauchesque films. Santos Vega was based on Arturo Pillado Matheu’s adaptation of both Rafael Obligado’s poem and Ricardo Gutiérrez’s novel. The lead role was played by José Larralde (1937–), a singer of folk music who recorded his first album in 1967 and had enormous success with his concerts.1 Although Larralde had had offers for film work, this was his first cinematic role. He agreed to incarnate a singing gaucho because, in his opinion, Santos Vegas had ‘cosas que decir y cosas a las que servir’ [things to say and things to serve]. He also said, ‘me interesa que se salve la película en sí, pero que se salve para el país, para mostrarlo en el comienzo de su tradición’ [I am interested in saving the film for itself, in saving it for the country, to show it in the beginning of its tradition] (‘La vergüenza,’ 1971, 47).2 Santos Vega is thus a heritage film, characterized by a strong desire to represent a foundational past.

The film’s reception differed from those of the two previous gauchesque films. J.H.S., reviewer for La prensa, pointed out that ‘el héroe legendario no está’ [the legendary hero is not there] (‘Santos,’ 1971, non. pag.). Similarly, Clarín’s reviewer noted the one-dimensional characters: ‘No hay aquí personas de cuyas esencias y conductas se remitan a un desarrollo. Hay solo tipos fugazmente contactados’ [There are no characters whose essence and behaviors show development here. There are only loosely connected types] (‘Santos,’ 1971, non. pag.). J.C.F. listed technical flaws, such as an overreliance on zooms and the slow narrative rhythm (‘Santos,’ 1971, 59). Other problems identified were a weak script and poor performances from the supporting cast. Unlike Martín Fierro and Don Segundo Sombra, Santos Vega did not have success at the box office, nor did it receive any awards. Nonetheless, among its strengths were Larralde’s performance and the (p.107) film’s musical score. Similar to Güemes, la tierra en armas, Santos Vega mixes narration with folkloric music, a combination that was far from accidental. María del Carmen Feijóo and Marcela Nari explain:

During the 1960s, inheriting a revisionist tradition in history, an interest in the promotion of folklore began to develop, in some cases taking the form of archaism and in others that of political critique. The didactic use of history was expressed as a nationalist restoration (though not only of Peronist inspiration, since it also recalled 19th-century figures such as the caudillos and their militias) as a key element of the popular movement.

(1996, 11)

Santos Vega’s soundtrack certainly contributes to the depiction of a popular nineteenth-century figure known for his wit and musical talent.

Santos Vega presents many similarities with the Western. First, Borcosque’s film is again set in the unpopulated pampas. The opening scenes capture the immensity of the plains and the movement of cattle across them. The film’s location is close to the frontier which separated lands appropriated by the state from those of the Indians. It is an area over which military and civic authorities ruled with little supervision. Second, after the long payada ballad that introduces the protagonist, Vega begins to experience problems with the representatives of progress and the modernizing state.3 First, a judge (Alfredo Iglesias) who feels threatened by Vega’s promise to kill judges (in the thirteenth minute of the film) makes inquiries about his whereabouts. Ignoring his secretary’s warning—‘Señor, no nos metamos con él: es un gaucho pobre’ [Sir, let’s not get involved with him, he’s a poor gaucho]—he orders a group of his men to find Vega. The film shows the unchecked power that the state’s representatives used for personal matters, many times harassing the gauchos. In one scene, a party of three militia men abuse their power, mistreating a woman in front of her children and placing a knife at her husband’s throat, just because they have been sent to requisition their horses. This incident is followed by several reverse shots stressing the oppositional stance between the militia men and Vega, whose intervention puts an end to this outrageous abuse. Vega’s interference only makes the judge angrier and even more determined in his pursuit, describing Vega as a ‘gaucho sucio’ [dirty gaucho]. Thus, civilization does not appear to be the opposite of barbarism, but rather to encompass exploitation and despotism, and to challenge the progress and peace that the state purports to uphold. Vega’s defense of the ill-treated family constitutes the excuse needed for the judge to order his arrest. Even though a young boy warns him of the upcoming militia’s arrival, Vega refuses to flee, saying, ‘Hay que saber plantarse cuando uno tiene la verdad’ [One has to be firm when one holds the truth]. His confident stance contrasts with the militia’s lack of courage; when Vega defeats them easily, the cowards run away.

Vega’s legendary status as a gifted performer figures prominently in the film. It opens with a voice-over that anticipates both his skill as a payador (p.108) [singer] and his mythological status as a sombra [shadow] that still plays guitars. His fame as a singer is well-known by the gauchos.4 In addition, the voice-over also emphasizes the relationship between the performer and the land: his belonging to a special geographical area stresses his origins as a true Argentinian. Nonetheless, the sombra mentioned at the beginning also alludes to Vega’s continuous movement, which facilitates his unforeseen arrival at unexpected times and places as well as his sudden departures. His on-screen appearance highlights the mythic dimensions of his persona. A tall and well-built gaucho blocks the pulpería’s door, in a scene reminiscent of Don Segundo’s entrance, but unlike that gaucho, Vega hopes to assert his talent as a singer. In his first payada, he describes himself as ‘un cantor que canta a la vida’ [a singer who sings to life] and as someone ‘con un corazón partido y un alma dolorida’ [with a broken heart and a wounded soul]. Further encouraged to tell his story, he mentions the lack of justice, the loss of a love, and the endless abuses he has endured, all ‘cosas que por ser plebeyo padece el gaucho argentino’ [things the Argentine gaucho suffers because of his plebeian origins]. With this generalization, he strives to connect with the audience, which is made up by other gauchos. His narration not only identifies the oppressors of his class, but also eloquently states his goal.5 Vega’s—and the gauchos’—enemies are foreigners, judges, and corrupted men who go against God’s natural order, denying them their ‘pan diario’ [daily bread]. It is in the pursuit of restoring his social class’s right to a free existence that Vega has given up the sedentary life. For the payador, freedom is a right worth fighting for, to avoid exploitation, either by private employers or by the state’s compulsory drafts. As Vega sings, zooms onto the listening gauchos capture their support for his ideas.

Vega’s expressive skills and singing serve to emphasize his place not only among his fellow gauchos, but also among women. A party provides him with the occasion to meet a young girl named Petrona (Ana María Picchio) who shyly welcomes his seduction.6 But her cousin Baldomero (Hugo Larralde) is also interested in her and warns the gaucho singer to leave her alone. When Vega replies that he will ignore this advice, a fist fight ensues, from which he emerges the winner. But Baldomero does not give up: he accosts Petrona and follows Vega across the prairie. The popular gaucho is warned again about his rival’s treacherous ways, this time by a friend who tells him that, as the unifying voice of the common people, he should not jeopardize everything for a woman. In a poignant song, Vega expresses his bitterness about his unattainable love. Next, he encounters Baldomero’s father, a militia man who had been sent earlier to arrest him. Once again, there is a fight which Vega wins and shows his clemency. Nonetheless, father and son unleash their hatred of Vega on Petrona, whom they mistreat. She confesses her fears to the singer-gaucho, who proposes that they elope. The tension between those who support Vega and those who conspire against him reaches a peak. One night, Vega and Petrona are intercepted by a group of men sent by Baldomero. In the skirmish, Petrona is fatally wounded, a development for which Vega’s (p.109) enemies—the judge and Baldomero—blame each other while a grieving Vega is briefly incarcerated, and freed by his friend Carmona who risks his life doing so. Vega fights Baldomero during daylight—in stark opposition to the latter’s treacherous nighttime attack. He defeats him and, this time, kills him.

Despite his victory and the support of his fellow gauchos, staying around is not an option for Vega. His errancy allows the film to be considered an odyssey Western (Coyne, 1998, 7). The scenes of Vega in his old age clarify the image at the film’s outset of a lonely, aged figure riding alone. The final song is the same one that opens this film about the memory of a great gaucho, giving the film a circular narrative, highlighting its tone of resigned sadness. Rosalba Campa rightly notes that the literary Vega is ‘una figura perteneciente al pasado, reducida a un estatuto fantasmal’ [a figure who belongs to the past, reduced to a ghostly status] (2004, 325). The film illustrates the phantasmagorical feature of the singer-gaucho, a characterization not found in the novel. Santos Vega’s ending thus bears a striking resemblance to Antín’s Don Segundo Sombra in stressing the remembrance of a gifted and valiant gaucho. Nonetheless, while Don Segundo stages a private memory (that of Fabio), in Borcosque’s film, Vega’s deeds, memorialized in melancholic songs, have a public circulation.

Santos Vega is an unusual heritage film in which realism is blended with fiction. After Vega’s departure from the area where Petrona lived, the film jumps in time to show him as an elderly rider roaming the plains with his guitar. His song frames a three-minute flashback to the times when he met his love, he had the support of other gauchos and helped them when the authorities abused them. In this recollection, the talented gaucho was part of a community—a variant of the Western (Coyne, 1997, 7). The film’s final part, however, revolves around Vega’s meeting with Juan Sin Ropa [Naked John] (Walter Vidarte), who challenges him to sing and, upon defeating Vega, characterizes him as a ‘viejo, solo y derrotado’ [old, alone, and beaten]. This setback explains his status as an errant soul who wanders in the ‘patria of Echeverría’ [Echeverría’s land].7 This nod to the homeland and one of the foundational Romantic writers of nineteenth-century Argentina served as a potent reminder for viewers in the early 1970s of the process of nation-building through nineteenth-century literary texts. While this evocation may be construed as conservative, it fulfills an important task in this heritage film. As Vidal explains, ‘The need to recuperate the lieux de mémoire that could ensure the continuity of the national past becomes especially acute at a time of progressive disintegration of narratives of nation and empire’ (2012, 56). At the time of the film’s release, the linking of place and memory stressed the deep connection between land and cultural heritage.

Nonetheless, Santos Vega’s final song, with references to the gaucho-singer and his determined search for freedom in his own homeland and the lack of justice (both human and poetic), is a sign of Borcosque’s transgressive poetic license. In Argentina in 1971, Vega’s desire for freedom was shared by the national audience as the military authorities continued to rule without (p.110) a clear exit plan. In this sense, Vega’s quest was comparable to the popular demand, in 1970, for a prompt return to democracy. Moreover, Borcosque’s Santos Vega stresses the use of memory to reverse the effects of defeat: Vega is alive in the mind of so many of his fellow gauchos despite having being overpowered, just like Perón, who was forced into exile—a wandering life—after the coup d’état that ousted him in 1955, but continued to be a presence in the minds of his political supporters. While this aspect of Santos Vega was not mentioned by reviewers at the time of the film’s release, the potential for a political subtext pitting gaucho against the establishment was, nonetheless, present. As we will see, this aspect is even more prominent in Leonardo Favio’s Juan Moreira.


(1) Referring to Larralde’s popularity, Borcosque stated: ‘sólo al ver las cifras, los Lococo [Clemente and Francisco, film producers] decidieron estrenar mi película en el Iguazú y en un lanzamiento amplio por los barrios’ [just seeing the numbers, the Lococo decided to premiere my film at the Iguazú (theater) and with a broad launch in the neighborhoods] (‘La vuelta,’ 1971, non. pag.).

(2) In 1967, a dramatic version of Santos Vega by Carlos Alberto Giura was performed at the San Martín Theatre with the title La guitarra del diablo [The Devil’s Guitar] was awarded second place in a competition celebrating the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. At that time, the reviewer of La prensa declared: ‘La obra de Giura constituye un fervoroso canto de amor a la patria, a la tradición y a las características fundamentales del hombre auténticamente argentino en la figura poética y valiente de Santos Vega’ [Guira’s play constitutes a fervent love song to the fatherland, to tradition, and to the fundamental features of the authentically Argentine man in the poetic and courageous figure of Santos Vega] (‘Versión,’ 1967, 26).

(3) In Gutiérrez’s novel, Santos Vega was the son of a rich hacendado [ranch owner] and his mother was also the owner of a profitable estancia (Santos, n.d., 49–51).

(4) Gutiérrez’s text presents Vega as an artistic man: ‘Así aquel tipo nacido para el arte, como Santos Vega, va juntando en su corazón todo el odio que a él le arrojan los que se creen sus superiores’ [Hence that man born for art, like Santos Vega, goes on collecting in his heart all the hatred thrown his way by those who believe themselves superior] (Santos, n.d., 5).

(5) Pablo Vila details the importance of Atahualpa Yunpanqui’s El payador perseguido, a long work which was started in the mid-1940s but only finished in the 1960s, and which became an example of the militant song of the 1960s (2014, 179).

(6) Petrona is the second woman with whom Santos Vega falls in love (Gutiérrez, Santos, 224–26).

(7) Esteban Echeverría (1805–1851) was a nineteenth-century Romantic writer who penned ‘The Slaughterhouse,’ a short story that illustrates the opposition between civilization and barbarism.