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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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Los gauchos judíos

Los gauchos judíos

(p.122) Chapter 9 Los gauchos judíos
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the preproduction, shooting and reception of a gauchesque film that is populated by Jewish characters and is also an adaptation of a traditional Argentine literary memoir by Alberto Gerchunoff.

Keywords:   Los gauchos judíos, Juan José Jusid, Comedy, Jewish

In early 1974, preproduction for Los gauchos judíos began. It was to be the third film directed by Juan José Jusid (1941–), a young and up-and-coming filmmaker who had directed two other films, Tute cabrero (1968) and La fidelidad [Fidelity] (1970), that revolve around turning points in the lives of middle-class characters.1 Jusid was himself the son of a ‘progressive’ Jewish family (Nuñez, 1994, 8). Los gauchos judíos was an adaptation of the homonymous short story collection by Alberto Gerchunoff (1883–1950), with a script by his daughter, Ana María Gerchunoff, Jorge Goldenberg, Alejandro Saderman, Oscar Viale, and Jusid himself.2 Jusid also produced the film along with Leopoldo Torre Nilsson and the brothers Mario and Norberto Kaminsky. The cast was composed of first-class performers: José Soriano, Dorat Baret, Victor Laplace, China Zorrilla, Osvaldo Terranova, Luisina Brando, Jorge Barreiro, and Arturo Maly. Jusid described the film as a choral one, that is, lacking protagonists. In addition, the film had remarkable costumes designed by Margarita Jusid and a musical score interpreted by Gina María Hidalgo (1927–) based on songs written by Gustavo Beitelman.3

The production was not without several challenges. With 100 actors, two advisers—one for Jewish and liturgical matters and another for creole and gauchesque details—the film’s shooting began in April 1974 in an area owned by the Argentine army in Campo de Mayo. At first, it was estimated that the film would be finished by January 10, 1975, but the production faced certain problems. First, Rajil, the town in which Gerchunoff’s short stories are set, no longer existed. Jusid and his team had to wander around Villaguay [in the province of Entre Ríos] for three months to reconstruct it (Los gauchos judíos: paisanos,’ 1975, 52). Second, because the film was shot in Campo de Mayo, a set recreating a rural town had to be built, but a fire in November 1974 destroyed it. An investigation of the site showed undisputable traces of foul play, which resulted in questions of whether this criminal act was motivated by anti-Semitism. Because the sets were uninsured, the producers had to pay to rebuild them. This unexpected obstacle delayed shooting for at least two weeks. Asked about other threats or problems, director Jusid explained:

(p.123) No, de ninguna manera. El libreto fue presentado al Ente de Calificación en la época en que Bordo estaba al frente de la censura y lo aprobó sin problemas. Más: yo noté un clima de gran simpatía por el proyecto, porque casi por primera vez se trata en nuestro cine el tema de la colonización y la inmigración.4

[Not at all. The script was presented to the Films Rating Board at the time when Bordo was in charge of censorship and he approved it without problems. More: I perceived an atmosphere of great sympathy toward the project, because almost for the first time, our cinema was dealing with the topic of colonization and immigration]

(‘Donde,’ 1974, 32)

Almost confirming Jusid’s words, the army promised 24-hour surveillance of the sets and provided conscripts to help rebuild them. The shoot finally concluded on February 12, 1975.

Despite the fact that Los gauchos judíos experienced some problems on its release, it was well-received. Jusid’s film premiered on May 22, 1975, in the Callao and Broadway movie theaters in Buenos Aires. La opinión reported that incidents took place in the Broadway cinema during the first showing: first, a bomb threat forced an evacuation, and then several people vandalized the theater (‘Hubo,’ 1975, non. pag.). Two days later, it was announced that Miguel P. Tato, in charge of the Film Review Board, had ordered the removal of a scene in which a gaucho kills his son, arguing that the expurgation was necessary for the film to be faithful to Gerchunoff’s work (‘La fidelidad,’ 1975, non. pag.). The reviewer for La última hora harshly criticized this censorship (‘Belleza,’ 1975, non. pag.).5 Nonetheless, El heraldo reported a strong box office performance: in its first week, the film was screened in 35 movie theaters before a total of 352,939 spectators, and in the second week, it was showing in 30 movie theaters (‘El fenómeno,’ 1975, 154). El heraldo gave Los gauchos judíos a nine for commercial value and a seven for artistic significance. La nación highlighted the film’s harmony and use of humor as a unifier (‘Gerchunoff,’ 1975, non. pag.). In La opinión, Agustín Mahieu also mentioned the use of humor, noting that ‘la epopeya tiende a expresarse en una clave risueña y optimista’ [this epic tends to be expressed in an agreeable and optimistic tone] (‘Humor,’ 1975, non. pag.). However, the reviewer for Mayoría and Mahieu for La opinión critiqued the choreographic scenes (‘Poblando,’ 1975, non. pag.) and the variety of anecdotes (‘Humor,’ 1975, non. pag.), which they deemed detrimental to the film’s unity and rhythm.

The screening of Los gauchos judíos in Entre Ríos was an occasion full of extra-cinematic significance. Jusid’s film was also released in Paraná—capital city of the province where Gerchunoff’s text was set—in an event attended by authorities, politicians, union leaders, and the general public, which was organized by the Argentine Delegation of Israeli Associations (DAIA in Spanish) and attended by its president, Nehemías Reznick. According to La razón, in his speech, Reznick alluded to external actors who, through a variety of means, were sowing the seeds of anti-Zionism: ‘para dividir a la familia (p.124) argentina’ [to divide the Argentine family] (‘Los gauchos,’ 1975, non. pag.). Given this context, the Jewish community welcomed a film that portrayed Jewish immigrants in a positive light. For his part, the president of the local DAIA, Samuel Aizicovich gave a speech in which he emphasized the impact of the Jewish colonization in the development of the province as well as the recent contributions of younger Jewish generations.

The Jewish community, quite visible and culturally engaged in Argentina, was very involved in the film’s production and consumption. Jusid reported that during production, he received unsolicited advice from multiple members of the Jewish community (Los gauchos judíos: paisanos,’ 1975, 52). Once the film was released, opinions among the Jewish community were divided. For instance, the newspaper La opinión published two contrasting views. On one hand, historian and journalist Daniel Muchnik penned an emphatic account of his family’s arrival to Entre Ríos, which bore little resemblance to the film’s scenes of harmonious welcome to the colonies: ‘mi bisabuelo y los otros gringos que los acompañaban carecieron de la más mínima atención del gobierno provincial’ [my great-grandfather and the other immigrants who came with him lacked even minimal attention from the provincial government] (‘Con un planteo,’ 1975, 18). Muchnik’s comments do not allude to the film’s qualities; rather, his critique of the plot ignores the fact that the film was based on a text written by Gerchunoff. The lack of historical authenticity is harshly condemned without taking into account that both Gerchunoff’s short stories and Jusid’s film are artistic endeavors, not historical treatises. On the other hand, journalist and theatrical producer Kive Staiff (1927–) started his opinion piece by mentioning that he was born in the Jewish colonies and describing them with a wealth of details. He goes on to remind readers that Gerchunoff left the colonies at the age of 12 and wrote Los gauchos judíos when he was 27, and could not have written in a different way, admitting that, ‘Si yo hubiera sido él, si lo fuese ahora, haría lo mismo’ [If I had been him, if I were him now, I would do the same] (‘Sudor,’ 1975, 18). While Staiff declined to comment on Jusid’s film, his strong support of Gerchunoff’s memories greatly contrasted with Muchnik’s views. More recently, film scholar Tzvi Tal has noted that Jusid’s film was populated with stereotypical characters involved in predictable conflicts (2010, non. pag.).

Nevertheless, months after its release, Los gauchos judíos continued to receive accolades. The film’s promotional flyer—designed by producers Mario and Norberto Kaminsky, along with Jusid and Daniel Verdino of the agency Casares, Grey and Associates—was awarded second place in an international competition organized by The Hollywood Reporter. Julio Tanjeloff an Argentine living in the United States, created a company to distribute Los gauchos judíos in the United States (Nuñez, 1994, 18), where it was screened in October 1975, with a strong box office showing. Jusid held that ‘es paradójico que esto ocurra tan lejos, mientras en nuestro país estamos esperando que se reconozca al film la recuperación industrial especial que se merece’ [it is paradoxical that this is happening so far away, while in our (p.125) country we are waiting to receive the special industrial recuperation that the film deserves] (Los gauchos judíos también,’ 1975, non. pag.). A month later, Los gauchos judíos was sold to Japan. Consequently, Jusid’s film achieved the kind of international circulation that the NIC had been encouraging since the mid-1960s.

From the opening scenes, Los gauchos judíos seeks to provide an idyllic view of the Argentine past. The film begins with a brief introduction of the situation of Jewish people in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, which explains their migration to Argentina. A frontal shot of a locomotive approaching a station, where a group of notables and a small band await the immigrants, establishes the setting in Argentina. The existence of the locomotive signals a country that has begun its modernization process and that, as such, is receptive to foreign ideas and the influx of immigrants. A pan of the numerous windows of the train shows the immigrants’ admiration and surprise as they take a first look at their new homeland. Their chaotic arrival is framed by a voice-over corresponding to a young Gerchunoff (Gustavo Luppi) which explains that ‘aquí como en la tierra prometida, nos esperaban la alegría y la paz’ [here, as in the promised land, joy and peace are awaiting us].6 The solemnity of this crucial beginning is softened by two strategies that are deployed throughout the film: humor and music/dance. Indeed, humor first appears when the camera captures the reaction of a local policeman at one of the newcomers’ ‘strange’ custom of kissing men. In the following scene, Klezmer music and choreographic steps are used to show the immigrants arrival to their first living quarters in a warehouse. Alternating bird’s-eye and ground shots reveal their unpacking and settling in.

The film presents both Argentines and Jewish immigrants in a celebratory tone. The difficulties that immigrants faced when adapting to a new land without a good command of the language are explained by a voice-over that lists the many tasks they had to undertake in the new environment. Their status as learners is highlighted with the mention of a talented local man, Remigio Calamaco (Luis Politti), who teaches them their different tasks. The voice-over is also careful to avoid overarching generalizations when he states that the anecdotes he tells are based on his memory. His narrative recounts that Jewish immigrants left behind a dark and uncertain past and became gauchos in sun-drenched shots that convey their gratitude for their change in fortune. Their process of adaptation is further emphasized when some of them consume their traditional leica cake while drinking mate. Jewish women are as engaged as men in all chores. For instance, a young woman named Myriam (Alejandra Da Passano) helps the creole Rogelio (Raúl Lavié) with the birth of a foal. In another scene, Jewish women bring in the harvest in a choreographed dance that revels in the fertility of the land as María (Gina María Hidalgo) sings her praises of the fertile land. Thus, the film presents the Jewish colonization as a well-choreographed spectacle.

Los gauchos judíos also touches on less positive experiences. From the beginning, local characters Bara (Arturo Maly), a Jewish neighbor, and (p.126) Montero (Jorge Barreiro), a landowner, resent the Jewish immigrants’ arrival, in a departure from Gerchunoff’s memories. Bara and Montero hate that the immigrants pay local laborers for their work, and set a fire that destroys their first harvest, curiously mirroring the arson attack against the filmic set. Bara later gives orders to poison the waters of a pond, an act that kills the immigrants’ cattle. Parallel to these man-made developments, mental and physical illnesses also affect some characters: one woman, Brane (María Rosa Gallo), is traumatized by her past experiences of pogroms and fears that her son Gabriel (Victor Laplace) will be killed. When he reassures her that he is safe, Brane starts hearing noises and later dies in an accident. For her part, young María is told that she has a weak heart that endangers her life when she becomes pregnant. In both cases, Dr. Yarcho (José Soriano) offers his sympathy and support to these families. Both anecdotes show the way in which Jewish immigrants rally around those in need and face the cycle of life with deaths and births in their new homeland. A similar joint effort is seen when Gabriel, depressed after his mother’s death, wants to give up his plot of land and work as a hand. This time it is the gaucho Calamaco who, with his son Juan (Adrián Ghio), comes to Gabriel’s help, tilling his land so that he does not lose it.

Los gauchos judíos also presents the leisure and social events of the rural community. May 25 is commemorated with traditional activities and festive socialization, serving to show the local code of honor and Jewish reciprocity. Calamaco’s son Juan wins a horse race but his rival accuses him of pushing him. To defend his honor, he resorts to a knife fight. Juan is disoriented by his opponent’s use of his poncho, drawing jokes from those watching the fight. Unable to stand his son’s lack of courage to strike a lethal blow, Calamaco intervenes: he hugs and kills Juan both for his damaged honor and inability to win. This is the scene of filicide censored at the film’s release. The terrible injustice is somewhat avenged by Gabriel’s intervention: he follows the gaucho who accused Juan and makes him confess that he lied. While this action does not change the fact that Calamaco murdered his own son, it restores his honor within a community he considered his family and which, in turn, saw him as an invaluable member—as evident in Gabriel’s loyalty to both Calamaco and his son for their help. Another instance of communal participation is the wedding of Raquel (Dora Baret) and Pascual. This marriage, arranged by their parents, is the occasion for a well-attended social gathering and the unusual presence of a photographer specially hired by the groom’s father. Nonetheless, the nuptials are disrupted when the slow-witted Pascual is unable to dance with his bride. His place is taken by Gabriel, and the mutual attraction between him and Raquel surprises the guests. When Raquel and Gabriel elope, the community is sorely divided between those who accuse the bride of being an adulteress and those who blame Pascual for his passivity. The rabbi intercedes, asking him to divorce his bride and thus reestablish her honor despite their brief marriage. While the resolution of this case reinstates order in the rural Jewish immigrant community, another couple, Myriam (p.127) and Rogelio, a gaucho, run away because the Jewish bride was unsure of her parents’ reaction to a mixed marriage. Marriages, both endogamous and mixed, are presented as a threat to the stability of the Jewish community.

Los gauchos judíos closes with a young Gerchunoff watching Gabriel and Raquel ride away from the town of Rajil. Their departure marks an ending for the narrator. In a scene reminiscent of Don Segundo Sombra, the young male narrator brings to an end his recollections about the Jewish colony in which he spent several years. While Los gauchos judíos was written before Don Segundo Sombra, and so the cinematic adaptation of these works was reversed: Güiraldes’s novel was adapted five years before Los gauchos judíos. Nevertheless, both films present the view of young narrators and resort to voice-over to guide their remembrances. The commemorative tone is also evident in both films, but the focus of the celebration is different: Don Segundo Sombra centers on the skills and mentorship of a gaucho while Gerchunoff’s work revolves around a minority group which ‘engrandecieron a nuestra nación’ [made our nation great].7 For Degiovanni, Gerchunoff’s nostalgia encompasses both the uncontaminated Argentine countryside and the hard-working Jewish immigrants who adapted to a new homeland (2000, 370). Both aspects make it into the film: the Jewish settlement of Rajil is both a blank slate for immigrants to leave their imprint on their new homeland and also a place to prosper and flourish, overcoming adversity and divisiveness. Thus, Jusid’s film also touches on the key concepts of territory, nation, and citizenship that literary critic Saúl Sosnowski has identified as the key topics of Jewish-Latin American writers (2000, 264). By returning to a foundational past in which tolerance prevailed over pettiness, Jusid’s Los gauchos judíos stood as a crucial role model for an Argentina that, in the mid-1970s, was being torn apart by ideological divisions.


The emergence of the gauchesque film genre was a result of Torre Nilsson’s initiative and his intuition that it was high time for Argentine literary poems to be adapted to the silver screen. His premonition was proved to be correct by the strong domestic reception of the film and its circulation, albeit limited, abroad. During a period of heightened politicization, his representation of the rebel gaucho did not offer a commentary on Argentine society in the late 1960s. The same impulse of centering in the past is visible in Antín’s Don Segundo Sombra. Hence, it is no coincidence that the Grupo Cine Liberación saw both films as idyllic representations of bygone times that refused to engage with the pressing challenges of the late 1960s. Nonetheless, for Torre Nilsson and Antín these films represented a marked change from their more intimist films of the early 1960s. Both invested considerable energy in these gauchesque productions which stand as part of Argentine heritage, that is to say, realist films of quality that were necessary for the consolidation of Argentine cinema around national themes. The huge media coverage of both films attests to their significance in Argentine cultural life and their box office takings demonstrate that they were eminently supported by domestic audiences. Nonetheless, as Don Segundo Sombra showed, these films did not encounter a positive circulation abroad.

The other three gauchesque films show some differences from Martín Fierro and Don Segundo. Santos Vegas and Juan Moreira focus on rebel gauchos who are oppressed by the authorities. While also part of the Argentine heritage genre, they are more film-spectacles, that is to say, they incorporated few non-realist scenes and strong scores to accompany the narration, thus becoming more artistic adaptations of the literary works. Because of Leonardo Favio’s Peronist sympathies and the return of Peronism to Argentine politics, Juan Moreira enjoyed remarkable success as its protagonist became a metaphor for the Peronist resistance. Finally, Los gauchos judíos also owes much to Torre Nilsson, who was one of its producers. Unlike the other gauchesque films, which focused on male characters, Los gauchos judíos is a choral production that shows the role of immigrants in the formation of modern Argentina, their efforts at assimilation, and their contributions to the national character. Because of a visible climate of anti-Semitism, Jusid’s film uses humor and choreography as a means to lighten the message and focus on immigrants’ impact on the development of Argentina. As will be seen in Section III, Argentine cinema’s interest in nation building in the late 1960s and early 1970s also involved the depiction of nineteenth-century national heroes. (p.130)


(1) For María Nuñez, ‘Los gauchos judíos significó en principio el pasaje de los ambientes urbanos a los escenarios rurales; el abandono de los espacios reducidos y el reemplazo de un número relativamente pequeño de personas por grandes movimientos de masas’ [The Jewish Gauchos meant at first the passage from urban to rural settings; the shift from reduced spaces and the substitution of a relatively small number of people to big movements of the masses] (1994, 16).

(2) A week before the film’s release, the publisher Aguilar launched the eighth edition of Gerchunoff’s text.

(3) For instance, Biondi mentions, ‘Hasta 1974, la música de cine de mayor costo económico había sido la banda sonora de Los gauchos judíos’ [Up until 1974, the most expensive movie soundtrack was that of Los gauchos judíos] (2007, 95).

(4) The NIC invested 60% as a recuperation fund of the 400 million budget (‘El fenómeno,’ 1975, 154).

(p.128) (6) In Gerchunoff’s text: ‘donde el cristiano no nos odiará, porque allí el cielo es distinto, y en su alma habitan la piedad y la justicia’ [where the Christian will not hate us because the sky is different and in his soul peace and piety coexist] (1950, 30).

(7) Fernando Degiovanni holds that Los gauchos judíos expresses the assimilationalist policies of an immigrant who was integrated into Argentina’s intellectual and cultural elite (2000, 367).