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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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Bajo el signo de la patria

Bajo el signo de la patria

(p.180) Chapter 12 Bajo el signo de la patria
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter is dedicated to the pre-production and close analysis of Bajo el signo de la patria which centres on the life of Argentine founding father Manuel Belgrano. I contend that, responding to Argentina’s tumultuous times in the early 1970s, the film is an anti-war war film in which the high cost of conflict is emphasized.

Keywords:   Manuel Belgrano, Historical film, Anti-war war film, René Mugica

The success of Torre Nilsson’s historical films inspired other filmmakers to tackle the depiction of key Argentine figures. In the late 1960s, actor-director René Múgica (1909–1998) was approached by retired general Alberto Lorenzo, a liaison of Brigadier González Filgueiras, chairman of the Instituto Nacional Belgraniano [National Belgranian Institute] (INB).1 González Filgueiras wanted to make a film to celebrate the bicentennial of Manuel Belgrano’s birth but time restraints meant that it was not possible. Nonetheless, Múgica continued with the project of making a film of the founding father’s life. Manuel Belgrano (1770–1820) was an economist, lawyer, leader in the war of independence, and the designer the Argentine flag. In an article from June 1971, five Argentine historians offered positive views of him. Ernesto Fitte, winner of the National Award of History in 1967, characterized Belgrano as ‘uno de los personajes más limpios de nuestra historia’ [one of the most spotless characters in our history] (Sainz German, 1971, 80). Historian Félix Luna (1925–2009) concurred: ‘Buena imagen la de Belgrano. Nadie ha hablado mal de Belgrano; se le habrán criticado algunas decisiones, algunas actitudes, pero nunca se lo enjuició negativamente’ [Belgrano’s image is good. Nobody has talked badly of Belgrano; some of his decisions and attitudes may have been criticized, but nobody ever has judged him negatively] (Saenz Germain, 1971, 81). A well-respected patriot in the Argentine independence process, Belgrano took part in military campaigns in Paraguay and in northern Argentina, spreading revolutionary ideas against Spanish domination.

Belgrano experienced setbacks in his first armed campaigns. Historian Enrique de Gandía (1906–2000), the first president of the INB, mentioned that Belgrano was aware of his limitations when he wrote to a friend: ‘¿A qué nos hemos de engañar? ¿De dónde ni cómo había de ser yo un general?’ [Why deceive ourselves? Where and how was I to be a general?] (Saenz German, 1971, 80). Belgrano’s vulnerability and frankness were precisely the traits that Múgica considered most appealing about the founding father: ‘siempre me fascinó ese general resistido por sus compañeros, frágil de salud, pero capaz de encabezar una carga y derrotar, a puro coraje, ejércitos más numerosos (p.181) y disciplinados que el suyo’ [he always fascinated me, this general who was resisted by his fellowmen, in fragile health, but able to lead a charge and vanquish, with courage alone, armies with more men and discipline than his own] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 44). These characteristics are evident in Bajo el signo de la patria (henceforth Bajo el signo), which focuses on his leadership of the Army of the North in the early 1810s, when he faced health problems and a lack of the resources needed for military success.

Bajo el signo’s production entailed serious preparations. The film’s script was written by Múgica and Isaac Aisemberg (1918–1997), whose participation was questioned because ‘un judío no podía escribir sobre la patria y la bandera’ [a Jew could not write about the homeland and the flag] (Peña, 2003, 188). Despite these objections, Aisemberg wrote the cinematographic book, but signed it with the pen name Ismael Montaña.2 He relied on traditional historical sources, such as Bartolomé Mitre’s Historia de Belgrano, originally published in 1887, and the memoirs of José María Paz (1791–1854) and Gregorio Aráoz de Lamadrid (1795–1857), both prominent veterans of the wars of independence. Jonathan Stubbs notes that preproduction research is a means to assert the legitimacy of a project (2013, 34). In addition, a report during production stated that ‘mostrar estos hechos con absoluta fidelidad se ha transformado en febril obsesión del equipo’ [showing these facts with absolute faithfulness has become the team’s obsession] (‘Filme,’ 1970, non. pag.). Lastly, the initial credits acknowledged the support of the INB, lending authenticity to the portrayal of Belgrano’s campaign. The contribution of the Argentine army and the provinces in which the film was set was also recognized. The shoot began in December 1970 in Campo de Mayo, Buenos Aires, and also Salta and Jujuy, where the crew encountered several challenges, such as bad weather and the logistics of working with numerous extras (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 43). Like Torre Nilsson’s historical films, Bajo el signo also included a large cast of both professional and non-professional actors.3 La prensa announced that the film would feature 2,500 soldiers and 700 horses, with a budget of approximately 180 million pesos (‘Filme,’ 1970, non. pag.). Ignacio Quirós’s (1931–1999) performance as Belgrano was noteworthy: ‘al decir de su equipo técnico, su trabajo es uno de los más logrados de su carrera de actor’ [according to (the film’s) technical team, it is one of the most accomplished of his acting career] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 44). Other professional actors were Enrique Liporace, Héctor Pellegrini, and Leonor Benedetto. The final scenes were recorded in mid-March 1971 and the film was released two months later, on May 20, 1971, in the Monumental movie theatre in Buenos Aires.4 Produced by Mundialcine and classified by the NIC as ‘of mandatory exhibition,’ Bajo el signo’s premiere was preceded by a promotional campaign: in March 1971, Gente proclaimed its forthcoming release in a report with numerous images despite setbacks, such as climatic problems and loss of equipment (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 43).5 Even though the film had a quick postproduction, it enjoyed a warm reception from the public and critics alike. (p.182)

Bajo el signo de la patria

Promotional ad El heraldo.

Bajo el signo generated excitement and great expectations.6 El heraldo del cine rated it 9/10 for commercial appeal and 7/10 for artistic interest, highlighting that ‘es un retrato emotivo, patriótico’ [it’s a touching and patriotic portrayal] (1971, 282). For M.R.S., Múgica’s greatest accomplishment was his natural (p.183) portrayal of Belgrano, bringing the hero closer to the audience (‘Bajo,’ 1971, 282). The reviewer for La prensa praised the film, referring to it as an ‘encomiable muestra de cine argentino’ [laudable example of Argentine cinema], and mentioned the audience’s boisterous clapping (‘Bajo,’ 1971, non. pag.). For Clarín, Bajo el signo strove to be ‘un espectáculo entretenido que interese por sí mismo, aparte de lo que signifique en cuanto a evocación histórica’ [an entertaining spectacle that is interesting it itself besides what it means as an historical evocation]. Despite these positive critical reviews and its popularity, the film was neither nominated for any award nor did it enjoy significant box office success (Erausquin, 2008, 123).

Bajo el signo is the object of mixed opinions among film scholars. On the one hand, Fernando Peña characterizes it as ‘un film que evita toda tentación triunfalista y simplificadora’ [a film that avoids all triumphalist and simplified temptation] (2003, 191). On the other, Erausquin sees it as propaganda for the Onganía regime: ‘Con la consciente complicidad del director (René Múgica) o no, el film debió servir al gobierno de Onganía para representar la honra militar y el amor a la patria, mostrando la simbiosis perfecta de religión y espíritu marcial’ [Whether the director (René Múgica) was fully complicit or not, the film had to serve Onganía’s government by representing military honor and love of the homeland, displaying the perfect symbiosis of religion and martial honor] (2008, 115). This comment ignores the historical fact that Onganía had been deposed in May 1970, months before the shoot even started. While it is true that Bajo el signo insists on the religious aspect—perhaps as a strategy to please the Catholic members of the boards in charge of evaluating it and approving its release—its depiction of the military is far from complimentary and unproblematic. The first scenes show an army devoid of discipline, organization, and drive, a message that may have been hard to swallow for General Levingston (term of office June 1970–March 1971) and General Lanusse (term of office March 1971–May 1973). Nonetheless, this background allows the crucial participation of Belgrano, whose figure, as Radetich has rightly points out, develops in crescendo (2006, 62).

In Bajo el signo, Múgica attempted to distance himself from Leopoldo Torre Nilsson’s recent blockbusters: Güemes (1971), his second historical film, was released a month before Bajo el signo. In an interview, Múgica stated, ‘Si bien esta película es de las llamadas “históricas,” es decir, con un fuerte contenido épico, los personajes no son esquemáticos, acartonados’ [Even though this film is one of the so-called ‘historic’ genre, that is to say, it has a strong epic content, the characters are not schematic or stuffy] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 45). With this statement, Múgica highlighted how his film differed from Torre Nilsson’s El santo, which was criticized for providing a ‘bronze-like’ interpretation of San Martín, that is to say, stressing his qualities as a stoic hero and downplaying his human attributes. Despite Múgica’s comments, Erausquin disagrees, stating that in Bajo el signo: ‘Al director solo le interesa la figura del héroe como ejemplo de jefe, que organiza y lleva finalmente al triunfo a su tropa y a todo el pueblo con (p.184) él’ [The director is only interested in the figure of the hero as an example of a leader who organizes and ultimately leads his troops and all the people with them to success] (2008, 116). Erausquin’s views stress the similarities in the representation of the founding fathers: the will of a driven leader and the homage paid to his humble followers. Múgica admitted that his representation of Belgrano was constrained by two facts: ‘esta película va a ser exhibida en las escuelas primarias de todo el país y no queremos dar una imagen negativa de Belgrano o del país en esos años’ [this film will be exhibited in elementary schools across the whole country and we do not want to present a negative interpretation of Belgrano or the country in those years] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 44). The filmmaker’s words are particularly interesting in that they reveal his intention to attract a broad audience by highlighting Belgrano’s achievements and a positive image of the nascent Argentina. There are, however, two remarkable differences that distinguish Bajo el signo from Torre Nilsson’s historical films. First, while Torre Nilsson represented only historical characters, Múgica incorporated several fictional ones (Colonel Bedoya, Lieutenant Lucero, Juana Azurmendi, and Zaldivar de Frías) as a way to emphasize the implications of the war of independence. Second, and related to these fictional characters, Bajo el signo can be considered an anti-war historical film that is, nonetheless, also a powerful epic. I first present an overview of the film and then analyze these innovations.

Bajo el signo

Bajo el signo covers Belgrano’s participation in the Army of the North during several months in 1812 and early 1813.7 By 1812, the process of independence, which had begun in 1810, was slow, even experiencing some major military hold-ups, such as the relentless movement south of the Spanish forces and the subsequent retreat of patriotic armies from Jujuy. In Bajo el signo, poorly provisioned and disciplined patriotic troops are seen waiting for the arrival of General Belgrano (Ignacio Quirós). Some militia men call him ‘doctorcito metido a general’ [a little lawyer playing at being a general] as they are aware of the difficulties he encountered in his previous mission in Paraguay.8 This contempt for the newly appointed leader extends to general Juan Manuel de Pueyrredón (Rodolfo Machado), who sends General José María Paz (Martín Adjemian) to meet him on his behalf. Contrasting with Pueyrredón’s fitness, the first shots of Belgrano show him drowsing in a carriage and accompanied by his doctor, whose presence alludes to his poor health. Moreover, the general’s dark clothes are covered with dust, presenting him devoid of affectation and suffering the usual discomforts of those traveling by carriage at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, conscious of the importance of appearances, Belgrano decides to ride his horse to perform the expected role of an army general. His effort, however, does not afford him the recognition of the welcoming platoon as a slow pan of the men shows them to be unenthusiastic, with ripped and dirty uniforms.

(p.185) In Bajo el signo, Belgrano faces several challenges. One is to make do with minimal financial support. Before leaving, Pueyrredón briefs his peer on the low-quality and infrequent food, the poor state of the arms, and the overall unpreparedness of the soldiers. Belgrano’s second challenge involves asserting his leadership among men with more military experience. Even though Erausquin states that ‘desde el comienzo, el héroe aparece con las virtudes propias de un jefe, un general que impone respeto y va a lograr que lo sigan debido a las fuerza de su ejemplo y a su habilidad de persuasión’ [from the beginning, the hero displays the virtues of a chief, a general who imposes respect and whose men will follow him due to the strength of his example and his persuasive skills] (2008, 117), the men whom Belgrano has to lead consider him an outsider due to his education and profession. Given their lack of respect for his rank, he quickly reminds them that he was appointed by the Buenos Aires authorities and emphasizes that they should follow his orders. While he encourages his closest officials to make recommendations, he also urges them to invent what they lack and gives them specific instructions to establish a new camp, seeking to renew their commitment to ending the Spanish forces’ dominance.9 Thus, he literally and figuratively puts the army in motion.

Throughout the film, Belgrano’s identity and affiliation are frequently tested.10 His military failure in Paraguay casts his new mission in the north as one that will also probably be doomed. In addition, in an encounter with a gaucho leader, his porteño diction and lighter complexion force him to clarify that because of his mother’s place of birth, he is half santiagueño [from the province of Santiago], a regional affiliation that immediately wins him his interlocutor’s trust. He then mentions the multiple origins of his men and the shared idea that drives them: ‘peleamos para que esta tierra sea libre’ [we fight so that this land will be free]. In another scene, when the Bishop of Salta accuses him and his men of being heretics who defend the principles of the French Revolution, Belgrano forcefully asserts his identity as a practicing Catholic.11 Even among his men, he has to explain his orders, issued by the Triumvirate to retreat to Cordoba, instead of fighting the Spanish enemy.12 Nonetheless, he grows with each successive challenge that comes his way. He goes from a sick and lonely leader to one who gets to know his men and earns their respect and support. He is also shown as a pious Catholic, a strong defender of education, and the creator of the national flag.

Because Bajo el signo shows Belgrano not only as a general, but also as a true founder of the Argentine nation, the film has elements of a biographical picture or biopic. Belgrano’s entry into the cultural pantheon begins with his coming of age as a military leader and a statesman in 1812, when he achieved an unexpected, remarkable success. His central role gives important clues about his thoughts and intentions. For instance, twice he expresses concern about not having seen any schools in the many leagues that his army has traversed. His interest in the education of the future citizens complements the building of the nation, initially undertaken by the army. As Erausquin (p.186) notes, ‘A Belgrano le importaban los símbolos y la educación cívica’ [Belgrano was interested in symbols and civic education] (2008, 118). This characterization as an organizer of the upcoming Argentine nation places him in the group of ‘idols of production,’ a term coined by Leo Lowenthal to refer to captains of industry, the military, and other members of conventional ruling elites (quoted in Custen, 1992, 33). The notion of ‘idols of production’ aptly describes Belgrano as one of Argentina’s founding fathers, that is to say, as a producer of an independent nation.

Bajo el signo is also a war film, albeit a non-traditional one. Dana Polan notes that the war film is ‘a construction rather than a direct and innocent expression of a national will about war’ (2004, 54). In Bajo el signo, Belgrano’s development as a military leader exposes the war of independence as a construction, an endeavor that has to be continuously promoted. He takes over the Army of the North at a low point and must rekindle the vision of political freedom that will only be possible if the colonial armies are defeated. This rationale reveals the logic of the war but, alongside Belgrano, several fictional characters help provide a panoramic view of the human cost of this armed conflict. Bajo el signo challenges the use of military action, particularly through the fictional characters.

The Cost of War

Bajo el signo is an anti-war film. James Chapman defines this type of film as ‘one that expresses, through either its content or its form, the idea of war as a moral tragedy and a waste of human lives’ (2008, 117). From the outset, Múgica’s film depicts the implications of a bloody and cruel struggle. An opening pan shows several corpses scattered across a desert-like landscape as the soundtrack conveys doom and neglect through repetitive, haunting drums. Low storm clouds deprive the area of light, stressing the notion of a forsaken territory, which encourages viewers to consider the region’s importance and contributions to the war of independence. Despite the fact that Bajo el signo captures the brutality of armed conflict, the shots seemingly change as the film begins. A close-up of two dark faces belonging to natives in the army contrasts with the blazing sun. These soldiers silently witness several conscripts, who have been found guilty of desertion, being summarily shot. Other shots display the troops’ worn and torn uniforms, their mismatched or improvised shoes, and their overall demoralization, evident in the fact that they leave their arms unattended as they nap during the day. Patriotic soldiers and officials appear thirsty and many complain about the heat, calling attention to the oppressive conditions of the area and the discomforts of their deployment. These initial scenes provide an opportunity for Manuel Dorrego (Néstor Zembrini) to criticize the troops’ quality, implying that they are resistant to discipline. When Lieutenant Colonel Cornelio Zelaya (Enrique Liporace) interrupts a game of cards, it becomes clear that the rank and file of the Army of the North lacks discipline. Bajo el signo also reveals divisions (p.187) among military leaders. Some, like Francisco Fernández de la Cruz (Ricardo Passano Jr.), adhere to military discipline and codes of conduct, even though they resent that this means they must shoot deserters; others, like Dorrego, fraternize with the troops and are more laid-back. Despite these differences, the dismal state of the army is quickly set right by Belgrano’s leadership.

Bajo el signo presents the general’s multiple tasks as a military leader. He must not only swiftly address the lack of weapons, food, and trained troops but also, and more importantly, he must awake the collective will to fight a war necessary to free the territory from colonizers. One of his first instructions regards reprovisioning, which imposes a burden on both friend and foe. In one scene, Colonel Bustos (Juan Carlos Lamas) turns up at a rural wedding with the order to requisition cattle. His arrival interrupts the joyful and carefree dances of the humble couple and their guests. The home owner, Nemesio Luna (Tito Rinaldi), first implies that the colonel is trespassing; then he agrees to ‘donate’ some cattle to the independence cause as he talks about his neighbor’s sons who enlisted in the patriotic armies and died far from their native land. He calls them changos [youth], and Bustos replies that, as they died fighting for their homeland, they were not youth but true men. This statement reflects that participating in combat is a dangerous rite of passage. In another scene, Colonel Zelaya arrives at the house of a wealthy Spaniard who loudly objects to the requisition, calling it ‘pillage’ and labeling the military men sent to carry it out ‘seditious.’ When he makes the faux pas of mentioning his close association with the Spanish general Goyeneche and offers to bribe them, Zelaya orders him shot, an action that takes place off-screen.

These incidents involving those who support and oppose the independence movement set the stage for a discussion about the emerging nation. During a break in their march, Belgrano’s men describe the feelings of the population: first, they were exploited by the Spaniards and now they are equally oppressed by the patriots. Some declare that shooting ‘enemies’ is not the way to gain supporters for their cause. Thus, the issue of how the patriotic forces should distinguish themselves from the royalist oppressors constitutes an opportunity to consider the identity and qualities for which the patriots are fighting. This conversation allows Belgrano to hear different views and to make explicit his loyalty to the shared homeland: ‘Hemos nacido en esta tierra. Esta es nuestra tierra. Nuestro país’ [We were born in this land. This is our land. This is our country]. These assertions, which demonstrate his patriotic pride and attachment to the land, are linked to the reasons for war listed by Burgoyne: ‘the desire for affiliation, for recognition of death, being willing to die for that identity, or being willing to kill others for it’ (2004, 66). Another important feature of the emerging nation that appears in Bajo el signo is Catholicism. At one point, Belgrano learns that his cause and men are portrayed as heretical. In one crucial scene, he faces the Bishop of Salta during a mass, making a public statement about his Catholic faith and emphatically ordering that Spanish sympathizers who resort to calling (p.188) the patriots heretics be shot without hesitation. Despite these challenges, the peak of the general’s mission occurs when he bears the Argentine flag on horseback during the celebrations of the second anniversary of the revolutionary break from Spain on May 25. The flag is the first potent symbol to distinguish patriots from colonial masters. More importantly, the flag serves as a sign of unity, a first element of the nation that will be forged by the war of independence.

Bajo el signo deploys many of the semantic elements of the war film. The first is training and preparation for combat. Belgrano tirelessly focuses on the various matters necessary to succeed in combat. He directs one man to spy on the Spanish enemy, assigns another one to draw maps, and delegates the training of men to veteran officials.13 He also entrusts his loyal doctor (Redhead) with the task of putting together a military hospital and discusses the need for military tribunals with an experienced official so that men are properly heard when facing an accusation. In addition, he observes Baron Holmberg (Reinaldo Mompel), the Triumvirate’s specialist in weaponry, and motivates the men in the infantry and artillery to be the best they can be. Another element of the war film is the existence of opposing armies that meet in numerous battles. Bajo el signo slowly builds to the climax of these confrontations, highlighting the cruelty of the Spanish forces on two occasions. The first takes place when Colonel Bedoya (Aldo Mayo) is captured and tied to a stake. When he refuses to betray the coordinates of the patriotic armies, the Spanish general orders that he be tortured. As Bedoya attempts to flee, he is shot, a lesser evil than being viciously tormented. On another occasion, Lieutenant Lucero is wounded and apprehended. Also tied to a stake, he dies without receiving medical care. On the other hand, when Belgrano’s men capture a high-ranking Spanish official, the Spanish general Pío Tristán (Ariel Absalon) sends his counterpart a letter and money, asking for humane treatment of the official. Belgrano returns the money, requesting a respectful handling of the many prisoners taken by the Spanish forces. These episodes display the brutality of the Spanish and the patriots’ honorable conduct. When both armies finally meet on the battlefield, the patriotic forces exhibit courage and the discipline instilled by their vigorous training. The only scene that deals with the shooting of an enemy comes when a traitor blows up the patriot’s arsenal. Even when the patriots achieve a victory, Belgrano chooses to confiscate arms, instead of shooting the enemy troops.

The third element of war films evident in Bajo el signo is attention to the rapport between members of the same army. While Belgrano’s leadership raises some doubts at first, soon his discipline and comprehensive approach, and his ability to lead by example, win his men over. The general’s demeanor also changes, having been stern he becomes more relaxed. He begins by showing concern for his men’s well-being: when he sends men to scout and draw maps, he asks them to be careful. In one scene, an official asks him for a leave of absence to visit friends; at first he rejects the request, but then he sees the opportunity for the officer to gather intelligence, a reassignment of (p.189)

Bajo el signo de la patria

Belgrano entering church with Argentine flag.

his duties which makes the leave grantable. For this mission, he also orders a civilian recruit, Zaldívar de Frías (Mario Lozano), a father of five boys, to act as the officer’s detail so that the latter may visit his family. An episode that tests Belgrano’s management and his relationships with his closest aides occurs in the last third of the film. Ordered to retreat south, he realizes that he is leaving behind people who supported the patriotic effort and who would become targets of Spanish retribution. Consequently, he instructs the locals to harvest their crops, get their cattle together, and move south where they can be protected. This decision, which contravenes the orders from Buenos Aires, is fully supported by the same officials who were skeptical of his abilities at the film’s outset, showing the trust that the leader has earned among his officers.

In Bajo el signo, fictional characters provide a complementary view of the destruction caused by war. One of these characters is Juana Azurmendi (Leonor Benedetto), the daughter of a Spanish general. She first meets young Colonel Zelaya at a social event. Despite his seductive attempt to count her as a patriotic supporter, she remains faithful to King Ferdinand VII. Once Belgrano and the Army of the North arrive in the city of Jujuy, the general has nightmares and orders that Juana be expelled from the patriots’ territory. The (p.190) film shows her being accompanied to an inhospitable no man’s land where she must fend for herself. Juana manages to find the Spanish troops but, considered a volatile supporter, she is given few comforts. Strolling around the camp at night, she discovers the injured Lieutenant Lucero and gives him water before he dies. The inhumane treatment for the prisoner pushes her to flee from the Spanish base and take the news of Lucero’s death to the patriotic side. Her help is deemed so important to the subsequent patriotic victory that Belgrano personally apologizes for her treatment and, because of her social connections, enlists her as a spy when Jujuy city is reoccupied by the Spanish.14 Nonetheless, Juana’s patriotic sympathies become known to the Spanish, resulting, in the film’s final scenes, in her execution. This fictional female character, who displays some degree of agency, appears as an innovation when compared to Remedios’s traditional role in Torres Nilsson’s El santo, showing that women also took part in aspects of the war of independence and became victims. Her shooting without trial takes place immediately after Belgrano makes a noble gesture to the defeated Spanish general, emphasizing the vindictiveness of the imperialists.

Several other fictional characters are also casualties of the war. Two of these are colonel Bedoya and Lieutenant Lucero, the first men whom Belgrano sent to spy on the enemy. Both die heroically without betraying information about the patriotic army. These losses appear to teach the general about the perils of the area to which he was assigned and the human cost of his men’s death. The other fatalities are children. Zaldivar de Frías is a fictional resident of the city of Jujuy who has left his wife and sons to join the patriotic forces. The enthusiastic and good-humored Frías is motivated to fight for liberation to ensure his family’s safety. When he finds out that his whole family has been caught in a fierce battle and perished, he asks for leave, but Belgrano tells him about the risks associated with returning to a land occupied by Spanish troops and emphasizes his belonging to the ‘national’ family. Because these casualties of war not only included enlisted men but also women and children, Bajo el signo presents armed conflict, even that of national liberation, as an endeavor with great human cost. The deaths of Azurmendi, Bedoya, and Lucero stress the tragedy of losing characters endowed with strong moral values. The annihilation of Zaldivar de Frías’s family further adds the senseless killing of children, future citizens of the nation-to-be. Consequently, Bajo el signo appears to be an anti-war film.

Despite (or because of) Bajo el signo’s depiction of the evils of war, the film also has elements of the epic. As an epic of national emergence, the film first highlights the formation of horizontal bonds of fraternity among the men in the Army of the North, whether they are enlisted soldiers or gaucho militia men. A key scene is one in which Nemesio Luna and his gauchos decide to join the Army of the North and Belgrano commands Colonel Juan Ramón Balcarce (Hugo Múgica) to make room for them among his troops. The general later follows up on their training and Balcarce informs him that the new recruits are courageous fighters. The smooth integration of civilians (p.191) into the army speaks to a fraternity under the shared goal of liberation from the Spanish enemy. In this way, Múgica’s film appears to be an epic film that ‘evokes a different kind of imagined community, a sense of collective affiliation and powerful emotion once collected to homeland and heritage’ (Burgoyne, 2011, 7). In Bajo el signo, the idea of a collective identity is supported by ties with the land and Catholicism.

Religion plays a prominent role in Múgica’s film. When Belgrano decides to move the population of Jujuy who had faithfully supported his army south, he is inspired by the biblical exodus, associated with both destruction and renewal. The exodus conjures up the search for the Promised Land and the general appears as a military Moses. Indeed, Belgrano’s instruction implies that people of all ages and walks of life will have to move, some on foot, carrying their possessions in a slow and weary march, punctuated by accidents and perils that convey the sense of defeat and melancholy for what is left behind. Belgrano, however, is shown as a hands-on hero, helping people who fall from horses, carrying children, and even getting his uniform wet.15 When a platoon is ordered to delay the Spanish troops’ advance, the fighting is conducted street by street. Nonetheless, the most important showdown between the Spanish army and the Army of the North comes in a spectacular battle in which the patriotic artillery and infantry defeat the Spaniards. Historian Giménez explains that ‘el triunfo de Las Piedras en nada evitaba el avance español: apenas era una escaramuza exitosa de más valor moral que militar’ [the victory of Las Piedras in no way prevented the Spanish’s progress: it was merely a successful skirmish of greater value for morale than military] (1999, 511). Despite this assertion, the skirmish marks a change in the film’s and army’s mood: from flight, Belgrano’s men pass to the offensive, exposing the results of their hard training and arduous preparations. More crucially, this encounter gives the patriots the confidence to disregard orders from Buenos Aires to avoid confronting the Spanish in another battle. In this new theater of war, Belgrano’s daring troops beat the enemy again. The film thus traces the swift development of the patriotic army under the command of the general who instructed it in such a way that it achieved a considerable victory over the better-equipped and more professional Spanish army.

The film’s ending emphasizes the epic struggle between liberators and oppressors. In this regard, Burgoyne states that ‘the epic film may be read against the grain as a counter imperial genre’ (2011, 90). The arrogant Spanish general Tristan writes that he is stationed in Campo Grande [Big Field], while Belgrano describes his location as Campo Chico [Small Field], a contrast that evinces the latter’s humility. After the triumph in Tucumán, Belgrano is offered a promotion, which he declines, giving due credit to his men: ‘la victoria ha sido obra de mis capitanes’ [victory has been achieved thanks to my captains]. With this acknowledgment, he downplays his own role and brings to the fore the courageous deeds of nameless soldiers.16 The general is also offered money, which he accepts only in order to build schools, (p.192) stating that the revolution must be made with ideas as well as bayonets. Consequently, his vision appears to go beyond the day-to-day survival imposed by a military campaign, extending to the foundation of a nation. Here it is important to consider what Silveira Cyrino holds to be the role of the epic: ‘to rouse audience affect with stirring narratives of “freedom” and gritty but highly romanticized warrior settings, while proposing modern paradigms of national identity set against the backdrop of the historical past’ (2011, 32). Consideration of national identity at the time of the film’s release leads us to ask in which ways Bajo el signo contributes to shoring up argentinidad in the early 1970s. More specifically, which ideologies—leftist or conservative, if any—is the film promoting?

Bajo el signo and Argentina in the 1970s

Like El santo and Güemes, Bajo el signo sought to overcome the division of the late 1960s and early 1970s by presenting a positive portrayal of a founding father. The Belgrano who appears in the film is infused with both the authority to run the army and delegate tasks and the vulnerability of being a leader who is given few material means to carry out his mission. Thus, he constantly needs to improvise, learn, and troubleshoot in an unknown territory—both geographical and professional, as he is not a career officer. Because he manages to overcome the constraints imposed by a precarious situation and shows critical thinking when he assesses orders from his superiors, he seems progressive and nuanced. Given his emphasis on the nation’s future, the national flag, and education, he is presented as a unifying figure. Far from being depicted as a radical warrior, he displays empathy and compassion for both his men and those he takes prisoner. Shown as strict at first, he later comes in a paternal way to value his men and the people entrusted to his protection.

Where Belgrano’s representation is favorable, some of the military leaders who fought for independence are presented in a different light. One of these is Juan Martín de Pueyrredón (1777–1850), who refuses to go to welcome his replacement personally, showing some jealousy. Another historical figure that is desacralized is Manuel Dorrego (1787–1828), who is depicted as easygoing and not fully aware of the plight of the army. Colonel Eustaquio Díaz Vélez (Roberto Airaldi), an experienced war veteran, constantly challenges Belgrano’s orders: he is satisfied with the poor state of the troops and reacts negatively to the general’s instructions. Hence, Bajo el signo presents a view of some of Argentina’s most prominent men as far from perfect military men. The film’s engagement with the most pressing contemporary issues of the 1970s pivots around the representation of war.

Unlike El santo, which does not challenge the need for war, Bajo el signo shows it as carnage, albeit necessary to build a better society. The former is evident both in the tense preludes to confrontations which present corpses of past battles and the shooting of deserters and traitors, and men dying (p.193) from injuries sustained in combat. In addition, after the final battle, pans over the casualties of war also reinforce the message of bloodshed. Belgrano decries the spilling of so much Latin American blood when he offers his rival a capitulation. The film advances the notion that even if war is needed to secure the nation’s foundation, it has a steep human cost, a message that may have been directed at those engaged in the armed guerrillas in the 1970s. Nonetheless, the film could also be interpreted as positing that war leads to renewal and liberation. Talking about films shot during the Second World War, Paul Virilio holds that ‘these films were made into veritable “war paintings” whose task was to imbue audiences with fresh energy, to wrench them out of apathy in the face of danger or distress, to overcome that wide-scale demoralization which was so feared by generals and statesmen alike’ (1989, 13). Múgica’s film can be understood as a war painting that sought to inspire Argentine citizens to take action. Also acknowledging, like Torre Nilsson’s films, that at its inception Argentina lacked crucial resources to aspire to nationhood, Bajo el signo proposes that those deficiencies could be overcome by the right kind of leadership and determination. Belgrano—like San Martín in El santo—knows that he and his army are being given minimal funds, but he remains undaunted by the task ahead of him and relies on his wits. He has the ability to organize, prioritize, and mobilize men, giving them concrete missions and goals. Erausquin holds that

Al mostrar los valores del héroe militar, su capacidad de liderazgo, por un lado, su patriotismo, y su honradez por el otro, se aseguraban las subvenciones y el triunfo de taquilla. Se combinó así el afán de lucro con la imagen que las Fuerzas Armadas querían dar de sí mismas.

[In showing the qualities of the military hero, his ability to lead on the one hand, and his patriotism and honesty on the other, the loans for the film and its success at the box office were ensured. Consequently, the interest in commercial success was combined with the image that the armed forces wanted to give of themselves]

(2008, 125)

This view ignores the fact that Belgrano was not a career officer and thus was not a ‘true’ representative of the armed forces. His centrality in the film may, however, be read as a justification of the rise of a strongman, but if that is the case, Bajo el signo seems to have opted to support neither Perón nor the army generals who ruled in the early 1970s.

Perhaps the most salient issue is the film’s Catholicism. As mentioned earlier, scriptwriter Aisemberg was identified as Jewish and deemed unqualified to write about one of Argentina’s founding fathers. Apparently to appease censors, scenes showing Belgrano’s Catholic faith and his devotion to the Virgin of Carmen, patron saint of the army, were included. The film’s depiction of Church members encompasses those who supported royalists, such as the Bishop of Salta, and those who sided with the patriots, such as the priest who blesses a church. This mixed and antagonistic position mirrors (p.194) the divisions experienced by the Catholic Church in the 1970s, when some priests joined left-wing organizations, such as the Movement of Priests for the Third World, while others sided with the more conservative elements of Argentine society. Nonetheless, the film does not abound in images of the clergy’s ideological positions. What is certainly stressed is the fact that in the 1810s, the word of the Bishop of Salta carried great weight among different social classes and his assertion that patriots were heretics met with Belgrano’s unambiguous clarification of his own religious beliefs and those of his men. Bajo el signo also reveals the way in which the founding father’s beliefs were translated into action: the general is seen praying before the battle of Tucumán. After this victory and very moved, Belgrano publicly pays his respects to the Virgin. Given the repeated images of his religiosity, it could be surmised that the war of independence was a new crusade.

Bajo el signo, however, pays lip service to several other important issues in the 1970s. One of these is the economy. Besides the commentary on the lack of military uniforms and supplies, Múgica’s film does not present details of the financial impact of war on the regional economies, other than showing the implications of requisitions and the hardships of the exodus. Like El santo and Güemes, which openly celebrated regional contributions to the war of independence (the Cuyo area in El santo and Salta in Güemes), Bajo el signo credits Jujuy and Tucumán with the army’s achievements under Belgrano’s command. Nevertheless, the film does not display the general’s concern with passing measures that would mitigate the effects of the war as he actually did. Another issue that appears problematic is the role of two fictional female characters. A devout Catholic, Josefa Zaldívar de Frías (Gloria Leyland) is a traditional wife and mother. She is seen in four brief scenes in the purely domestic roles of wife and mother. Her death occurs as a result of her search for one of her sons who had stayed behind in a city occupied by Spanish troops. She is shot, along with her boys, becoming yet another sacrificial victim. The other female character is Juana Azurmendi, who courageously switches sympathies to become an ally of the Army of the North. In the scene in which Belgrano thanks her for passing a message from the soon-to-be dead Lucero which gives him his first victory, she does not utter a single word. Her quiet acceptance contrasts with the first scene when she holds her ideological position with grace and aplomb. Hence, Belgrano silences her at the very moment when he entrusts this figure with the mission of spying for the patriotic army, suggesting that she can be useful—but without being heard. Juana’s independent stance and her work on behalf of the patriotic cause lead to her death, an outcome that may appear to be cautionary for women active in Argentine politics in the 1970s.

The film’s depiction of scarcity at the moment of the nation’s foundation stresses an ‘Argentine’ feature which, in turn, constitutes a reflection on Argentine cinema. In the early nineteenth century, creating a new independent nation without adequate financial support was a formidable task. In the late 1960s, the goal of resisting neocolonization was an equally (p.195) impressive objective given Argentina’s dependency on foreign markets and the global order’s demand for its participation in world affairs. In addition, lower-middle-class Argentine citizens still needed the state’s support as they had under the governments of Perón (1945–1952 and 1952–1955). Just like Perón, Belgrano’s paternalism in Bajo el signo seems to favor the protection of the weakest. On the other hand, his ability to train troops and achieve military victories despite the scarcity of assets could be compared with the filmmaker’s role of producing a film with scant resources. This self-congratulatory reading similarly corresponds to Torre Nilsson’s historical films. Here it should be remembered that Múgica’s and Torre Nilsson’s early 1960s films were greeted with critical praise but not enthusiastically received by local audiences. Consequently, in their historical films about crisis at the outset of the nation, both directors may have traced parallels between their film’s main characters and themselves. The ‘epic’ accomplishments of fighting for freedom and improvising corresponded to their own role of making films in Argentina, an industry that since the 1950s had lost relevance for the local public and whose investments, even when considerable, were not on a par with those of Hollywood.

In the next and last chapter, I conclude the examination of historical films with a close analysis of Manuel Antín’s Juan Manuel de Rosas, a film which, because of its ideology, departs significantly from the three analyzed so far. Nonetheless, its content engages head-on with issues of nationhood and Argentine identity.


(1) The Instituto Nacional Belgraniano [National Belgranian Institute], founded in 1944, is in charge of preserving the memory of General Belgrano.

(2) Aisemberg means ‘mountain of steel’ and in the Bible, Isaac was Ismael’s brother (Peña, 2003, 188).

(3) According to Erausquin, the army lent 300 soldiers with uniforms, 300 horses, and 16 cannons (2008, 115). A report in Gente mentions that ‘un millar de extras, en su mayoría santiagueños, se encargaron de revivir aquellas jornadas en que la patria era joven’ [a thousand extras, mostly from Santiago, were responsible for bringing back to life those days when the homeland was young] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 44).

(4) René Múgica took part in several gauchesque films in the 1940s, such as El cura gaucho [The Gaucho Priest] (Lucas Demare, 1941), La guerra gaucha (Lucas Demare, 1942), and ¡Gaucho! (Leopoldo Torres Ríos, 1942). He directed several films in the early 1960s, such as El centroforward murió al amanecer [The Center Forward Died at Dawn] (1961), which was nominated for the Palm D’Or at Cannes, El hombre de la esquina rosada [The Man of the Pink Corner] (1962), and El reñidero [The Pit] (1965), also nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Nonetheless, from 1966, when he directed La buena vida [The Good Life], there was a hiatus in his directorial endeavors until he worked on Bajo el signo de la patria, which was also the last film he (p.196) directed. Asked about the difference between Bajo el signo and his previous films, Múgica replied: ‘Mire, yo pasé cinco años sin filmar porque no tenía ofertas que me convencieran. No económicamente sino desde el punto de vista artístico. Esta vez, di en el clavo, encontré el personaje’ [Look, I spent five years without making a film because I had no proposals that were appealing. Not financially, but rather from the artistic point of view. This time, I was lucky, I found the character] (Giménez Zapiola, 1971, 45).

(5) Laura Radetich notes that Múgica experienced less pressure and censorship than was suffered by Torre Nilsson (2006, 63).

(6) Erausquin explains ‘Se puede observar que el filme consigue mucha publicidad antes del estreno. Todos los periódicos lo mencionan’ [You can see that the film received a lot of publicity before its release. All the newspapers mentioned it] (2008, 115).

(7) Ovidio Giménez cites a letter from Belgrano who, upon learning of his appointment as commander of the Army of the North, wrote to the Triumvirate expressing his lack of knowledge of the area to which he had been reassigned and stressing his commitment to the cause of the homeland’s freedom (1999, 500–501).

(8) Ignacio Quirós (1931–1999) starred in TV programs in the late 1960s.

(9) Giménez holds that Belgrano’s ‘autoridad era severa, pero ajustada a la más estricta justicia, creando un verdadero espíritu militar’ [authority was harsh, but set to the strictest justice, creating a true military spirit] (1999, 503).

(10) Erausquin has another reading of Belgrano: ‘El héroe aparece como un militar excepcional, sobre todo por su carisma’ [The hero appears as an exceptional military man, above all because of his charisma] (2008, 119).

(11) In the scene in which Belgrano challenges the Bishop of Salta, Múgica makes a daring move. Erausquin explains: ‘en la época en la que se exhibe la película toda posible critica a la jerarquía eclesiástica no podía ser aceptada, aun cuando fuera puesta en boca de un gran patriota como Belgrano’ [at the time the film was shown, no criticism of the ecclesiastic hierarchy could be accepted, even through the mouth of a great patriot like Belgrano] (2008, 122).

(12) Radetich notes that ‘a los gobernantes porteños no se los pone en pantalla sino a través de emisarios’ [the Buenos Aires authorities are not seen on-screen except through their representatives] (2006, 62).

(13) Erausquin states that ‘el film se insiste sobre todo en su interés por la educación de los soldados’ [the film insists on his interest in the soldiers’ formation] (2008, 118).

(14) Radetich mentions that ‘Belgrano queda ligado a la presencia de una mujer realista’ [Belgrano remains linked to the presence of a realist woman] (2006, 62), but this character displays a huge admiration for the general.

(15) Giménez details the founding father’s activities during the exodus: ‘Belgrano todo lo atendía en una tarea agotadora, pero no desfallecía. Organizaba cuerpos, señalaba rutas, indicaba funciones, exaltaba emociones dando grandiosidad al sacrificio que exigía a la población toda de Jujuy’ [Belgrano attended to everything in a grueling duty, but he did not succumb. He organized bodies, pointed to routes, distributed chores, stimulated emotions, (p.197) bestowing grandiosity to the sacrifice that he demanded from all the people of Jujuy] (1999, 507).

(16) This technique pioneers the decentering of the subject in recent cultural production about the war of independence, as noted by Carolina Cortes Pizarro (2011).