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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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Juan Manuel de Rosas

Juan Manuel de Rosas

(p.198) Chapter 13 Juan Manuel de Rosas
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter chronicles Juan Manuel de Rosas’ pre-production and its weak reception among critics. I analyse the film as a biopic that differs from the previous ones which had aimed to be inspirational ones.

Keywords:   Juan Manuel de Rosas, Manuel Antín, biopic, revisionistas, national sovereignty

Juan Manuel de Rosas [henceforth Rosas] premiered ten months after the release of Bajo el signo. Unlike his role in Don Segundo Sombra, in this film Antín was a contract director. In 1971, during the shooting of Rosas, he acknowledged that the idea of concentrating on this character came after making Don Segundo Sombra. In a different interview, Antín declared that inspiration for the project came in 1970 when reading American historian Myron Burgin and his Canadian counterpart H.S. Ferns (Saenz Germain, 1971, 24). He then approached historian José María Rosa in October 1970 to invite him to participate in the writing of the screenplay because he wanted to count on the support of a renowned scholar and he admired his passion (‘Para Antín,’ 1971, non. pag.). Antín clarified that the script was finalized after its sixth version: ‘estudiamos las posibilidades industriales del proyecto y reunimos lo necesario para emprenderlo con una sana y tranquila producción’ [We studied the commercial possibilities of the project and gathered the funds necessary for a healthy and smooth production] (‘Para Antín,’ 1971, non. pag.). Such an efficient process would make sense everywhere except in Argentina, where funds for film production and audience research have not been widely used. In recent years, Antín’s statements about the film have changed. In conversation with Sández, he stated that he was approached by Diego Muñiz Barreto (1934–1977), an upper-class nationalist who went from being an anti-Peronist and working in a technical position under Onganía’s regime to joining the Montoneros and financing the 1973 Peronist campaign.1 According to Antín, Muñiz Barreto, the film’s executive producer, wanted ‘una película ideológica y estridente en la época de Lanusse’ [an ideological and polemical film in the Lanusse period] (Sández, 2010, 92). To achieve this, he chose Rosas (1793–1877), whom historian Hebe Clementi has characterized as the ‘figura más controvertida’ [most controversial figure] (1970, 7) of Argentine history. As a teenager, Rosas took part in the defense of Buenos Aires against the British invasions. He later worked in his family’s estancias in close proximity with the gauchos whom he would recruit to guard Buenos Aires from the Federalists in 1820. When Unitarian Juan Lavalle (1797–1841) seized Manuel Dorrego (1787–1828) and (p.199) ordered him shot, Rosas became a Federalist and was elected governor of Buenos Aires with extraordinary authority. He ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades, persecuting and killing dissidents. In the 1840s, he sent an army to Uruguay that besieged the port of Montevideo, an event decried by the British and French who blockaded Buenos Aires for two and three years, respectively. Despite the fact that both nations finally ended their siege, accepting Rosas’s conditions, the Restorer of Laws, as he was called, became increasingly isolated. In February 1853, when his troops were defeated in Caseros by those of Justo José Urquiza (1901–1870), he went into exile in England, where he died in 1877.

Rosas’s legacy has been as polemical as his government. After the battle of Caseros, Urquiza made the passing of the national Constitution possible. In the following decades, Argentina cemented its development and established close relations with Europe, particularly France and England, initiating a period of national prosperity and growth that would last until the late 1920s. In the decades immediately following the battle of Caseros, liberal historians, such as Mitre, described Rosas as a tyrant who favored barbarism and false populism and delayed the country’s political organization. Nevertheless, in the 1880s, new voices belonging to a different generation of historians, ostensibly those of father and son Vicente and Ernesto Quesada and Adolfo Saldías, began offering new interpretations about Rosas. They called attention to his handling of foreign affairs and his defense of Argentine sovereignty during a tumultuous period. This scholarly work paved the way for the creation of the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas Juan Manuel de Rosas [Juan Manuel de Rosas Institute of Historical Research] in 1939.2 One of the institute’s first publications stated that as 85 years had gone by since Caseros, it was high time to revisit Rosas’s legacy (Clementi, 1970, 52). The research undertaken under its auspices contributed to dividing Argentine historiography between those who were more orthodox, academic, or liberal and the revisionistas who saw Rosas as the true founder of the Argentine nation.3 Among the latter, the work of Carlos Ibarguren (1877–1956), Juan Manuel de Rosas, su vida, su tiempo, su drama [Juan Manuel de Rosas, his Life, his Time, his Drama] (1930), and the five volumes of Vida política de Juan Manuel de Rosas a través de su correspondencia [The Political Life of Juan Manuel de Rosas through his Correspondence] (1941–1950, republished in 1970) penned by Julio Irazusta (1899–1982), initiated the reassessment of Rosas’s role in the building of Argentina.4 Also included in that group was historian José María Rosa (1906–1991), a Peronist activist, who was exiled after the 1955 coup, and wrote Historia argentina, a revisionist interpretation published in the mid-1960s, a time in which revisionism was in vogue and the repatriation of Rosas’s remains was once again discussed.5

For Antín, the Rosas project represented a sharp ideological turn from his previous film. With Don Segundo Sombra (1969), he had achieved national (the film won the Condor for Best Film) and international recognition (it was nominated for a Palme d’Or in Cannes). As discussed in the previous (p.200) chapter, the film’s detachment from its times also drew harsh criticism from the Grupo Cine Liberación, whose members noted the film’s aristocratic vision of Argentine history and decried its engagement with the pressing issues of the time. In Rosas, however, Antín performed a 180° turn to embrace a more ‘nationalist’ version of the Argentine past, not only directing the film but also working with historian Rosa in its script. This radical change has been, for the director himself, difficult to process, even decades later. In an interview with Sández, Antín admits, ‘Yo ya no era yo, claro, pero no quiere decir que había pasado del día a la noche’ [I was no longer myself, of course, but that does not mean that I had gone from day to night] (2010, 93). Despite this contradictory assertion, it is crucial to highlight that unlike San Martín, Belgrano, and Güemes, the subjects of the previously studied historical films, Rosas was a very divisive historical figure. In accordance with the growing polarization of the early 1970s, his representation no longer sought to unite and awaken the dormant energies needed for Argentina’s harmonious development. Rather, Rosas was a film with a clear ideological position. Consequently, it is not surprising that decades later Octavio Getino, a member of the Grupo Cine Liberación, should point out that the film ostensibly displays ‘una preocupación revisionista frente a la historia nacional, sin duda el mayor mérito de esa película’ [a revisionist concern regarding national history, without any doubt the highest merit of this film] (Getino, 1998, 54). Some Argentines felt that the controversy surrounding Rosas—in the late 1960s, there were renewed talks about repatriating his remains—constituted a way to constantly look backwards, instead of focusing on the future (Mahieu, 1972, non. pag.). Precisely because of its controversial topic, the film received considerable attention.

Rosas was a costly historical filmwith a substantial production. Shooting began in October 1971 in Salta and Jujuy as well as Buenos Aires. Initially, it was to be titled El señor de las Pampas [The Lord of the Pampas]. Some of the scenes had to be shot outside Buenos Aires in San Justo, in the province of Santa Fe, because the extras did not want to wear Unitarian uniforms (Unitarians were based in Buenos Aires and were for the central power of Buenos Aires in detriment to the equal power of the inner regions) and because there were more horses available in San Justo. The film’s final budget was around 180 million pesos. Like the other historical films, Rosas featured scenes with numerous extras. In one, for example, there were 1,200 riders dressed in historical costumes. In another, fourteen 80 centimeter-long ships were used to stage the port’s blockade (‘Rosas y su época,’ 1972, non. pag.). The production also involved building a house similar to the estancia Los Cerrillos, Rosas’s family home. Stage and TV actor Rodolfo Bebán was selected for the main role: ‘El rostro de Bebán se prestó a las mil maravillas para expresar los matices más complejos del alma de Rosas’ [Bebán’s face lent itself marvelously to expressing the complex nuances of Rosas’s soul] (‘Visión,’ 1972, non. pag.). The rest of the cast comprised other remarkable actors, such as Sergio Renán (Juan (p.201)

Juan Manuel de Rosas

‘Rosas en el cine,’ Gente, 2 September 1971: 25.

Lavalle), Alberto Argibay (Dorrego), Silvia Legrand (Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson), and newcomers Myriam de Ridder (Encarnación) and Teresa Barreto (Manuelita Rosas).6

(p.202) As with the previous historical films, the promotional campaign that appeared in the press paved the way for Rosas’s release. The film, which had the initial support of the NIC, was scheduled to begin shooting in August 1971, but when the NIC withdrew its support, Antín faced both financial and logistic problems, which hampered the project on and off throughout September and October 1971.7 Once these problems were solved, the local media began to follow the preproduction. Revista Clarín first published material on the film in October. Two months later, La opinión and Radiolandia began monthly reports about its progress. The latter reported that the shoot finished on January 9, 1972, and called Antín ‘un director que no se arredra ante las empresas más osadas’ [a filmmaker who does not run from the most daring projects] (‘Visión,’ 1972, non. pag.). In February, La opinión published the film’s blurb and an excerpt from the script. La nación also reported on the forthcoming release, ‘Según informes de prensa proporcionados hasta ahora, el filme ofrece una visión objetiva de la figura de Rosas y de la época evocada’ [According to reports released thus far, the film provides an objective depiction of Rosas and his period] (‘Rosas y su época,’ 1972, non. pag.), and provided information about its production. For its part, Crónica called Rosas ‘one of the most awaited films of the year’ (‘Esperado,’ 1972, non. pag.). The day of the film’s premiere, Antín described Rosas’s time:

Matar al contrario si constituía un peligro eran cosas posibles desde los tiempos de Mayo. Sobre todo si el contrario está dispuesto a lo mismo. La fuerza contra la fuerza. Como en la guerra. Y el país estaba en Guerra. Contra propios y extraños.

[Killing one’s opponent if he was a threat had been a possibility since the time of (the revolution of) May. Particularly if one’s opponent was ready to do the same. Force against force. Just like in war. And the country was at war. Against its own and foreigners]

(‘Rosas,’ 1972, non. pag.)

Three days after the film’s release, promotional ads appeared in the most important Argentine dailies, La nación and Clarín. Both had a black background but with different messages: in the former, ‘Jazmines y sangre in Palermo’ [Jasmin and blood in Palermo], in the latter, ‘Rosas-Manuelita: lo que nunca se pudo decir’ [Rosas-Manuelita: what could not be said before].

Juan Manuel de Rosas

Revista Clarín, 13 March 1972.

Juan Manuel de Rosas

La nación, 13 March 1972.

(p.203) Rosas, a Norma-Vigo Production, was released on March 16, 1972 in the Ocean theatre and other cinemas. It was polemical and met with the critics’ disapproval because of its open revisionism. Details of the premiere were published by Crónica, which listed the many attendees, among them the ex-president Marcelo Levingston, the scriptwriter Rosa, and politician Arturo Jauretche (1901–1975), as well some actors and directors, such as Tato Bores and Lucas Demare. It is worth mentioning the mood of apprehension in the first showing: ‘se temió mucho que se produjeran escenas de violencia’ [there was great concern that the film would cause scenes of violence] (‘Entre polémicas,’ 1972, non. pag.) as members of the group Movimiento Juventud Federal [Federal Youth Movement] threw flyers and people booed certain scenes. Three days later, Crónica proclaimed:

Rosas debió ser una motivación temática para profundizar y no para enfocarla con la simplicidad de una historia de Grosso, para niños de segundo grado. Manuel Antín, cuya belleza formal y temática en ‘Segundo Sombra’ le ganó la admiración de la crítica, debió pensar más de una vez en la necesidad de NO hacer esta historia de Rosas que parece un magnífico envase de colorida atracción, con un gran vacío en su interior.

[Rosas should have been a thematic motivation to explore deeper, not to approach with the simplicity of a history by Grosso for second-grade children. Manuel Antín, whose formal and thematic beauty in Segundo Sombra won the critics’ admiration, should have thought more than once about the need to NOT make this history of Rosas look like a wonderful container with colorful appeal, but a huge void on the inside]

(‘Rosas solo eso?’, 1971, non. pag.)

The reviewer for La nación was more explicit in his assessment when he noted that ‘contrariamente a lo que habían adelantado algunas versiones de la productora, no es objetiva ni imparcial: por el contrario se inclina manifiestamente a favor del rosismo y de la figura de Rosas’ [contrary to what has been advanced in some accounts by the production company, it is neither objective nor impartial: on the contrary, it is clearly biased in favor of Rosism and the figure of Rosas] (‘Fue estrenada,’ 1972, non. pag.). Agustín Mahieu, who reviewed the film for La opinión, singled out as the main weakness its reductive nature, evident in the superficial portrayal of Rosas’s prolonged years in government: ‘El resultado es la veloz sucesión de episodios, cada uno de los cuales daba para un largometraje independiente’ [The result is the rapid succession of episodes, every one of which could have been the subject of a feature film] (‘El cine,’ 1972, non. pag.). Another criticism was its declamatory style: ‘Sus largos diálogos políticos con Encarnación Ezcurra resultan de una falta de naturalidad evidentísima’ [Its long dialogues with Encarnación Ezcurra are devoid of the most evident naturalism] (‘Fue estrenada,’ 1972, non. pag.). Similar opinions were presented by the reviewer for Análisis, who mentioned the poor artistic value of the film but (p.204)

Juan Manuel de Rosas

La opinión, 23 March 1972.

commended the performances of actors Bebán and Renán (‘Juan Manuel,’ 1972, non. pag). Finally, J.H.S. declared in La prensa, ‘No pasa de ser una aventura proselitista, que con abundante respaldo pecuniario puede utilizar a esos fines la enorme difusión que representa el cine’ [It is no more than a proselytizing adventure which, with solid financial support can deploy to its ends the huge dissemination offered by cinema] (‘Juan Manuel,’ 1972, non. pag.). On March 25, 1972, Crónica ran a short piece reporting that after the negative reviews, Antín ‘decidió vengarse publicando avisos’ [decided to take revenge by paying for ads] (‘Criticar,’ 1972, non. pag.). Crónica called attention to the fact that writing a film review was a different matter from judging the country’s history.

As with Múgica, Antín also sought to differentiate his film from Torre Nilsson’s blockbusters. When asked about the difference between them, Antín replied:

El punto de partida de ambas concepciones es diferente. Por el simple hecho de haber elegido una versión de Juan Manuel de Rosas que no (p.205) es la tradicional, yo participo—o intento hacerlo—de un hecho cultural diferente, hasta el momento, en la Argentina.8

[The point of departure of the two perspectives is different. Given the simple fact of choosing a version of Juan Manuel de Rosas that is not the traditional one, I take part —or at least strive to do so—in a new cultural endeavor in Argentina]

(‘Manuel Antín habla,’ 1972, non. pag.)

The main difference between the historical films of Antín and Torre Nilsson concerned Antín’s decision to represent a historical character who deeply divided Argentines. While the former strove to unite the Argentine population by subscribing to a traditional version of the past, Antín chose instead to generate a controversy that would impact the film’s reception.9 His original approach not only showed the limits of what film critics deemed acceptable, but also presented a version of the Argentine past that was intensely politicized and corresponded to the early 1970s climate of political violence between guerrilla groups and the authorities. The account of the past that Antín selected not only stressed Rosas’s stance regarding national sovereignty but also, and more importantly, the people’s role in sustaining his government. As Antín explained, ‘Rosas fue el primer argentino que comprendió los peligros del imperialismo y creyó en las virtudes del pueblo’ [Rosas was the first Argentine who understood the dangers of imperialism and believed in the merits of the people] (‘Rosas: Celuloide,’ 1972, non. pag.). The emphasis on imperialism at the time of the film’s release spoke to the Argentine left, which held that the country was becoming an ally of the United States by persecuting those who favored socialism or Marxism. In addition, the emphasis on the popular was a nod to Perón’s followers, who were still lobbying for his return to Argentina after a long exile. Thus, it is not unexpected that Antín should declare, ‘En muchos sentidos Rosas, vive; divorciado del presente pero determinándolo’ [In many aspects, Rosas is alive; divorced from the present but impacting it] (‘Para Antín,’ 1971, non. pag.). Despite these comments, Rosas was a historical film that dialogued with subjects that were important in the early 1970s. I will first provide an overview of the film and then explore the way it engaged with political issues of its time.

Rosas is a biopic that begins in the 1810s chronicling the main character’s life as an estanciero [farm owner] and ends in the late 1840s after his successful stance against England and France. The film opens with shots of the Colorados del Monte [Mountain Reds] cavalry riding across the plains. After the initial credits, an excerpt of a letter written to Rosas by General José de San Martín praises his leadership and the prosperity, honor, and order that he achieved, and wishes El Restaurador de las Leyes [The Restorer of Law] proper acknowledgment of his public service in defense of Argentina. Immediately after, Rosas’s voice-over provides a reflection on his life in which he declares, ‘nunca pensé que mi destino fuera la política’ [I never thought that my fate would be in politics]. He also briefly mentions his (p.206) childhood, during which he played with Indian children, developing his wits and patience, his love for the pampa and horses, and an understanding of the land and its inhabitants, which he equates with love. Finally, he reveals the fact that by age 20, he owned several carefully administered estancias, and lived by three principles: order, respect for the law, and equal justice. To prove this point, in one scene a gaucho takes him to task for carrying a dagger on a Sunday, a proscription which he himself imposed. Rosas agrees with his observation and has someone whip him for his transgression, thus remaining consistent: ‘la ley tiene que ser pareja’ [the law has to be balanced]. But he makes a point of stressing that the upper classes have a tremendous responsibility to maintain order, respect for the law, and equal justice. His voice-over explains, ‘si los patrones no son los primeros en respetar la ley, las cosas van a andar mal para todos’ [if the masters are not the first to abide by the law, things will go badly for all]. This anecdote emphasizes the self-imposed rules that governed his life and that led to his becoming the Restorer. The film links the strict estanciero and the public official, superimposing the sound of whips with a bottom-to-top pan of Rosas dressed in his uniform.

Despite Rosas’s centrality, which is announced in the film’s title and his voice-overs, Antín’s film strives to be a multisided account. In addition to Rosas, many characters—notably his detractors—feature prominently. One of these is Manuel Dorrego (Alberto Argibay), whom Rosas helped raise to power but later abandoned. Another with a similar fate is Facundo Quiroga (Juan María Gutiérrez). A figure who prevails is General Juan Lavalle (Sergio Renán), seen in many scenes from the 1820s to the 1840s. Lavalle’s opinions are uttered in frontal close-ups and the inner battle of his thoughts is also revealed throughout the film. Other dissident characters are Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson (Silvia Legrand), Gral Lamadrid (Onofre Lovero), José Mármol (Andrés Percivalle), and Lord Ponsonby (Jorge Barreiro). Even though, as critics noted, this accumulation of characters appears more an attempt to document history in episodes rather than to develop a dramatic narrative, these dissident characters and their views of Rosas contribute to nuancing his representation. Rosas is a multi-perspectival biopic, a term used by Bingham to refer to films that present different angles (2010, 23). Here it should be clarified that Bingham applies the term to postmodernist biopics of the 1990s, which suggests that Antín’s film was innovative for its time. Besides Rosas’s detractors, Rosas also introduces an anonymous character who does not utter a single line but is seen in many scenes representing the common citizen, a privileged witness of Rosas’s time. Talking about fictional characters in historical films, scholar Bruno Ramírez asserts that ‘Not only are they essential to enrich the portrayal of a specific historical milieu; they also constitute a narrative layer that is indispensable to the development of dramatic effects’ (2014, 45). In Rosas, however, the anonymous character’s enhancement of the plot is minimal as he does not interact with other characters, nor utter a single line.

(p.207) The film presents Rosas in a dialogic relationship with his wife in which she fulfills different functions as alter-ego, confidante, and ideologue. According to his voice-over, his marriage to Encarnación Ezcurra (Myriam de Ridder), ‘his life-long partner,’ is a decisive point in the Restorer’s life. The first scenes show them discussing a possible agreement among estancia owners who want to organize in order to counter the English threat to force down the price of leather. When Rosas is summoned to pacify Buenos Aires, Encarnación appears as his alter-ego, encouraging him to fulfill his duty as a citizen. She also acts as a spectator, watching him leave for action. The assignation of active (Rosas) and passive (Encarnación) roles can be understood as an example of what Laura Mulvey has termed scopophilia, that is to say, looking as a source of pleasure (1988, 59). When Rosas returns, he confides in her his disappointment with the way matters are handled in Buenos Aires and states his desire to devote his energy to his estancias. Encarnación speaks against the prevailing political discord and she appears as a defender of order. At another time, she even engages in political strategizing when she suggests curtailing Dorrego’s and Quiroga’s power.

Rosas illustrates the fact that law constitutes a central axis of the Restorer’s involvement in politics. When he is called to Buenos Aires in 1820 to help reinstate peace, he prioritizes harmony as a condition for nationhood, gathering his numerous supporters, the Colorados del Monte. Aerial and ground views convey their march as a song calls Rosas ‘el padre de los gauchos’ [the father the gauchos]. Later, General Las Heras (Ricardo Passano) charges Rosas with the task of reaching a peace agreement with the Indians, which he accepts on the condition that they be treated as human beings, something that is never actually shown on screen. In the second half of the film, Rosas is seen as the embodiment of the law. He decides the fate of several characters: he condemns Camila O’Gorman and her priest lover to death even though her family is among his supporters, orders the relocation of Governor Maza to Uruguay to avoid his death (which nevertheless follows him), limits his men’s acts of retribution against the opposition, and reaches a ceasefire with the English and French envoys.

The film traces the political turmoil of Argentina in the 1820s, which pitted Federals against Unitarians. The Federals, led by Dorrego, are depicted as considering the plight of the people, that is to say, the lower-class citizens who have been drafted for the successive wars since the 1810s and still lack rights. In one scene, Rosas admonishes Dorrego about the opposition, which the general disregards, expressing his distrust for him in a voice-over. The next scene, shot from an angle, presents a meeting of Unitarians who plot against Dorrego and persuade Lavalle to depose and kill him. Lavalle displays his discomfort with this order by walking in circles, illustrating his feeling of being trapped. Even though he belongs to the Unitarian party, he finds his task despicable. The same feeling of unease surfaces when he awaits Dorrego’s shooting. First seen through a barred window, he appears to be the prisoner, but later he walks outdoors and, with the sound of drums to (p.208) heighten the drama of the moment, addresses the camera: ‘Quisiera que el pueblo de Buenos Aires sepa comprender que la muerte del Coronel Dorrego es el sacrificio mayor que puedo hacer en su obsequio’ [I would like the people of Buenos Aires to understand that the death of Colonel Dorrego was the greatest sacrifice that I could present them]. His perspective is followed by his antagonist Dorrego’s short monologue, predicting further divisions among Argentines and his blurred final view as he falls to the ground fatally wounded. Two songs are interposed: in one, Dorrego’s execution elicits grief among his supporters; in the other, his death is a reason for further violence. The next scene presents a brief combat between Unitarians and Federals. Unlike similar scenes of conflict that appeared in El santo, Güemes, and Bajo el signo, in which patriots face Spaniards, here, for the first time, Argentines fight each other in a battle.

The film presents a counterpoint between Lavalle and Rosas. Early on, Rosas states that the Unitarian general is his milk brother (having shared the same nurse). Although they represent different political positions, they have a shared civility and respect for each other. When Lavalle visits Rosas’s camp and does not find him, he waits for him and falls asleep. Despite being adversaries, upon his arrival, Rosas gives orders to let Lavalle sleep and wakes him up with a mate, a gesture of hospitality. They discuss the country’s future and arrive at an agreement that would entail forgetting the past, holding elections, and supporting an independent government. When Lavalle’s men break the pact, in conversation with Encarnación, Rosas blames them instead of the general. An interim government paves the way for Rosas’s first short term in office, during which he is seen reaching an agreement with the leaders of the provinces of the Litoral and Facundo Quiroga.

Rosas emphasizes the multiple players that compete for political power, pulling the Restorer in different directions. The film alternates scenes of political strategizing with domesticity, in which Encarnación pushes her husband to seize power and restore peace. These exchanges convey the idea that Rosas is in the middle ground, subjected to opposing pressures. The tipping point is Facundo Quiroga’s death, after a meeting with Rosas. Aware that to impose order, bloodshed is necessary, Rosas accepts the power. His decision, in the sixtieth minute of the film, is celebrated by the gauchos and the lower classes but meets with indifference from the Unitarians whose closed faces are shown in a pan. In Rosas’s passionate inaugural speech, vengeance and intolerance prevail. In the following scene, he summarizes the country’s problem, mentioning that Argentines do not have a say in their country’s affairs: ‘hemos dejado de ser colonia española para serlo de todas las naciones comerciales’ [we have stopped being a colony of Spain, only to become a colony of all commercial nations]. His explicit goal is to regain control of domestic matters and defend the country’s sovereignty.

Despite Rosas’s extraordinary qualities, the film depicts the polarization of Argentine society. His supporters are gauchos and mulattos who celebrate his rule with popular dances; his detractors are the members of the upper (p.209) classes who gather at the tertulia of Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson or the Unitarians who conspire against his government. The film shows Rosas provoking and taunting his opponents following the French blockade and the death of Encarnación, calling them traitors for their alliance with a foreign power. He allows a pair of mulatto youths to impersonate him in front of respectable guests, making fun of them and shaming his daughter Manuelita (Teresa Barreto Muñiz). As the opposition against Rosas grows, so do his supporters’ acts of violence. A plot against him is cruelly crushed which, in turn, gives way to further Unitarian conspiracies.

At the film’s end, Rosas stands alone. Having concentrated the internal political power, his strategy and men are deployed to fight the Anglo-French fleet. The battle of Vuelta de Obligado is briefly shown, as is the reaction of a British officer praising the courage of the Argentine recruits. Once the French and British realize that military victory does not translate into free trade, they send their representatives to negotiate with the Argentine leader. A keen manipulator, Rosas sends his daughter Manuela to entertain them and show them civilized ways before he is ready to receive them. The signing of the peace accord is celebrated with joy and numerous expressions of support for Rosas’s leadership. As the fireworks explode, the anonymous witness seen in several scenes is shot, foreshadowing the end of Rosas’s government and the relentless conspiracy against the people. Nonetheless, the film ends with Rosas’s voice-over stressing his duty to sustain Argentina’s independence, honor, and integrity. For Rosenstone, ‘Film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history. Through actors and historical witnesses, it gives us history as triumph, anguish, joy, despair, adventure, suffering, and heroism’ (2001, 56). Antín’s film, though presenting a version of past events, fails to dramatize history, presenting it instead as a documentary with a multitude of characters that lack development. Because of the film’s overtly political stance, I now turn to an analysis of its engagement with the issues of the 1970s.

Rosas: Argentine Challenges in the 1970s

Rosas touches on three major issues that were important in Argentina’s sociopolitical life in the 1970s: national sovereignty and nationalism, the role of a political leader and his relationship with the popular classes, and the role of women in society. The discussion of national sovereignty and nationalism was the most prevalent. The status of Argentina either as an independent nation or as a colony of a foreign power was first brought to the fore by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s La hora de los hornos [The Hour of the Furnaces] (1968). Although the documentary was released abroad in 1968, it was not screened in Argentina until 1973 (Metsman, 1999, 52). Nevertheless, it circulated underground and the Grupo Cine Liberación’s active presence in intellectual circles allowed the transmission of its thesis, that Argentina was in a colonial relationship with the United (p.210) States. For Getino and Solanas, the neocolonial status of Argentina had become more evident since the military coup of 1966, a stance that, as film scholar Mariano Mestman explains, was rooted in the Peronist doctrine (1999, 53–55). Rosas echoes the neocolonial thesis presented in La hora de los hornos. From the first dialogue, Rosas expresses his will to resist the economic pressure of British businessmen. In other scenes, Rosas forcefully defends the idea that poverty is preferable to economic domination. As expounded earlier, one of the producers of Rosas, Muñiz Barreto, was active Peronist circles and his political sympathies greatly influenced the film’s ideology, particularly highlighting the issue of national sovereignty. While this topic had also been present in El santo, Güemes, and Bajo el signo, albeit with variations, Rosas consistently stresses it, emphasizing the leader’s staunch defense of the national territory and affairs.

Throughout Antín’s film, Rosas is presented as a defender of national sovereignty. As a businessman, he is behind the union of other beef and leather exporters who want to counter British control over the prices of these goods. This initial, private effort to stop foreigners influencing the price of raw Argentine materials serves as a springboard for his protection of Argentine sovereignty when he is in charge of national matters. In one scene, Rosas lectures, ‘No basta con tener gobierno, también hay que ser independientes’ [It is not enough to have a government, we must be independent too]. This proclamation captures the dilemma of political, economic, and cultural independence. For Rosas (and Peronists in the early 1970s), the notion of freedom encompasses political, economic, and cultural liberation from the dictates of other nations. The film also depicts the fact that opposed to this idea are Unitarians, intellectuals, and the upper classes who are culturally influenced by foreign ideas and, thus, are either oblivious or supportive of economic dependence. Their way of thinking is illustrated in a crucial scene in which the anti-Rosas Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson asks about Romanticism. When told that it is a European literary movement that values the natural and authentic, she first compares it to Rosas, but then realizes that this is inappropriate, given that he does not read French books. Her statement simultaneously casts Rosas as outdated and against foreign culture, while also presenting his detractors as pampered and co-opted by French ideas when they complain about the lack of luxury French products due to the blockade. Stressing the different positions, this scene immediately precedes the tense conversation between the French representative and Rosas. Faced with the foreign envoy’s ultimatum, the latter aggressively declares, ‘Si no podemos tener una patria respetada, no tendremos ninguna’ [If we cannot have a respected homeland, we will not have one at all]. Rosas’s words not only reject compromise but also demonstrate that he is unwilling to negotiate the integrity of the Argentine nation, even when facing the threat of an external attack. When this danger materializes in the scene of the battle of Obligado, the Argentines’ courageous fight is commented on by their foreign opponents. In the film’s final scenes, Rosas (p.211) meets with the British and French ambassadors to sign a peace treaty. They mention that they represent the two most important world powers, to which Rosas replies, ‘la primera potencia del mundo es la Confederación Argentina’ [the first world power is the Argentine Confederation], conveying not only his defense of the homeland, but also his pride and belief in its glorious rank among other countries. Lastly, in the film’s final voice-over, Rosas reminds the audience of all his work for Argentine sovereignty and independence. The emphasis on these issues colors the film’s celebratory tone of his government.

The film’s national-foreign dichotomy spoke to the Argentine audience of the 1970s. On one hand, national liberation was advanced by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s actions in Cuba and Bolivia against the elites who were thought to consort with foreign interests instead of defending the national territory and the masses; on the other hand, national dependence was perceived as being introduced by anti-Peronists, particularly Onganía’s regime, which had been explicitly aligned with Western values—especially American capitalism—and had repressed left-wing movements. Consequently, when a passionate Rosas tells the French envoy that he can bomb Buenos Aires, this taunt has shades of Che Guevara’s speech before the United Nations in 1964, in which he referred to foreign invaders and ended with the oppositional rallying cry ‘Patria o muerte!’ [death or homeland]. In the film, Rosas’s successful resistance of external pressure places him on the side of the homeland and inevitably condemns his detractors, even in the early 1970s, to death.

Closely related to the protection of Argentina’s sovereignty, we find the topic of a leader and his relationship with the masses. Again the film first stresses Rosas’s leadership as a private businessman, setting the law and organizing his estancias. His knowledge of Indian ways is mentioned as an example of his openness to those considered ‘Others’ in the nineteenth century. He counts on the Colorados del Monte, his private militia, to pacify Buenos Aires. When he is given extraordinary powers, common people celebrate his designation. But Rosas is shown as an authoritarian leader who values discipline and imposes his will to ‘stabilize’ the country. He does not interact with his supporters. On one occasion, his voice-over proclaims, ‘sin orden, no merecemos ser independientes’ [without order, we do not deserve to be independent].10 He thus justifies his iron-fist style management as a necessary evil for independence. For him, order and civilization go together and in this conflation, the role of the masses is to obey his directions. In one scene, he makes it clear that he controls the gauchos and his supporters when he gives them license to be violent with his opponents but orders them to respect their private property. He thus appears as a paternal figure for the masses. Curiously, when freed slaves and mulattos celebrate his rise to power, Encarnación and Manuela are the ones seen interacting with them, perhaps indicating that the leader lacks either the time or appetite for popular celebrations.

In Antín’s film, Rosas’s paternalism toward the masses could rightly be compared to that of Juan Perón. Indeed, revisionistas sought to highlight the (p.212) similarities between Rosas and Perón and the film stresses that connection. Just like the veteran leader, Rosas built a multisector coalition that propelled him to power. In the Argentina of the early 1970s, when different armed groups were striving for political clout and pushing for Perón’s return from exile, a strong leader like Rosas—or Perón—was a guarantee for order among different constituencies. Curiously, two years after the film’s release, history would prove Perón’s paternalism to be as stringent as Rosas’s when the former broke with the leftist youth on May 1, 1974, accusing them of disturbing the peace needed for national reconstruction and calling them traitors propelled by foreign ideologies. In his reprimand, Perón seemed to have followed Rosas in allowing violence, but protecting private property. Hence, both leaders appeared as strict fathers in their relations with the masses. Their populism surfaced to build clout and then disappeared.

Even though Rosas includes two women—Encarnación and Manuelita—in prominent roles, their presence does not constitute a disturbance of patriarchy. The inclusion of Encarnación and Manuelita may be a response to the criticism that Torre Nilsson received for his submissive representation of Remedios de Escalada in El santo, that is to say, the lack of women in leading roles. Nonetheless, Antín did not imbue these characters with any more agency than Torre Nilsson did. First, the women selected for these roles were not professional actresses: these were their first and last cinematic roles. This casting decision sends a message about these characters; they are not worth being impersonated by actresses. Myriam de Rydder, who played Encarnación, delivered long speeches without any dramatic skill. For her part, Teresa Barreto, who gave life to Manuela, mentioned in an interview that her main qualification for the role was her knowledge of history and not her acting abilities. Second, these characters complement Rosas’s strong personality. In some scenes Encarnación is critical of her husband, voicing a different opinion from his, usually to be disregarded or countered by him. Even though she explicitly defends order and discipline, she appears in clear domestic roles: serving mate to Rosas, as a mother of two young children, commenting on the house servants. In the only scene, in which she is shown in a city and among her husband’s supporters, does she express her view: she advocates going after her husband’s detractors but also mentions that her hands are tied as he has warned her not to get involved. Manuelita is also seen parroting her father’s notion of the English who defend their nation in contrast to some of his father’s detractors who ‘betray’ it. In another scene, she seems to be asking for mercy for Camila O’Gorman, but this scandal is an occasion for Rosas to demonstrate his ‘equality before the law’ mantra and his unwavering decision to impose order, even if those affected are among his own supporters. Finally, Manuelita is shown empowering Rosas in two scenes; the first is when she witnesses his mistreatment of the dwarves and remains silent, taking her father’s odd behavior as a necessary ‘letting off steam.’ In the other scene, she is asked to ‘soften’ the French and English representatives and she acquiesces to being an object of civilization instead of (p.213) showing her own agency. Therefore, the film endorses the notion that women, even those connected to power, are secondary to the male leader, a fact that reinforces the film’s conservatism at a time when women were occupying more active roles in Argentine society and politics.


The four historical films examined in this section show an epochal concern on the part of some filmmakers to engage with national topics—ostensibly those that present Argentina’s nation-building process in the nineteenth century. This interest in bringing the origins of the Argentine nation to the silver screen appealed to the local media, which covered their production for middle-class spectators. While these films enjoyed varying degrees of support from the state, they were all born of Law 17,741, which encouraged national productions of quality centered on Argentine topics. Therefore, these films were seen by the public and critics alike as necessary at a time of politically sharp national divisions.

In the making of these films, Torre Nilsson, Múgica, and Antín employed several subgenres of the historical film: epics, biopics, and war films. While all these are primarily centered on male figures, from El santo to Rosas, there is a notable interest in depicting and including strong female characters, a feature that was appealing to the Argentine population of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For many years, El santo remained the most watched Argentine film. The others were also important pioneers in representing Güemes, Belgrano, and Rosas. Rosas’s government would later be the background of the costume drama Camila (María Luisa Bemberg, 1984).


(1) Muñiz Barreto was a member of the Montoneros. He was elected deputy in 1973 but quit a year later to show his opposition to changes in the Penal Code. He was disappeared in 1977.

(2) Alberto Spektorowski persuasively traces the origins of Argentine nationalism to the 1930s and highlights the connection between nationalism and anti-imperialism: ‘in the 1930s radical nationalists were introduced to the language of anti-imperialist economics, something that was to be reflected in their ideology’ (1994, 164).

(3) Historian Tulio Halperin Donghi clarifies: ‘El revisionismo era, desde su origen, antes que una escuela de investigación histórica, un esfuerzo por sustituir a una cierta imagen del pasado nacional otrora juzgada más apta para justificar ciertas actitudes del presente’ [Revisionism was, from its inception, more an effort to replace a certain image of the national past previously considered richer to justify certain attitudes in the present, tan it was a school of historical research] (1970, 25).

(4) Spektorowski explains Julio and Rodolfo Irazusta’s belief that ‘the liberal tradition was associated with the foreign plutocracy and responsible for the eternal dependence and underdevelopment of the Argentinian nation’ (1994, 167).

(5) Chiampini held that revisionism focused Rosas’s vindication (1968, 6).

(6) Teresa Escalante Duhau de Muñiz Barreto was producer Diego Muñiz Barreto’s wife. According to Saenz Germain, ‘carece de antecedentes profesionales. Empero, ante GENTE, demostró ser una experta en historia argentina’ [she lacked professional experience. Nonetheless, with GENTE, she showed that she is an expert in Argentine history] (1971, 26). Saenz Germain’s comment is indicative of the film’s ideology, ccording to which an actress highlighted her knowledge of history (not necessary to play a role) instead of her performance skills.

(7) The shoot scheduled to take place in Chascomus had to be shortened given that descendants of the families victimized by Rosas rejected the presence of the crew and actors. Two actresses—Susana Rinaldi, who was to be Manuelita, and Amelia Bence, who was to play the role of Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson—had to be replaced (‘Don Juan,’ 1971, non. pag.).

(8) Similar concepts were declared by Jose María Rosa: ‘La de Torre Nilsson es la historia estereotipada, común, esto es algo viviente, esto es el pueblo. Es la liberación nacional y no el dibujito de los héroes de cartón’ [Torre Nilsson’s history is a stereotype, a common one: this is something alive, this is the people. It is national liberation and not a drawing of cardboard heroes] (‘Rosas Repatriado,’ 1972, 35).

(p.214) (9) In 1971, Antín proclaimed: ‘el dinero para rodar El señor de la Pampa es la suma de ‘cuatro amigos’: uno de los amigos soy yo. Es lo que se hace habitualmente: queremos expresar una teoría por medio del cine y tratar de lograr la continuidad económica que nos permita seguir filmando’ [the money to shoot El señor de la Pampa is a gift from ‘four friends’: one of the friends is me. Usually we strive to convey a theory through cinema and try to achieve the financial continuity to keep on making films] (Saenz Germain, 1971, 26). Months later, he stated: ‘Creo que la película va a ser un éxito. Económico y de crítica’ [I believe the film will be a success. Commercial and critical] (‘Manuel Antín habla,’ 1972, non. pag.).

(10) Radetich talks about a pendular movement: first he identifies with the people, but when he mocks dwarves, he splits from the masses (2006, 63).