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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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(p.216) Conclusion
Argentine Cinema and National Identity (1966-1976)

Carolina Rocha

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

I summarize the challenges of post-Peronists governments— mostly military authorities—to shape national cultural while also attempting to modernize the country. I showed that cinema was understood as a fundamental medium to disseminate national identity and thus, was highly protected through different laws. Although encouraged to produce quality box-office success, filmmakers explored different themes and techniques. Only in the late 1960s two genres—the historical and gauchesque— crystalized those efforts by thoroughly engaging with the national past. By so doing, they contributed to making quality films that touched on national identity.

Keywords:   de-Peronization, nationalism, film industry, film laws, themes of national quality

The Argentine revolution of 1955—which ended Juan Perón’s second term as president—inaugurated a period in which his opponents sought to erase the traces of his seven years in office. In addition to the de-Peronization of the arts and national culture, another pressing matter for the military and democratic authorities after the mid-1950s was the issue of nationalism. Because Perón had adhered to the Third Way, ‘a political-economic strategy that rejected liberal capitalism under the tutelage of Euro-American capitalism and Moscow communism’ (Petras, 2000, 28); nationalized companies owned by foreign investors, such as the railroads; and implemented policies that benefitted the working class, he was strongly associated with nationalism. That is to say, his defense of the most vulnerable Argentines and his refusal to ally with either Western capitalism or Eastern communism, cemented Argentines’ perception of his strong protection of national affairs. Consequently, his successors found themselves having to challenge his nationalism and articulate new forms of national doctrine. In order to do that, post-1957 authorities turned their attention to the cultural realm in order to legitimize their claim to be defenders of national interests. Political scientist Daniele Conversi aptly defines culture as ‘the common pool and repository from which groups can draw on to maintain, root and embed their identity’ (2010, 86). Conversi also holds that the study of nationalism is ‘the study of how elites strive to defend, strengthen, or even construct this sense of distinctiveness’ (2010, 88). Hence, the building of national distinctiveness is inextricably linked to a particular culture made up of different elements.

In attempting to define Argentine culture and nationalism after Perón, post-1957 Argentine authorities understood that the film industry had a valuable and central role to play. In the late 1950s, cinema was the only visual medium which operated in Argentina. The Argentine film industry had been successful in previous decades, proving that it had found niche markets and spectators. Cinema’s impact as a mass medium and its past achievements were factors that influenced the state’s protection of this industry with the passage of four laws between 1957 and 1973 to subsidize films and reinvigorate this area of cultural production. The first law, approved immediately (p.217) after Perón’s removal from office, was effective in injecting dynamism into a languishing sector: Argentine film production increased after its passage and there was even a push for new, innovative filmmaking, as shown by the productions of the Generation of 1960. The domestic public, however, was not swayed by these innovations and instead preferred foreign productions with recognizable stars. More productions with few spectators were symptoms that the state’s protection of this industry had reached its limits and/or that state policy regarding cinema needed changes. As Argentine cinema continued to compete with and lose market share to imported films, the pressure to attract local audiences became a priority. The film laws of 1966 and 1968 mentioned ‘national themes’ and encouraged film productions for large audiences in order to placate exhibitors. National films were pressured by the state to focus on Argentine topics, but this move was problematic as Argentine films were subject to the scrutiny of rating boards created to monitor their content.

At a time of increasing political and social activism, curiosity about new cultural forms coexisted with the workings of censorship that limited the topics and issues presented in Argentine films. Adding to the problem, between 1957 and 1970, state subsidies for films depended on both box office data, which was far from trustworthy, and the decisions of boards peopled by military officers in charge of approving and selecting scripts for funding. Within this context, local filmmakers were influenced by different demands: on the one hand, they had to create quality films that could vie successfully for the attention of domestic audiences; on the other, they first had to receive the approval of boards whose main interests were not aesthetic, but political. The demand for quality films whose scripts were also palatable to rating boards came at a time of deep division in Argentine society, between Peronists and anti-Peronists, pro-Western society and left-leaning groups. Filmmakers thus had to address an eclectic national audience as they were encouraged to touch on national topics. Each Argentine filmmaker in the 1960s faced the same pressures to decide which themes would receive the necessary approval to move forward through the different bureaucratic layers, equal or outperform well-funded foreign films, and draw Argentines to theatres.

In the search for ‘themes of national quality,’ one director stood out: Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. His experience, contacts, and entrepreneurial skills allowed him to initiate, in the late 1960s, two variants of Argentine filmmaking that met with the approval of the authorities and the public alike, while also receiving some international exposure. The first was concerned with heritage films, that is to say, films that depicted Argentina’s foundational past and resorted to the representation of the land-man symbiosis of the gauchos in the pampas. A costly super-production, Martín Fierro was the first—and so far, only—adaptation of Argentina’s national poem to the silver screen. In addition to being a hit at the box office, it was released abroad and won an award at an international film festival. More importantly, it broke the impasse between filmmakers and boards, (p.218) providing a model of what quality Argentine filmmaking should and could be. Martín Fierro’s success spurred other directors to engage with the gauchesque genre. This return to the foundational past is evident in several visual productions from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, all of which can be considered heritage films: Don Segundo Sombra, Santos Vega, Juan Moreira, and Los gauchos judíos. Despite their inclusion of the gauchos, these films present realist (Martín Fierro and Don Segundo Sombra) and fantastical elements (Santos Vega and Juan Moreira). Departing from these films, Los gauchos judíos focuses on an immigrant community whose members adapt to Argentina. It celebrates their assimilation to Argentine mores, preserving argentinidad while enriching it with their own cultural values.

In spite of the interest of the media and intellectuals in these films’ productions and box office performances in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they are understudied. One likely reason for the original attention that made them possible and the indifference of subsequent critics is explained by Ludmilla Iordanova: ‘much of the past that is in the public domain possesses such a fluid status; it is a matter of some interest how chunks of history temporarily lose their indistinct, background qualities, and capture the imagination and interest of broad audiences’ (2007, 9). It has been one of my central contentions that these films contributed to the examination of Argentine national identity and were aimed at the middle class with the goal of strengthening Argentine identity independent of the radical political positions of the time of their release. Because of their ‘neutrality,’ they were challenged by the Grupo Cine Liberación, a development that may have resulted in the representation of gauchos as victims of the political system in Santos Vega and Juan Moreira, two later heritage films. Nonetheless, it is crucial to consider these films as part of an impromptu effort to nationalize Argentine culture by representing the mythical gauchos and deploying them as models of argentinidad. The push to touch on themes related to nationalism was also evident in Gente, a popular magazine of the 1960s and 1970s, which launched a campaign called ‘Argentinizing Argentina’ that encompassed the exploration of the new Argentine man. Thus, it is not surprising that the production of Argentine heritage films, the gauchesque genre, came to an end with the coup d’état of March 1976 when the armed forces again abrogated the right to sanction what they deemed to be acceptable nationalism and to shape Argentine culture.

The second group of films influenced by Torre Nilsson was related to the heritage films but engaged more with the birth of the nation. It consisted of biopics of the founding fathers, which provided the basis for an exploration of national history. For Iordanova, films that revolve around individuals can be the object of consumption and debate (2007, 11); more importantly, they entail a celebratory gesture: ‘Honouring individuals is part of the fabric of our lives; it entails just these processes of identification, which, as I noted earlier, inform both public history and government policies’ (2007, 18). The representation of the Argentine heroes San Martín, Belgrano, Güemes, and Rosas hoped to (p.219) inspire new generations of Argentines, particularly at a moment when the issue of national liberation was a hot topic. Nevertheless, there were also notable ideological distinctions. Where Torre Nilsson—and, to some extent, Múgica—saw these films as a means to reach a broad audience by highlighting the harsh conditions of the nation-building period, Antín’s biopic of Rosas was a picture with ostensible political goals that aimed to incite controversy. These historical films were crucial to imbuing Argentines with a sense of nationhood that, due to the diversity of the founding fathers’ representations, presented different options to unite and divide Argentines.

Heritage and historical films, taken together, show the ways in which Torre Nilsson innovated through product differentiation—the production of films that were different from foreign ones—and close attention to artistic details, evident in the well-researched scripts. State subsidies in the form of funds that could be reinvested to finance future films provided strong financial support to undertake the shooting of these epic films, particularly at a time when other cinemas from around the world were abandoning this filmic genre for being too costly. Furthermore, the originality of these films is evident in two ways. First, in the short term, they opened the way for a cluster of other historical films about the nineteenth century that continued to be produced in the early and mid-1970s, such as Argentino hasta la muerte [Argentine until I Die] (Fernando Ayala, 1971), La revolución [The Revolution] (Raúl de la Torre, 1973), and Yo maté a Facundo [I Did Kill Facundo] (Hugo del Carril, 1975). Another variant of historical films like Quebracho (Ricardo Wullicher, 1973) and La Patagonia Rebelde [Rebellion in Patagonia] (Héctor Olivera, 1974) focused on the twentieth century, usually telling the history of the dispossessed masses. In Argentina in the tumultuous early 1960s and mid-1970s, historical films constituted a means not only to learn about the past but also, and more importantly, to clarify issues related to el ser nacional [the national being]. Scholar Bruno Ramírez thoughtfully points out that ‘identity whether as search or as a creative thrust, has indeed underpinned many a historical film’ (2014, 84). This brief period of introspection in Argentine cinema was concerned with both the definition of a national identity and the status of a national cinema and its relationship to the local audience. Second, in the long term, this line of filmmaking would be reprised only during the 1990s with Jorge Coscia’s El general y la fiebre [The General and the Fever], but without the epic component of the films by Torre Nilsson, Múgica, and Antín. More than 40 years later, Leandro Ipiña’s San Martín: El cruce de los Andes [San Martín: The Crossing of the Andes] (2011) would be produced.

While much remains to be studied in Argentine cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the two groups of films explored in detail in this volume—heritage/gauchesque and historical—not only presented viable quality products that circulated and were consumed in a global age, but also examined issues related to nationhood and Argentine identity, which were the main foci of the Argentine state’s push for the establishment and sustainability of its (p.220) national cinema. The national audience’s interest in, and the national media’s extensive coverage of, these productions put Argentine film at the center of the country’s cultural life, an alignment that has seldom been repeated in the last four decades.