Top 9 Queer Latin American Films
By Vinodh Venkatesh
Latin American cinema has in the past decade or so undergone a renewal in how issues of sex and gender difference are portrayed. Audiences familiar with the films of the 60s and onwards will remember how rare it was to see a member of the LGBTQ community represented on screen. Even rarer was to see said characters not be the butt of jokes and ridicule. While the '90s did provide some LGBTQ-positive films such as Fresa y chocolate (1993) and No se lo digas a nadie (1998), it really isn’t until the turn of the century that we begin to see films that directly engage with queer characters and issues in a comprehensive and thoughtful way. In other words, the past decade and a half has witnessed a boom in Latin American queer cinema that cannot be ignored.
Below you will find a list of films that merit viewing, discussion, and even study. Some are by now well known to academics and social activists working on LGBTQ issues. Others are a little more esoteric, either due to their limited release or simple newness. I initially thought of compiling a “Top 10” list of queer Latin American films, but soon realized the limitations of such an exercise. By what measure would I be rating these films? Personal preference? Engagement with queer issues? Quality of acting and script? After all, each of these films engages queer issues and characters in a myriad of ways, and each should be celebrated for doing so. I decided to come up then with an unranked list of movies, presented in no particular order, but that will be of interest to a diverse set of audiences due to their content, genre, and narrative style. Thinking of something serious? XXY will give you food for thought. Comedy? Lokas is delightfully funny. In the mood for romance? You’ll be hard-pressed to not shed a tear when the end credits of Contracorriente start to roll. I study most of the films listed below in New Maricón Cinema: Outing Latin American Film, in addition to some of the classics from the Latin American canon such as El lugar sin límites and the oeuvre of Jaime Humberto Hermosillo.
Contracorriente (2009), the directorial debut of Peruvian filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, has won Audience Awards at Sundance, Chicago, Miami, and Cartagena. The film recounts the archetypal love triangle of gay man (Santiago)-closeted man (Miguel)-unsuspecting wife (Mariela) in a quiet fishing village, somewhere in Latin America, exploring issues such as religion, death, and homophobia, all within a magical ghost story. It comes as no surprise, then, that some reviews call Contracorriente “Brokeback Mountain meets Ghost.” Tatiana Astengo plays the female lead, while Cristian Mercado and Manolo Cardona deliver poignant performances as lovers that must negotiate their own desires and society’s expectations of love, sex, and gender.
Contracorriente takes place in a coastal village anchored in traditions—one such tradition is the ritual giving away of the body to the ocean, so that the deceased may rest in peace. The film delves into the magical when Santiago drowns in the undertow after an angry discussion with Miguel over the future of their relationship. He comes back as a ghost that only Miguel can see, his spirit in limbo as his body is stuck in the ocean bed. Fuentes-León’s film follows Miguel and Santiago as they come to terms with themselves and search for inner peace.
El último verano de la Boyita (2009)
Lucía Puenzo’s XXY is the oldest and perhaps the most widely known film in this list, having represented Argentina at the Oscars and for winning Goya and Ariel awards for best film. The film is a coming-of-age (and coming-of-gender) story of Alex (Inés Efron), the teenage intersexed child of the Krakens (Ricardo Darín and Valeria Bertuccelli), an Argentine couple who relocate to the Uruguayan coast to escape the prejudices that their child may face in the city. XXY begins and ends with the visit of a surgeon and his wife and son to the Kraken’s house, at the invitation of Suli who unbeknownst to her husband and child, invites Ramiro to explore the possibilities of sex reassignment surgery. Puenzo explores the budding dynamics of Alex-Álvaro, and the relationship between the family and the villagers who began to hear whisperings of Alex’s otherness. Raised as a female, Alex now goes through a second puberty where maleness enters into a direct confrontation with her nurtured and natured femaleness. Also check out Puenzo’s El niño pez (2009), where Efron appears as a wealthy teenager on the run with her lover in a magical tale that foregrounds same-sex female relations.
Azul y no tan rosa (2012)
Though Diego Araujo’s Feriado is the only film on this list from Ecuador, it does—through an emphasis on the sensorial—share similarities with movies such as XXY and Hawaii. Juanpi (Juan Arregui) is sent to the countryside to live with his relatives after a fiasco involving his father who allows his bank to crash, swindling a bevy of investors who now seek retribution. In the sierra, the protagonist befriends Juano, a local peer who at face value is night and day from the sensitive loner protagonist. The contrast between the rich urbanite and his interest from a different socioeconomic and racial background, and a scene wherein the two men bathe in the river, reminds the viewer of a similar scene in Francisco Lombardi’s classic No se lo digas a nadie, though in Araujo’s version, the two men grow closer instead of revealing the brutal rejection of homophobia. Throughout Feriado, Araujo lingers on the concept of invertir (to invert), and its related invertido (slang for homosexual), suggesting that was is really upside down is society’s prejudice against LGBTQ communities.
Pelo malo (2013)
Like Azul y no tan rosa, Mariana Rondón’s Pelo malo chronicles LGBTQ issues in contemporary Venezuelan society. Unlike Ferrari, however, Rondón delves into queer issues as they appear in a working-class neighborhood. As in El último verano de la Boyita, Rondón engages the themes of sexuality and gender as they relate to the coming of age of a young protagonist, Junior, the biracial son of a single mother living in of the poor high-rises that dot the landscape of Caracas. Samuel Lange Zambrano delivers a captivating performance as a lanky, fragile boy with an affinity for dance and music that breaks with the socio-cultural norms for masculinity. But Junior has more to decipher than his budding sexuality—his hair, that lends the title to the film, is a central issue as it codes for both issues and gender and race. In a movie that encourages the audience to cycle through a myriad of emotions, Rondón unfolds and lays bare the intricacies of Afro-Latino identity in a film that will ask for repeat viewings.
Gonzalo Justiniano’s Lokas follows the comedic adventures of Charly (Rodrigo Bastidas), a newly widowed Chilean living in Mexico City, who, after another brush with the law, relocates back to Chile with his young son Pedro (Raimundo Bastidas). In Viña del Mar, Charly discovers that his estranged father, Mario (Coco Legrand), has left the closet and is living with a younger Flavio (Rodrigo Murray). The plot in Lokas focuses on Charly’s and Pedro’s adaptation to their new life and the former’s employment in a gay club, Lokas, the only place that will hire him given his track record. The usual antics of the gay-faking-hetero genre are played out, as Charly must convince the club’s patrons of his bona fides. Justiniano rekindles several themes and tropes from classic gay-themed films such as The Birdcage (1996) and Fresa y chocolate. Regarding the latter, Flavio is seen provocatively eating strawberries, evoking the iconic opening scenes of the Cuban film. While Lokas does not break any aesthetic or political ground, it is a lighthearted consideration of the opening of social prejudices and norms.
Desde allá (2015)
Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (amongst other awards at Miami, Havana, and San Sebastián), Lorenzo Vigas’s Desde allá is a slow, nuanced film that explores queer issues within the context of urban violence. In what can be seen as a reinterpretation of Barbet Schroeder’s La virgen de los sicarios (2000), though without the zesty dialogues of Fernando Vallejo, Vigas presents a complex compendium of cinematographic techniques such as stationary frames, long takes and tracking shots to follow the protagonist, a wealthy Armando, who pays for street youths to strip in his home for his own sexual pleasure. One such encounter with Elder develops into a longer, more intimate relationship. The present and a trauma from the past collide in Vigas’s film in such a way that the ending will leave audiences asking more questions than finding answers.