Monday, September 26, 2016

Top 9 Queer Latin American Films

In Spanish, 'maricón' is a derogatory term for gay men. In his new book New Maricón Cinema: Outing Latin American FilmVinodh Venkatesh reclaims the word to profess pride and not hate. Presenting a comprehensive overview of recent queer cinema in Latin America, this pathfinding volume identifies a new vein of filmmaking that promotes affective
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relationships between viewers and homo/trans/intersexed characters. We asked Professor 
Venkatesh to list his top queer films from contemporary Latin America.

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)

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 ContracorrienteBrokeback 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)

Julia Solomonoff’s El último verano de la Boyita is in a group of films in this list that relies on a child/teen lead grappling with issues of queerness. Set in Rosario, Argentina, and in the vast plains of the pampa, El último verano focuses on Jorgelina, a young girl who shares everything with her older sister Luciana. At the start of the film, the protagonist’s young life is at a crossroads: her parents are on the verge of separating and her sister undergoes the first changes of puberty. With a nuclear family in pieces, Jorgelina decides to spend her summer with her father in their country farmhouse, while her one-time confidant vacations at the beach with their mother. In the country, Jorgelina reconnects with Mario, the blonde son of the farm’s caretakers, who, like Luciana, is also going through his own bodily changes. What jars the film’s characters and the viewers early on is the fact that Mario is also beginning to menstruate. With beautiful panoramas and still lifes of country living, Solomonoff takes us to a land and community steeped in convention, where any signs of difference come into direct tension with rigid gender expectations. Co-produced by Agustín and Pedro Almodóvar’s El Deseo, El último verano delves into issues of intersexuality, queer love, and masculine becoming in an original and touching feature.

XXY (2007)

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.

Hawaii (2013)

All of Marco Berger’s four feature-length films delve into issues of homoeroticism, though perhaps Ausente (2011) is the best known, having won the Teddy Award at the Berlinale. I have selected his third film, Hawaii (2013), though due to its beautiful cinematography and use of locations in creating a multi-sensorial film, that is, a movie that begs you to engage the five senses. With a stellar performance from Manuel Vignau as Eugenio (who also played Bruno in the director’s Plan B from 2009) and Mateo Chiarino as Martín, the film focuses on the underlying sexual tensions between two long-lost childhood friends. Martín arrives at Eugenio’s family farm looking for work and a roof, his homelessness unexplained, as Berger focuses more on the emotions, affects, and symbols of desire than any true narrative development of the characters. Instead, Berger highlights the ways in which the cinema can foreground the non-visual senses, especially touch, and their potential for ‘moving’ audiences on an emotive spectrum. The director, furthermore, focuses on the intricacies of filmed space vis-à-vis desire and erotics, guiding the audience to tease out the connections between the spatial, urban, natural, and queer drives. Several of the films (though not all) listed here emphasize this theme, but I feel that Hawaii is perhaps the most explicit in making these connections. As with Puenzo, you’ll enjoy his entire oeuvre if Hawaii is to your liking.

Azul y no tan rosa (2012)

Miguel Ferrari’s Azul y no tan rosa came away with the Goya for best foreign Spanish-language film in 2014. Along with Pelo malo, and a few others I analyze in New Maricón Cinema, Azul is part of a mini-boom in LGBTQ Venezuelan cinema. Unlike Pelo malo, however, Ferrari’s film explores the transnationality of LGBTQ issues and how they operate in the Spanish-speaking world. Diego, a young and hip photographer, is dealt a tragic hand and his partner Fabrizio enters a coma and his long-estranged son from Spain, Armando, comes to live with him. Unlike Berger, Solomonoff, and Puenzo, Ferrari relies less on meditated, intentional shots and takes, and more on the dialogues and interactions between characters to explore hard-hitting themes such as homophobia, hate crimes, and body acceptance. Ferrari’s lack of cinematographic experimentation and innovation doesn’t detract though from the film’s efforts to bring to light important queer issues in Venezuela.

Feriado (2014)

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.

Lokas (2008)

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.

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