It’s been almost a decade since “The Milk of Sorrow” won the grand prize at the Berlinale in 2009, and before that, only two other South American films had scooped the Golden Bear since the festival’s founding in 1951. Fortunately, things seem to be changing — and no, we aren’t just referring to the success of “Una mujer fantástica” (A Fantastic Woman), which is currently in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and won two prizes in the Berlinale competition last year.
This year, there are plenty more South American offerings vying for attention at the festival, many of which have already begun to build anticipation and could eventually be picked up for wider distribution.
Chief among these hopefuls is “Las herederas” (The Heiresses) by Marcelo Martinessi, a Paraguayan movie that will compete for the Golden Bear at this year’s festival. At its heart, “Las herederas” is a quietly touching story of a woman who rediscovers what she truly wants out of life after her lover is sent to prison. However, the film’s political undertones are just as key to the plot, exploring the varied and often trying conditions that Paraguyan people endure in their day-to-day lives.
“La cama” (The Bed) from Argentinian director Mónica Lairana hones in on a similar dynamic, except here it’s the relationship between the film’s two elderly leads that has come to feel like a prison. Neither is able to make love to the other with any semblance of passion, and yet neither feels excited about their impending separation either. Thus, they reluctantly linger in a house that no longer brings them joy.
In contrast, Pedro, the young star of Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s “Tinta Bruta” (Hard Paint) yearns for time at home alone. It’s here that his neon dreams come to life as he strips on webcam for paying clients, drenching himself in fluorescent paints to add a splash of colour to his otherwise dreary existence. Only when Pedro ventures outside into the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, however, does he come to understand that the everyday struggles of life are necessary if one is to grow and find love.
Both a celebration of queer sexuality and self-empowerment, it’s the dance scenes in “Tinta Bruta” that best evoke Pedro’s newfound freedom, but he’s not the only Brazilian dancing to the beat of their own drum. In the documentary film “Bixa Travesty” (Tranny Fag) from directors Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, celebrated trans star Linn da Quebrada creates her own music, mesmerising audiences with her gloriously hedonistic personality and outspoken convictions, even in the film’s quieter moments.
In many ways, Linn da Quebrada is everything that the Argentinian protagonist of Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s “Marilyn” aspires to be. Trapped on a rural farm with a traditional family who simply don’t understand his desires, Marco steals precious moments alone whenever possible, applying make-up or trying on women’s clothes in order to realise his true self. Unfortunately, Marco doesn’t have a Linn da Quebrada figure to look up to, and so this queer coming-of-age movie ends up taking some dark turns, which are all the more tragic when you discover that the film is based on real life events.
The struggle to define yourself while still clinging to the love and support of a family you never chose is something that a number of child protagonists appearing in Berlinale films this year must face. Another Argentinian film, “Mochila de plomo” (Packing Heavy) by Darío Mascambroni, is particularly hard-hitting in this respect, dealing with a twelve-year old boy who seeks revenge on the man who killed his father. Further north, the sole Peruvian film screening at the festival, Alvaro Delgado-Aparicio’s “Retablo”, also deals with the painful repercussions of patriarchal violence, but here our protagonist’s father is alive and well.
The same is technically true in “Virus Tropical” too, although the focus here doesn’t dwell on the father’s role for long. Instead, his regular absences inform what becomes a powerful character study of a young Ecuadorian girl called Paola in a film directed by Santiago Caicedo and based on Powerpaola’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The father of this family unit is ultimately ineffectual, and so “Virus Tropical” takes on a decidedly feminine perspective that explores love and sex through bold animation. At times, Paola resents her relatives and various grievances they inflict on her, but she also acknowledges how fortunate her situation is—something that is cast into stark relief upon meeting the children of Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña’s “La casa lobo” (The Wolf House)” and Alessia Chiesa’s “El día que resistía” (The Endless Day).
All alone, the young heroes of both these films fear the horrors they suspect lie in wait for them in the forest. In “El día que resistía”, eight-year-old Fran attempts to keep her young siblings safe with a warning that wolves may be lurking outside their Argentinian home, while in “La casa lobo”, Maria encounters an actual big bad wolf in the forests of Chile. While the two films explore these themes through different visual means, tackling the material in live action and stop-motion animation respectively, both hint at a desire for escapism, something which says a great deal about the needs of audiences currently living in South America.
In one way or another, politics have seeped their way into the vast majority of the South American picks chosen to screen at the Berlinale this year, most notably in the documentaries “O processo” (The Trial) by Maria Augusta Ramos and “Unas preguntas” (One or Two Questions) by Kristina Konrad. While the former addresses the recent impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the latter looks back further at the atrocities that were pardoned during military rule of Uruguay in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While neither film is competing for the main prize at this year’s festival, both explore the same kind of societal concerns that both “Elite Squad” and “The Milk of Sorrow” addressed when they won Golden Bears for South America in 2008 and 2009.
Whether they’re overtly political or simply reflective of the country in which they’ve been created, a number of the films that are making their debut at the Berlinale 2018 may also reach similar levels of prestige one day, championing South American cinema on a global level. Sure, projects like “Una mujer fantástica” have already begun to pave the way during awards season in Hollywood, but isn’t it about time that South American cinema received its dues on an even wider scale?