In case you didn’t get the memo (Hollywood apparently lost it in their spam bin), it turns out Latin Americans actually like to see their realities reflected on the big screen. In 2014, we saw this in the box office numbers of countries like Uruguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, where homegrown films were among the highest-grossing performers. Admittedly, the cinematic quality of some of these is a little uneven – some production teams obviously didn’t have the resources of big-budget Hollywood films. Still, we’ve got to give it up to these films for making a sincere effort and giving the Hollywood big shots a real run for their money. P’alante América Latina!
Check out the trailers below.
Is it really a surprise that the highest grossing Uruguayan film of 2014 was a documentary about fútbol? Perhaps even less surprising is the fact that it’s about a historic match between the Uruguayan and Brazilian selections in which, against all odds, Uruguay won. But don’t be mistaken, Maracaná, isn’t your typical chauvinistic, “we’re more special than everyone else cause we’ve got spirit” sports doc, but rather a conscious, contextualized reflection on how sports are often used to manipulate the masses–perhaps even more so in those countries where football is treated like a sacred ritual, and its players like gods.
For those of us who aren’t amateur fútbol historians (we know there are a lot of you out there), Maracaná is the name of an emblematic stadium built by Rio de Janeiro mayor Mendez de Morais for the 1950 World Cup, under the professed condition that Brazil win the championship in that stadium. Indeed, there was a sense of cosmic, preordained destiny among Brazilian players and fans in that fateful championship game, reinforced by the fact that Brazil only had to tie Uruguay to take home the cup.
It was a game characterized by a sepulchral silence among the crowd that, from the looks of the elderly players interviewed for the doc, still makes people’s hair stand on end over 60 years after the fact. The Uruguayan team was rag-tag and out of shape compared to their Brazilian counterparts, but they had the inspiring leadership of charismatic team captain Obdulio Varela to lift their spirits despite the odds. And, as these stories usually go, a fateful goal in the 78th minute turned the tide of destiny and made for one of the most memorable World Cups in history.
Throw a love story, original interviews and some never-before-seen archival footage into the mix and it looks like a good recipe for a compelling sports documentary. But the real story here is how Brazilian politicians used the event to manipulate popular opinion in their favor during a crucial election year. It is an essential fact that underlies the vision of co-directors Sebastián Bedarnik and Andrés Varela, who go beyond the realm of “just another sports doc” to find new shades in a triumphant story that is practically embedded in the Uruguayan DNA.
El Canto de Bosawas [Nicaragua]
Nicaragua is not a country known for its cinematic output. In fact, 2009’s La Yuma had the honor of being the first narrative feature produced in Nicaragua in 20 years. But with a booming tourist industry and a giant canal project pushing forward, the small Central American nation’s economic tides may be turning, and along with growing fortunes we can only hope that local cinematic production continues blossoming.
Meantime, in the absence of a well-developed film infrastructure, local directors have turned to documentary to tell their stories, exemplified by 2014’s top-grossing Nicaraguan production, the 52-minute documentary El Canto de Bosawas. Co-directed by award-winning American filmmaker, Brad Allgood, and Nicaraguan Camilo Castro, El Canto de Bosawas was produced by CaLé productions: a company with the express mission of bringing cinematic quality to campaigns focused on social justice and sustainable development.
The documentary follows Matute–a well known Nicaraguan musician and member of the local Cumbiero group La Cuneta Son Machín— on a journey deep into the Nicaraguan rainforest accompanied two American sound engineers intent on making the first recording of the idiosyncratic music made by the Mayagna indigenous group. Along the way, the Mayagna’s music becomes secondary to a journey of personal discovery.
The trailer begins with images of the crew making their way deeper and deeper into the Bosawas ecological reserve that gives the film its name, encountering increasingly precarious conditions that bring to mind Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but without the psychopathic conquistador. After the crew arrives to a small Mayagna village, we are given a taste of the evangelical religious hymns that the Mayagna have made their own, with stunning vocal harmonies and lyrics translated into their native language. We are then faced with breathtaking images of the tropical countryside that the Mayagna people call home and left with an admonition: “If we truly love our children, if we truly love Nicaragua, we must save Bosawas.”
Indeed, it turns out that this natural paradise, along with the singular culture of the Mayagna that inhabit it, are in danger of extinction. Bosawas is being steadily deforested. Kudos to the folks at CaLé for making cinema part of their mission for a greater country.
Vamos de Robo [Dominican Republic]
If there’s a formula for box-office success in Latin America, it’s quite simple: comedy. Crime, guns and possibly soccer would come in at a close second, but its clear that Latin Americans like to laugh–and whenever possible, they like to laugh at familiar situations and recognizable characters. It’s a reality that has favored the Dominican Republic’s growing local film industry, because it just so happens that Dominicans are hilarious. If you weren’t aware, it takes one illuminating experience with Dominican Family Guy to realize that our brothers and sisters from Quisqueya la Bella don’t have to try all that hard to have you peeing your pants–which is probably why their young industry has carved out its niche with commercially-oriented situational comedies.
So it’s unsurprising that DR’s highest grossing film of 2014 was a commercially-oriented situational comedy from actor/director Robero Ángel “Robertico” Salcedo. The feature, titled Vamos de Robo, features some of the shining stars of Dominican comedy–including ubiquitous chatterbox Fausto Mata–in a lighthearted caper featuring some all-too-familiar Latino character types. The feature follows the adventures of a group of lowly bank employees who are implicated in a robbery after their workplace is cleaned of $150 million pesos under their watch. In an effort to clear their names, our heroes set about looking for the true perpetrators, showing Dominican filmmakers’ continued predilection for Guy Ritchie style crime-comedies (with a distinctly Caribeño flair).
Selling a whopping 21,289 tickets in its first day in local theaters, Vamos de Robo finished out the year with a total of 340,698 tickets sold in the Dominican Republic alone. But what’s really impressive about Vamos de Robo’s performance isn’t how it made out in local theaters, but rather the fact that it premiered at number one in its first week at box-offices in the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, beating out more traditional Hollywood fare like Ride Along and The Nut Job.
So far, Dominican critics have praised the film as a step in the right direction for Robertico, who has had trouble separating his films from the televisual style that informed his earlier TV work. There may still be a ways to go, but over the past few years we’ve seen Dominican cinema’s quality improve by leaps and bounds. With the country’s neighbors now taking note, we may very well be on the verge of a Dominican Invasion. Stay tuned.
A los 40 [Peru]
Directed by newcomer Bruno Ascenzo and starring Peruvian comedy phenom, Carlos Alcántara, A los 40 dominated 2014 box offices in Peru and went on to become the second highest-grossing Peruvian film of all time after the 2013 Alcántara vehicle, Asu Mare. The comedy follows a group of–you guessed it–40 year-olds as they prepare for a casual reunion with old friends that will force them to re-examine their lives.
While it’s heartwarming to see locally-produced commercial cinema taking deep root throughout Latin America, the line between cinema and the famously unscrupulous television programming that dominates Latin American markets seems to be growing a bit blurry. Case in point: the A los 40 trailer kicks off with enough corporate logos to fill a Superbowl broadcast, for everything from banks to beer to shampoo. Expect product placement.
Once we actually get around to the film, we are presented with a series of more or less funny situations, with strong performances from a cast of Peru’s greatest comics and an impressively glossy visual style. Needless to say, the film seems about as artistically adventurous as the Oral B 3D White toothpaste it announces in the first 5 seconds, but perhaps more disturbing is the white-washed vision of Peruvian society presented in these two and a half short minutes.
With box-office busting popular comedies in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil taking on political corruption or exploring the lighter side of life in working class barrios, it’s truly disappointing to see Peruvian cinema perpetuating the stark racial and class divides that continue to characterize the country. Film can be art or it can be entertainment–perhaps the ideal would be somewhere in-between–but more importantly it shapes our vision of the world. Here’s hoping Latin American filmmakers will continue to take that responsibility seriously.
Maikol Yordan [Costa Rica]
Hatched from the somewhat twisted collective mind of San José comedy troupe, La Media Docena, Maikol Yordan de Viaje Perdido follows the adventures of Maikol Yordan: a good-hearted Juan Bobo-type who just can’t seem to scrounge up enough money to save the family farm from evil developers. When a chance win at a local radio contest sends him across the pond on a European adventure, it looks like his fate might just change for the better. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why Maikol Yordan has struck such a nerve with local audiences. The “save the family farm” trope is a tale as old as modern banking, mixed here with a healthy dose of Don Quijote and Latin American folklore. Call it a tropical Oh Brother! Where Art Thou?, but drop the escaped-convict bit.
As of January 26, after only six weeks at the box-office, Maikol Yordan has racked up an impressive 550,629 tickets sold and counting. Population of Costa Rica: 4.5 million.