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Shots of history

Bloody coups. Torture. Cover-ups. As Latin America slowly embraces democracy, filmmakers are asking audiences to revisit moments that still sear a collective psyche.

May 15, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Santiago, Chile — Wending their way past spilled popcorn and posters of SpongeBob SquarePants, Danilo Migone and Paola Squadritto were explaining why they'd passed up the feel-good Hollywood fluff at a local cineplex to see a film that touches on one of the darkest chapters in recent South American history. The movie in question, Andres Wood's "Machuca," is the well-crafted, gut-wrenching story of two Chilean boys from opposite social worlds who become schoolmates, then unlikely best friends.

But their relationship literally goes up in flames on Sept. 11, 1973. On that day, Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a bloody right-wing coup against Chile's democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende Gossens. More than 30 years later, this violent Cold War spasm, which ended with military planes bombing Chile's presidential palace, is still so bitterly divisive that some Chileans refuse to discuss it. "There are people that never have accepted it," says Squadritto, 34, an anthropologist.

"Machuca," which opened last month in Los Angeles, depicts a very different Chile from the one that exists today. But Migone thinks that by taking a long, hard look at its past through films like "Machuca," his country may be better able to comprehend its present and contemplate its future. "There's a transformation that the movie reflected," says Migone, 36, a computer engineer. "It shows a Chile that has disappeared."

Throughout Latin America, a bumper crop of recent and forthcoming feature films is bringing audiences face to face with some of the hemisphere's most turbulent issues and fateful historical events. A generation or less since numerous Latin countries kicked out military dictators or ended prolonged civil wars and tentatively embraced democracy, a growing number of filmmakers are revisiting pivotal episodes from both the near and the distant past.

Confronting the past

In many cases, the resulting movies are filling in gaps in their country's collective memories and peeling back layers of censorship, distortion, fear and official denial.

In Brazil, two recent releases, Lucia Murat's "Quase Dois Irmaos" (Almost Brothers) and Toni Venturi's "Cabra-Cega," are set against the backdrop of Brazil's military dictatorship, which stretched from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. Murat, a former student activist, was herself imprisoned and tortured during that era.

The Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien"), fresh off the success of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is planning a drama about Mexico's student-led protests in 1968 leading to the Summer Olympic Games that culminated in an infamous massacre and a decades-long government cover-up.

While many of the new Latin films are awaiting U.S. distributors, they've carted away bushels of prizes, and some have broken domestic box office records. They've also sparked debates from San Salvador to Medellin to Rio de Janeiro as audiences, reviewers and the filmmakers themselves wrestle with questions about where their societies have been and where they may be headed.

"I think the problems of the past are the problems of the present," says Elia K. Schneider, the veteran Venezuelan director of "Huelepega" (Glue Sniffer) and the 2004 Oscar submission "Punto y Raya" (Step Forward), an odd-couple comedy-drama about two soldiers on opposite sides of Venezuela and Colombia's long-running border dispute. At first glance, the soldiers appear to have no common ground: The Colombian, Pedro (Edgar Ramirez), is an idealistic campesino, while the Venezuelan, Cheito (Roque Valero), is a wily Caracas street hustler and deserter.

By the end of the movie, which a Variety reviewer compared to "MASH" and "The Defiant Ones," these chuckleheaded warriors have arrived at a separate peace of sorts, but their countries are still trading lethal potshots. Through mordant humor, humane observation and the perfectly calibrated lead performances, "Step Forward" spoofs Latin macho hysteria and calls into question the very idea of trumped-up saber-rattling nationalism.

What's heartening about movies like "Machuca" and "Step Forward" is that they're informing viewers and engaging them emotionally, using a variety of genres and narrative strategies -- realism, melodrama, black comedy, surrealism, allegory -- to get at larger issues.

Some, like Luis Mandoki's "Voces Inocentes" (Innocent Voices), which depicts El Salvador's ruinous civil war through a young boy's eyes, take a straightforward, almost documentary-like view of their harrowing subjects. By contrast, the exquisitely deadpan Uruguayan movie "Whisky" uses the tale of a sullen sock factory owner to probe deeper forms of South American spiritual malaise.

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