Bemberg, Martel, Sarmiento: women’s (counter)discourses
in Southern Cone cinema

Review by Karol Valderrama-Burgos

Julia Kratje and Marcela Visconti, El asombro y la audacia. El cine de María Luisa Bemberg. Mar del Plata: Festival Internacional de Cine de Mar del Plata, 2020. 205 pp. Available to download here: https://mardelplatafilmfest.com/beta35/libros/elasombroylaaudacia.pdf;

Natalia Christofoletti Barrenha, La experiencia del cine de Lucrecia Martel. Buenos Aires, Prometeo, 2020. 132 pp. $21.98 paperback, $8.36 eBook;

Fernando Pérez and Bruno Cuneo, eds., Una mirada oblicua: El cine de Valeria Sarmiento. Santiago: Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2021. n.p. $10.99 eBook.

When I began writing this review, I asked myself whether I should follow the usual route that many of us take to complete an academic text. Not because I was planning to produce a piece outside the parameters of critical or coherent writing, but because I felt tempted and curious to create a certain rift this time. An idea got into my mind of writing a review that could be aligned with the common ground that I identified between the three books, and in line with the motivations of the three filmmakers under consideration. Thus, my aim now is to offer a useful piece to reflect on these works, demonstrating that authors with specific interests can coincide in their valuing one same core aspect: female agency and its legacy.

Julia Kratje and Marcela Visconti’s anthology El asombro y la audacia. El cine de María Luisa Bemberg (2020), Natalia Christofoletti Barrenha’s La experiencia del cine de Lucrecia Martel (2020), and Fernando Pérez and Bruno Cuneo’s edited collection, Una mirada oblicua: El cine de Valeria Sarmiento (2021) share a historiographic strategy. These three volumes focus on doing what Bemberg, Martel and Sarmiento have sought in their filmmaking practice: creating a route within their texts in which viewpoints move away from the canonical register of style and pace. In other words, the three publications under review contribute to building discourses by, of, and about women, whilst fostering new, uncomfortable, or different tones, gazes and ongoing dialogue that still need to take place. If we take into consideration all the authors here, thirty-nine women and six men have a similarity in the way they study the ground-breaking work of these women filmmakers, so that each book transcends mere textual analysis of the films in question by offering perspectives on female agency—and audacity—at different levels of production and exhibition.

Women filmmakers have been present, relevant and influential in Latin America since the silent era, although recognition was mostly rare and disregarded when compared with the work of men. This stems from a wider, problematic gender imbalance in the region with the historical pervasiveness of patriarchy. This burden still reveals itself in societies’ persistent failure to respond to women’s rights and claims, but important progress in the area of women’s filmmaking has been made since the 1990s. In addition, subsequent and growing scholarly interest is making visible the women’s careers, works and influence over the following decades, and this investigatory endeavour now proceeds in ever more systematic ways (Martin & Shaw, 2017; Robert-Camps, 2017; Torres San Martín, 2014). Therefore, the three books agree on expanding the academic debates and, more interestingly, they all move beyond the dominant “masculinised” format in which male voices have contributed to (re)shape memory.

The similarities I was able to trace through these thought-provoking texts can be further described in term of two major components which they share. On the one hand, the three books praise the roles and purposes of the filmmakers, despite the differences between these women’s specific interests, and the places and periods of their film production. On the other hand, Bemberg, Martel and Sarmiento all placed a central role on address to the audience as part of their filmmaking activity. Spectator responses consequently become central to later understanding, questioning and dissemination of the filmmakers’ projects.

In terms of how the three filmmakers develop their multiple (counter)discourses, the guiding principle within the texts seems to recognise a female voice on both sides of the camera. Interestingly, and echoing the earliest days of cinema, the three books stress how the filmmakers’ work has been devoted to the quotidien and its complexities, clearly seen through the pioneering films of Bemberg (El mundo de la mujer, 1972) and Sarmiento (Un sueño como de colores, 1972). Accordingly, the books articulate how women directors implement their observations of the day-to-day via non-conventional means and perspectives. The texts also indicate historical contexts and aesthetic influences. In particular, these filmmakers follow and adapt to different extents the inherited Italian neo-realist aesthetics that were later embedded in the New Latin American Cinema (NLAC). That aesthetic legacy  provides an intense dose of vitality or preoccupation about creating “protagonists who are out of step with history in order to expose problems and to foster debate” (Berthier, 2004, p. 102). All three texts also reiterate how the scripts let girls or young women be the focal points and strongest characters for the three filmmakers; the female coming of age story allows them to question the hegemonic conditions surrounding each film period of production, narrative or characters.

Additionally, the three books acknowledge how the conscientious and particular uses of image and sound are key tools that each filmmaker uses to build new insights, each establishing their well-known individual aesthetics that do not abide by conventional narratives or techniques, even reshaping conventions that were also distinctive of the NLAC. The books act as a single corpus that show that the filmmakers recognise and break down polarised conceptions of the world, whilst engaging in (de)constructive and diachronic conversations. Therefore, regardless of the forms of narrative style and cinematic production, the books celebrate how the careers and choices of Bemberg, Martel and Sarmiento have effected paradigm shifts for women’s filmmaking and critical work within the Southern Cone. In a similar way, the books include varied interview material that provides the filmmakers with a place to commentate on their own work as well as that of others. This kind of style documents their filmmaking practice in a more fluid fashion, providing the field with less essayistic tones to in critical articles.

When it comes to second strand, that is, the role of the audience, the three books continuously emphasise each director’s attitude toward the viewer. The filmmakers invite the spectator to understand and use their oeuvres as a way to gain consciousness of the plurality, disruption, and potential difference of a female cinematic gaze. Seeing Valeria Sarmiento’s gaze as oblique as Pérez and Cuneo’s compiled essays would have it, Sarmiento encourages the audience to have a re-defined gaze as oblique as hers. Macarena García Moggia, one of the contributors of La mirada oblicua, explains that this gaze is one that,

“contrary to the unequivocal, centralised, phallic gaze […] creates stories as anamorphic images, where one slightly moves away from the place that has been allocated through the screen, and where one sharpens the eye to see something else, something that certainly awakens desire.” [My trans.] (2021, n.p.).

Lucrecia Martel’s gaze (Christofoletti Barrehnha, 2020, p. 54) is a gaze fully conscious of the ambiguous, open-ended, and less safe territories that emerge after the viewing experience. In essence, the women cineastes promoted a gaze that resonates with the NLAC’s aim of provoking a (re)action to change. The result is an alternative way to experience cinema that goes beyond the mere act of watching, and so viewership of this work lingers in people’s minds and lives for a long time.

These texts are mindful of the several ways in which the readers may choose (or not) to engage with the filmmakers’ work. They are written in various languages and translated across others. Overall, the books succeed in mediating distances between languages and territories. This is first evident in Christofoletti Barrenha’s first Spanish-language edition of the Lusophone original version, A experiência do cinema de Lucrecia Martel: Resíduos do tempo e sons à beira da piscina (2014). Secondly, this can be seen through Pérez and Cuneo’s edited and foundational collection on the cinema of Valeria Sarmiento, the first scholarly volume which is entirely centred on her work. Sarmiento was long in exile in Europe. This book evokes the filmmaker’s reminiscences and reflections in exile, demonstrating that cinema is clearly a transnational means that women filmmakers may use to (re)build history and memory—a theme that can also be tracked in Kratje and Visconti’s compilation.

As for the individual contribution of the latter—El asombro y la audacia. El cine de María Luisa Bemberg—this edited collection joins the extensive scholarly work on film pioneer María Luisa Bemberg but, looking closely, this is much more than another compilation of findings or projects. In the context of the 35th version of Mar del Plata International Film Festival, Kratje and Visconti pay tribute to and reassess the influential and outstanding work of María Luisa Bemberg on the 25th anniversary of her death. They do so through a diverse and thorough repertoire of women’s voices. What struck me most when going through this book was noticing all the levels of sorority and female visibility. The editors acknowledge the contributors’ roles and fields of knowledge at the beginning of each chapter, as well as the powerful ways in which the authors take part in shared views, complicities, critiques, and testimonies. Accordingly, the book is structured by four different strands. The first section, Enfoques, explores Bemberg’s influences, aesthetics and approach, which is followed by the section Encuentros, offering texts about different interactions and collaborations throughout her career. Espejos and Entre generaciones, the third and fourth sections of this volume, focus on the further impact of Bemberg’s work on different women’s lives and careers in Argentine. This a very enjoyable piece for thinking about Bemberg’s oeuvre and identifying her vestiges in a comprehensive, consistent and easy-going manner.

In the first five chapters included in Enfoques, women journalists and researchers provide a detailed chronological background both on the personal and the professional lives of Bemberg. Not only do they outline who the filmmaker was, her (in)formal experiences of feminist activism, but they critique the biopolitical production of the “modern woman” in Argentina at the time, which was actually absorbed by other cultural means within a false liberated path (Trebisacce, 2020, p. 43). These first chapters explore the context of Bemberg’s strong criticism of the oppressions of the everyday in a woman’s life, for example, in her fundamental work as co-founder of the Unión Feminista Argentina (UFA; Argentine Feminist Union). Going through a detailed and original reading of Bemberg’s feminist short films and her six features—including the well-known Camila (1984) or Yo la peor de todas (1990)—these chapters contextualise her specific use of film language and her urgent need to build her own version of the world, and to depict a society in which children and women are strong and challenging, contributing to unveiling social hypocrisy (Montesoro, 2020, p. 100).

Camila (Bemberg, 1984) was the first Argentine film to be nominated to the Academy Awards. The film is based on the real-life, rebellious, and passionate story of Camila O’Gorman and Father Ladislao Gutiérrez.

The three following sections of El asombro y la audacia offer a fluent and varied perspective on Bemberg through the eyes and experiences of ten different collaborators. Including the renowned Argentinian producer Lita Stantic, the composer Luis María Serra, the filmmakers Alejandro Maci and Lucrecia Martel, these sections and their multiple voices point out the diverse and active legacy of Bemberg. Several short texts (the longest is a five-page piece) comprise perhaps the most thorough director’s portrait available within the three books under review. The prose is clear, precise, and thoroughly elaborated. Even with the wide scholarship available or published on this filmmaker, this book is a friendly “user guide” for anyone who wants to navigate Bemberg’s cinematic and feminist universe. One can easily devour it in less than a day, as it takes the reader through the celebration of her lifelong feminist and audio-visual manifesto quite smoothly.

Maria Luisa Bemberg on the set of De eso no se habla (We Don't Want to Talk About It) with Marcello Mastroianni. María Luisa Bemberg and Alejandro Maci on set. © Diario Clarín Digital.