In 2018, A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio’s moving and powerful Chilean drama about a trans woman who is forced to fight prejudice following the death of her lover, won the Oscar for best foreign language film. It was a remarkable, deserved achievement for a film that had been hugely acclaimed by audiences and critics alike since its festival premiere in 2017, and boasts a superb, star-making performance from trans actor Daniela Vega in the lead role. As well as celebrating the kindness and strength of its protagonist, it’s a stark reminder of the oppression trans people still face around the world.
Despite widespread conservative religious beliefs and the prevalence of machismo culture, in which men are expected to conform to boorish masculine stereotypes, the diversity of queer films produced in Latin American countries is extraordinary. This year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival programme presents features from Argentina (The Blond One; Men of Hard Skin; Roman), Paraguay (The Heiresses), Brazil (Socrates; Greta) and Guatemala (Jose).
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In considering this Latin American top 10, many contenders narrowly missed the final selection, including Argentinian gay crime flick Burnt Money (2000), Uruguayan coming-out chamber piece Leo’s Room (2009) and lesbian biopic Reaching for the Moon (2013), about the romance between American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Fans of beautiful, pained men suffering in silence lap up the cinema of Julián Hernández, while the gentle teen drama The Way He Looks (2014), about a gay blind kid, was a huge hit with critics.
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Director: Hector Babenco
The only English-language film on this list is also the best known, thanks to William Hurt’s Oscar-winning performance as Luis, a flamboyant gay pederast serving time in a Brazilian jail cell with political prisoner Valentin (Raul Julia). A strange friendship develops between the two men, despite the clash of Luis’s romantic naivety and Valentin’s leftist political views. It becomes clear, however, that one man is betraying the other, which is complicated further when companionship spills over into romance.
Hurt, who also won the best actor award at Cannes, is unforgettable, bringing out the pathos and yearning of Luis, while Julia matches him in a less heralded performance. The late Argentine-born Brazilian director Hector Babenco also featured homosexual characters in his gritty gang drama Pixote (1981), but Kiss of the Spider Woman is his best film, a damning critique of the Brazilian military government. He went on to direct Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson to Oscar nominations in Ironweed (1987).
Dona Herlinda and Her Son (1985)
Director: Jaime Humberto Hermosillo
A no-budget Mexican curio from the 1980s that feels like it couldn’t have been made at any other time, this comedy of bourgeois manners follows a pushy mother’s determination to ensure her son gives her a grandchild. Only thing is, he’s gay and shacked up with a besotted musical student in Guadalajara. Not that this puts Dona Herlinda off her quest, as she has no idea her son likes men. Or does she?
In any other comedy, Dona Herlinda would be a nagging caricature, and the second half would feature a coming out scene, lots of histrionics and a soppy final scene of resolution. But Dona Herlinda and Her Son is far more interesting. The mother may be interfering, but she is very fond of her son’s boyfriend. Ultimately, she just wants everyone to be happy and has no intention of splitting the two men up – just so long as she gets a daughter-in-law and a grandson by the final reel. Guadalupe Del Toro is a red-rinsed hoot as Dona Herlinda, a delightful composite of Lainie Kazan and Tammy Faye Messner, while the unpredictable story keeps the viewer guessing throughout.
Strawberry and Chocolate (1993)
Directors: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío
The first (and, to date, only) Cuban film to be nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, Strawberry and Chocolate starts out like a cute gay romcom before developing into something far more provocative. Flamboyant artist Diego (Jorge Perugorría) tries to pick up lovelorn straight student David (Vladimir Cruz) at the Coppelia ice cream parlour in Havana, shockingly opting for strawberry flavour rather than the more masculine chocolate. David isn’t interested in romance, but he is simultaneously repelled and fascinated by Diego’s love of forbidden art, and, egged on by his best friend, decides to spy on him, fearing he may be subverting the communist cause.
Despite a reputation for repression, this sharp, irresistible comedy, spiced with a love of camp that breathes the same air as Pedro Almodóvar, is surprisingly critical of the Castro regime and sympathetic to its gay protagonist (Néstor Almendros’s 1984 documentary Improper Conduct is a damning indictment of Cuba’s homophobic policies). It’s a film that has semi-legendary status in Cuba, with many tourists seeking out the locations featured in the film.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
The film that brought international stardom to Gael García Bernal is a sexy, dirty road movie about two young men (Bernal and Diego Luna) who, while separated from their girlfriends, pick up a lonely married woman (Maribel Verdú) and set off across Oaxaca to seek out a mystical secluded beach. The woman sleeps with both men and gradually twists the relationship in a direction that neither men could predict, culminating in a night that will change their friendship forever.
The sweaty camaraderie of the two men has homoerotic tones from the get-go – the men are far more interested in each other than their girlfriends and have a weird need to sleep with women the other has already bedded. It’s a clever, revealing exploration of machismo and its roots. Previously best known for his intriguing adaptations of A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998), following this Oscar-nominated hit Alfonso Cuarón made the most critically acclaimed of the Harry Potter films and became the first Latin American director to win an Oscar, for Gravity (2013).
Director: Diego Lerman
This punky Argentinian lesbian marvel starts as out like a John Waters road movie, swerves into Jim Jarmusch territory before melting into a surprisingly sweet tale of love and self-affirmation. A chubby lingerie salesgirl is propositioned in the street by two aggressive, dagger-wielding lesbians. She refuses their advances but is soon abducted in a stolen taxi and taken to the house of the aunt of one of the kidnappers. She has sex with one of the women and soon finds out that they aren’t quite as tough as they seem.
Director Diego Lerman co-wrote the bawdy script with María Meira and constantly surprises the audience with twisted, tender scenes. In one of the most memorable, two of the characters bond while remembering times in the past that they soiled their underwear. Like the two gay abductors, the film has a warmth beneath its intimidating exterior and loves all of its eccentric characters. All the actors are fantastic, although special mention goes to veteran Beatriz Thibaudin, who plays the kindly aunt.
Director: Lucía Puenzo
Intersex lives are very rarely explored in fiction film. In this acclaimed drama, Inés Efron plays Alex, a 15-year-old intersex person who lives life as a girl and suppresses masculine features through medication. Her mother is keen for her to have sex reassignment surgery. She has moved with her family from Argentina to a seaside town in Uruguay, although the discrimination intersex people experience catches up with Alex when she starts a relationship with the surgeon’s son.
XXY won several awards at Cannes, and critics drew comparisons with the work of Claire Denis. Aside from fearless naturalistic performances from its young actors, it’s also an acute critique on the urge to conform to social norms. While Alex’s parents mean well, their yearning for their child to be defined by gender is damaging rather than supportive. It wouldn’t be the last time director Lucía Puenzo pursued queer themes in her work…
Plan B (2009)
Director: Marco Berger
Argentinian director Marco Berger is one of the key figures in queer world cinema, and his films are packed with gorgeous, shameless images of male nudity. Plan B, his debut, is his sweetest film, with an endearingly daft plot: Bruno (Manuel Vignau), a jealous heterosexual man, vows revenge on his ex-girlfriend by seducing Pablo (Lucas Ferraro), her new, apparently bisexual boyfriend.
Berger clearly loves the laddish camaraderie between men, even as he gently satirises machismo and emphasises its homoerotic undertones. While his later works are hungrier for carnal depictions of the male body, Plan B is far subtler, beautifully depicting the shock of realising you are falling in love. It’s a very kind, very funny film, the perfect movie for a date night.
The Fish Child (2009)
Director: Lucía Puenzo
Lucía Puenzo’s next film after XXY also stars Inés Efron, this time playing Lala, a wealthy girl who becomes embroiled in a murder that threatens to incriminate both her and her girlfriend, Ailin, who works as a maid in Lala’s house in Buenos Aires. They decide to flee to Ailin’s family home in Paraguay, but their plans are thwarted, and Lala is forced to make a dangerous decision.
The thriller isn’t the most popular genre for filmmakers who want to tell LGBT stories, and it’s refreshing to see a film noir in which two lesbians are at the centre of the action. The Fish Child has some very tense scenes but is far more ambitious than most thrillers, tackling issues of class, injustice, abuse and misogyny. The fact that the protagonists are women fighting against male oppression is of far more interest to Puenzo than their homosexuality. A dash of magical realism in the scenes that reveal the meaning of the film’s title adds wonder to an endlessly intriguing queer crime drama.
Director: Javier Fuentes-León
In Cabo Blanco, a small village in Peru, married fisherman Miguel (Cristian Mercado) is married and about to have his first child with Mariela (Tatiana Astengo). He is also having an affair with Santiago (Manolo Cardona), a painter. When Santiago drowns in a boating accident, local tradition dictates that his ghost is doomed to wander the earth until his body is found and buried. Coping with grief and salacious gossip, Miguel slowly realises that his attraction to Santiago went far beyond sex, and he determines to find the body and release his lover from limbo.
The blend of fantasy and realism is beautifully realised by filmmaker Javier Fuentes-León, who originally conceived the story about a hetereosexual affair with a sex worker, before changing the characters when he himself came out as gay. The acting is top-notch, particularly from Cardona as the ghost grieving his own death and from Astengo, who manages to transform the potentially thankless role of the cuckolded wife into a complex, dignified figure.
From Afar (2015)
Director: Lorenzo Vigas
The Venezuelan winner of the Golden Lion at the 2015 Venice Film Festival exposes the gulf between social classes and the few opportunities offered to those living in poverty. Chilean actor Alfredo Castro plays Armando, a middle-aged man who picks up young guys needing money on the streets of Caracas, paying them to strip naked. When one retaliates by assaulting him and stealing his money, Armando becomes fascinated by the boy and pursues an apparently doomed friendship with him. United by loneliness and social exile, the two men begin an unlikely romance.
A melancholy hangs over the film from the beginning, and the more we learn about these damaged men the more we want them to find happiness. Lorenzo Vigas’s debut has an uncanny ear for dialogue, particularly in the scenes highlighting class privilege. Castro gives a magnificent performance as Armando, a man whose face suggests a lifetime of rejection.