The best Spanish and Latin American films at LFF 2021

Themes of containment and isolation rumble through the strong showing of films from Spain and Latin America at this year’s festival, says programme advisor Maria Delgado.

13 September 2021

By Maria Delgado

Azor (2021)
London Film Festival

Every film bears the imprint of the moment in which it was made. Look at any period drama and the period in question will always be inflected through the priorities, styles and fashions of the contemporary. 

Watching the crop of Spanish and Latin American films in this year’s LFF, I’m struck by a focus on the politics of containment. For containment and related concerns around imprisonment, internment and isolation provide a way into a diverse range of features and documentaries that, while not explicitly handling the events of the past 19 months, do offer modes of understanding the social inequalities of the present and the ways in which recent history has decisively shaped the realities of the everyday.

Forced disappearance hovers over Andreas Fontana’s conspiracy thriller, Azor, as a Swiss banker witnesses the abuses of Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-83). The injustices of an economic system based on having appropriate contacts, knowing the right thing to say and keeping out of trouble are brutally exposed in a claustrophobic feature where nobody can be trusted. 

In La caja/The Box, Venezuelan director Lorenzo Viga’s first feature since his Venice-award-winning From Afar (2015), disappearance is linked both to intervention – refusing to turn a blind eye to injustice – and to the politics of a globalised capitalist culture built on exploitative labour conditions. The act of bearing witness is key to the film’s narrative, making it part of a larger body of work seen over the past year that looks at what it means to see and respond to political, social and cultural injustice. 

The eye of the outsider shapes Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s English-language Spencer, a gothic contemplation of Princess Diana’s isolation and despair, revealed during a weekend at Sandringham in 1991 as her marriage crumbles. This is no realist drama but rather a visible manifestation of the ghosts that haunt a woman unable to ‘fit into’ the family firm. 

Spencer (2021)

Joaquín del Paso’s Mexican feature A Hole in the Fence similarly observes the insular privilege of a select private school where those who are not from a privileged elite are relentlessly bullied and ridiculed. Isolated at a rural retreat, the boys’ prejudices spill out with terrifying consequences. Rosario Perazolo Masjoan and Maria Belen Poncio’s Argentine series 4 Feet High provides a different kind of examination of educational contexts – here they’re a space for dissent and challenge as three friends campaign for a change to the way sex education is taught at their school.

Outsiders navigating the rules and regulations of a new society offering sanctuary from persecution feature in Juan Antonio Moreno Amador’s Welcome to Spain, a moving Spanish documentary that charts the fate of a group of recently arrived refugees, housed in a former brothel in Seville. The plight of these individuals becomes a mode of understanding a world with over 26 million forcibly displaced persons.

Dominican drama Bantú Mama by Iván Herrera also provides a reflection on the eye of the outsider as a Cameroonian French woman, Emma, finds solace, comfort and community with three parentless children in Santo Domingo. Here Emma’s holing up in the home of the children offers a new means of locating her diasporic identity linked to wider histories of slavery and colonialism.

Sundown (2021)

Trying to forge a life away from the pressures of family or city life respectively ground both Michel Franco’s intimate Sundown – a real contrast to last year’s explosive New Order – and Mounia Aki’s Costa Brava Lebanon. In the former, a family holiday in Mexico is tested by an unexpected piece of news. In the latter, the wish to forge a utopian community away from the pollution of Beirut is tested by plans for a new ecological landfill rather too close to the utopian new house the Badri family have built for themselves. Both are films marked by the tension of different types of containment, both rely on the unsaid, the mysteries of family secrets, and lean screenplays that impressively refuse to give too much away. 

The politics of control and coercion in work environments shapes both Fernando León de Aranoa’s dark comedy, El buen patron/The Good Boss – look out for a career-defining performance by Javier Bardem – and Alonso Ruizpalacios’ inventive police drama, Una película de policias/A Cop Movie. The performance of a role – whether that of a benign caring boss or a tough inner city Mexico City police officer – is at core of both films. Both navigate the implications of dissent, the politics of corruption and the ways in which institutional power deals with those who question its legitimacy. 

The Odd Job Men (2021)

Two Catalan films offer liberating views of what shared cohabitation might bring. Neus Ballús’s Sis dies corrents/Odd-Job Men finds that when plumber Valero is made to work with new colleague Moha, he has to confront particular ideas about himself, his country and his culture. Containment – in the company van, in the different homes in which they work to fix the problems they encounter and in the company office – here offers a way of thinking about cohabitation, realised with humour, wit and political acumen. Adrián Silvestre’s Sediments sees a group of trans women share thoughts, reflections, hopes and fears leaving Barcelona for a weekend away in rural León. 

Cohabitation also brings its challenges in Paco Plaza’s La abuela/The Grandmother, where a beloved grandmother suffers a stroke that places particular pressures on a young model, Susana, forging a career in Paris. Here the home turns into a prison that unsettles Susanna. Confinement here may be self-imposed but no less terrifying. Spanish horror is here refracted through the realities of ageing to reflect on what it means to share a domestic space in less-than-ideal circumstances.

The Grandmother (2021)

Institutional abuse, whether from official or unofficial channels, is never far from the surface of the Mexican films in this year’s festival. Tatiana Huezo’s Noche de fuego/Prayers for the Stolen, adapted from Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel, exposes the horrors for women of living under the shadow of Mexico’s drug cartels. Indigenous women take centre stage in Angeles Cruz’s Nudo Mixteco as three figures returning home negotiate a less than welcome reception from their families. ‘Home’ is here shown to be a shifting term and one that is forged as characters forge safety for themselves and/or their loved ones in the face of multiple inequalities.

Female agency is also centred in the adventures of the Mesoamerican warrior princess at the centre of Mexican animator Jorge Gutiérrez’s Maya and the Three, straddling both the episodic and the Family strand.

As viewers emerge from the constraints imposed by the isolation that has been such a feature of managing COVID, these Spanish and Latin American films all provide different reflections on what containment means and how it might be navigated across domestic, work, educational, environmental and political contexts.

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