What to watch at LFF: the best Spanish and Latin American cinema

New films from Alejandro González Iñárritu, Patricio Guzmán and Carla Simón head up the selection of films from Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin America.

26 September 2022

By Maria Delgado

The Middle Ages (2022)
London Film Festival

The Covid pandemic continues to leave its mark on filmmaking and film exhibition, as well as the wider themes of the Spanish language films showing at this year’s London Film Festival. 

In the witty The Middle Ages, Argentine director Alejo Moguillansky, part of the Pampero Cine collective responsible for La flor (2018), turns the camera on his own lockdown experience. His smart, enterprising eight-year-old daughter Cleo narrates the family lockdown experience as Alejo tries to direct a Beckett play online; his wife Luciana Acuña struggles to find a purpose when she can’t dance; and their dog Juana tears around the family home. Cleo, bored with her onscreen schooling and piano lessons, decides she wants a telescope and decides to fund the purchase by selling off items in the house. 

There’s something very Beckettian about the film itself – a sense of an existence where the purpose of existence itself is questioned, as Alejo and Luciana wonder what a future without live performance holds. But if you fear this makes for earnest entertainment, think again. The film boasts impeccable comic timing and some glorious slapstick worthy of Buster Keaton. It drolly captures the dynamics of a family trapped at home who each try and find their own way of dealing with the pressures of enforced cohabitation. 

Alcarràs (2022)

Catalan filmmaker Clara Simón, who won a Sutherland Award honourable mention for her first feature Summer 1993 (2017), shot her Berlin Golden Bear winning Alcarràs during the pandemic and there is something in the film’s rhythm and pacing that looks back to a way of life that no longer seems feasible or possible. At its centre is the extended Solé family, who struggle to make sense of the changes that ensue when the owner of the peach orchard they farm decides he has other plans for the land. Simón captures the pains and the joys of the final harvest with a keen sense of generational discord. 

Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama similarly immerses the viewer in the unfolding drama of a close-knit elderly couple who are faced with some difficult decisions. Here it is climate change that has driven their neighbours to the city, with the arid landscape an all-encompassing reality they struggle to navigate. This is land they honour and love, but it can no longer sustain them. 

The relationship with the natural environment is also a feature of Mara and Eugenio Polgovsky’s Malintzin 17. Here Mara uses footage shot by her late brother of his relationship with his small daughter as they observe a bird, an Inca dove, from the balcony of the family home. Mara Polgovsky’s deft editing of the footage shows the ties that bind father and daughter: curiosity, observation, a spirit of adventure, and a willingness to marvel at the wonders of a natural world filled with the unexpected. Care for nature runs through Leandro Listorti’s Herbaria too, playing in Experimenta, where the mysteries of a plant world nurtured by botanists is directly compared to the work of film archivists. 

My Imaginary Country (2022)

The legacy of dictatorships is a theme running through three Spanish-language films in this year’s festival. In My Imaginary Country, Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán looks at the 2019 protests rocking Santiago through the eyes of the women activists campaigning for social change. While not in Chile at the time of the protests, he returns in 2020 to make sense of the events, acting on the advice Chris Marker gave him when working on his early films: “When you want to film a fire, you must be ready at the place where the first flame will appear.” 

Weaving together footage of the protests with interviews with the women who led the protests, administered first aid to the wounded, and chronicled and analysed the events, Guzmán asks probing questions about the largest public protests in Chilean history. The viewer is given the sense of how the film’s participants are part of a movement to transform their country “into a theatre for the future”. 

Actor Manuela Martelli’s feature debut as director, 1976, is an equally timely work about Chile, but one which travels back to the 1970s to capture the horrors of life under the dictatorship through the eyes of elegant middle-class Carmen (Aline Küppenheim excelling in the role) who begins to ask questions of how the government is clamping down on dissent. Martelli’s lean economical language evokes a sense of the paranoia and distrust that lies beneath the veneer of respectability that the Pinochet dictatorship sought to foster. 

Argentina 1985 (2022)

The Argentine military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983 features in Santiago Mitre’s courtroom drama, Argentina 1985, which turns to the aftermath of military rule as the mechanisms of the dictatorship were being dismantled. Ricardo Darín heads the legal team endeavouring to bring the country’s military dictators to justice. Both these films may look into the past, but they have timely reminders for the present of what extremism looks like and how zealots function. 

Forced disappearances also feature in films rooted in the present. Veteran Mexican editor Natalia López Gallardo makes her feature debut with Robe of Gems, where affluent Isabel, not unlike the privileged Carmen in 1976, faces the brutality of the cartels’ control over daily life. Fear is evoked through sound, through what remains unsaid and through the operation of a society where many choose to turn away. The toxic masculinity at play is shown to have far reaching consequences for the women of the community, as Isabel soon discovers. 

Argentine Marco Berger’s Horseplay also exposes misogyny and homophobia as tensions emerge during the Christmas festivities of a group of male friends, while the first two episodes of his compatriot Lucía Puenzo’s Señorita 89, produced by Pablo Larraín and his brother Juan de Dios, look at the intrigues, machinations and abuses of a 1989 Miss Mexico contest. The latter demonstrates all too clearly the horrors of a view of women as expendable cattle to be bought and sold, displayed and mistreated in the name of entertainment. 

Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) (2022)

Indeed, the need to beware the surface gleam of appearances seems a consistent theme in a number of the films in this year’s festival. Teddy bears have their own lethal dimension in Alberto Vázquez’s Spanish-French animation allegory Unicorn Wars, which proffers an anti-war quest narrative with timely resonance in the current context of Russian’s brutal war in Ukraine. Maverick Spanish director Carlos Vermut disturbs with Manticore, a film about a video games designer where nothing is quite what it seems, while Catalan Albert Serra probes the pervasive legacies of colonialism in the Tahiti-set Pacifiction.

Finally, two Mexican films offer highly personal views into the creative process. Latinx performance artist Guillermo Gómez Peña reflects on a 40-year career pushing at boundaries in Amber Bay Bernak’s 100 Ways to Cross the Border while Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic and formally adventurous Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths offers a contemplation of celebrity, the legacy of colonialism and the responsibilities of the filmmaker, probing at the porous boundaries between fiction and the real. 

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