Latin American countries have an unfortunate history of being deeply stereotyped in all manner of Hollywood productions. Yes, the meme about how films and TV shows constantly portray Mexico in yellow-tinted sepia holds truth, and it never fails to summon a chuckle when inevitably deployed by the laziest of filmmakers. But there’s a deeper, harsher implication. While the region is full of layered history and culture, most depictions of Latin American society reduce our lives to violence, political conflict, and endless turmoil. This is not to say that these issues are somehow nonexistent. They are very much real and imminent for many in these countries. But there is a need for films to shine a light on what living in these countries is really like.
Thankfully, two amazing Academy Award-nominated Latin American films — The Argentinian political drama Argentina, 1985 and Mexico’s dream-like introspection of identity, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths — both explore Latin American politics and history with fresh takes that might have a thing or two to teach us about how to tell our stories in a more thoughtful, multidimensional way.
Films like Miss Bala (2019), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), or recent shows like Apple TV’s “Echo 3” (2022) and Amazon Prime’s second season of “Jack Ryan” (2019), depict a distorted vision of Latin America, sometimes unintentionally but too often purposefully for the sake of shortcut spectacle. Wild gunfights erupt every few minutes. Authoritarian leaders are little more than cartoonish caricatures. Civilians helplessly accept horrible conditions.
These depictions perpetuate harmful stereotypes about our history and our countries. They make us out to be pitiful, passive victims with only ourselves to blame, but this strays drastically far the truth. These regions are far more than what they are at their worst. They’re real places, where real people live, and despite all sorts of conflicts, make strides to improve things and have a normal life. That should sound awfully familiar to many, particularly those in the U.S.
It’s time for more films to ditch the habit of using the region as a simplistic fantasy backdrop for action heroes and embrace a better understanding of Latin America’s humanity. Hollywood films need to play a role in rounding out the impressions that audiences have of Latin America. This doesn’t mean completely ditching these places as settings in the most entertaining blockbuster films. There’s always room for that. But until recently, it seems like there’s only room for that.
Filmmakers can be more mindful in their research of each country and pay attention to the impact of what they’re showing. For many, film is one of the few ways they’ll interact with our region and erroneous visions can perpetuate negative presumptions that impact everything from cultural interactions with others to policies that can do serious damage.
Not all is hopeless. Family-friendly movies like Coco (2017) and Encanto (2021) have made notable steps forward, though there’s still a long way to go, particularly for films aimed more squarely at adults. Once again, Bardo and Argentina, 1985 show that not only this progress possible, but it can also yield the most ideal results.
A more nuanced step forward.
Bardo, Antonio Gonzalez Iñárritú’s deeply autobiographical film explores Mexican identity using profound symbolism. In one of the most memorable sequences of the film, The Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City, becomes the setting of a conversation between the protagonist, Silverio Gama, and conquistador Hernán Cortés. The two stand atop of a pile of murdered indigenous people and what seems to be the giant body of the god Cintéotl. This serves as a striking reminder of the horrors of colonization and the impact it still has today. The symbol becomes particularly resonant when we consider that the Zócalo was built on top of the ruins of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, one of the biggest cities of the Mexica people, destroyed during the Conquista.
However, the film doesn’t limit itself to showcasing the violence of the past. Victims of violence over the last few years dramatically faint in a powerful extended sequence that exemplifies the impact of their experience in the larger society. Bardo approaches Latin America without hiding reality and without reducing suffering and conflict for entertainment. The usage of symbolism in the film infuses Mexico with context and shows us how history continues to shape the nation’s sense of identity. And, as a plus, the cinematography (for which it received an Academy Award nomination) is truly amazing to behold.
A positive difference.
Argentina, 1985 also embraces the darkness of the past, but instead of symbolism, it approaches reality through the lens of humanity and hope. The film follows the “Trial of the Juntas,” the civilian trial of the human rights violations committed in the late 70s and early 80s during the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla. Instead of forcing the audience to experience or even relive some of the most difficult moments in Argentinian history, the film focuses on those who made a positive difference.
It follows Julio Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo and their team of young lawyers tasked with prosecuting these high stake trials. They persist through threats and ever-increasing challenges and show a facet of Latin America that rarely makes it to the screen: the constant efforts of institutionality, justice, and the work that many are doing to try to mend the wounds of the past.
While it has a more positive outlook, the film doesn’t diminish the atrocities of the Videla dictatorship. In fact, it uses the trial as a vehicle for an exercise in collective memory. There are extended montage sequences that show witnesses and victims expressing in harrowing detail the horrors that they experienced. What sets them apart is that they are almost exact replicas of the actual testimonies of the televised trials in the 80s and exemplify the impact of these atrocities on real humans. But they also remind us that, despite the darkness, people are willing to make a difference.
Latin America, its politics, and its culture are fascinating. And so much more than what Hollywood often portrays. Hopefully, these films can open the door for a more layered depiction, break an exhausted mold, and finally lift that yellow filter off the camera.