Ever since Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros exploded onto American screens in 2000 -- followed soon after by Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También and Fernando Meirelles's City of God -- American audiences have been taking notice of Spanish and Latin American cinema. The year 2004 was no exception, with The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil's Walter Salles and Bad Education from Spain's Pedro Almodóvar the most widely seen.
It may not be fair to lump the movies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Spain together under one roof, but it is undeniable that films, directors, and actors from these countries have brought a new excitement to American audiences. And the films do share some similarities, beyond the obvious Spanish or Portuguese language. First and foremost is their sociopolitical point of view.
The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes' political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mamá También, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco's Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the Civil War in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico's Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).
Not yet released in the U.S., Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs, and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films -- City of God being the most notable example -- marry elements of Italian Neo-Realism with today's sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.
Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired -- and censorship no longer presents an obstacle.
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