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This week, I will start off with Argentina and specifically its history of using film to critique its own government and the bourgeoisie. This will be the first of three and I want to take this opportunity to say forgive me if I don’t get Argentina’s history 100% right. It’s all over the place.. Especially Peronism… I still don’t know what that is.
Camila (1984) tells the true life story of Camila O’Gorman, a member of an elite Irish-Argentine family whose politics and love life lead to her destruction. She falls in love with a Buenos Aires priest, Ladislao Gutierrez, and they immediately elope in the Corrientes Province. They teach children in a local village, but they are soon discovered and both Ladislao and an eight-month pregnant Camila are executed, forever victims of a cruel and unjust Rosas regime.
Rosas’ Reign: An Alternative to Chaos?
Before Rosas came to power, Argentina was not given the same special attention that Mexico or Peru were given until the rise of Buenos Aires. The city that would come to be known as the Paris of South America rose to prominence when it became the smuggling capital of South America. The Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was established in 1776 and pretty soon Argentina became the center of colonial action. There were constant wars with Brazil and conflicts over British and Portuguese encroachment. Rosas became the governor of the Buenos Aires Province in 1835 and promised to restore order. Buenos Aires would be a stable capital.
Rosas’ reign was marked by an increase in tyranny and exiles. The famed Argentine poet, Esteban Echeverria, was exiled by Rosas for his political activism and is quoted in the film. Rosas had spies in every corner of the country. His secret police, the Mazorca, was famous all over Latin America for its brutal tactics. It was not until 1852 that Rosas was ousted by Justo Jose de Urquiza and forced to flee to England where he spent the remainder of his life. After his exile, modern Argentina was formed and they established a constitution. Rosas, for better or worse, is a founding father to the nation. But why in 1984 would director Maria Luisa Bemberg decide to direct a movie about this volatile moment in Argentina’s history?
Camila and the Dirty War
By telling a story about Rosas through the eyes of Camila O’Gorman, Bemberg is trying to establish Camila as the unsung mother of modern Argentina. At that time, mothers had been playing a huge role in Argentine politics. In 1977, the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protested to force the government to tell them what happened to their children who had been disappeared or killed for their political activism. While Rosas is never shown on screen, Camila is a prominent figure in the movie (obviously, it’s named after her). Bemberg is making a connection between the time of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Camila’s era.
In the posters advertising the movie, its caption reads “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) which were the words used as the title of the official Truth Commission report on the atrocities of the Dirty War. This military dictatorship had only just been vanquished when this movie was released. By harkening back to the Rosas regime without actually depicting Rosas, Bemberg shows the parallel between that time and their own while also emphasizing the importance of women like Camila or the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Bemberg was successful and Camila became the highest grossing movie of 1984 in Argentina even though it was up against ET!
Camila and “la Perichona”
Camila is a woman ahead of her time. Her grandmother on the other hand is trapped in the past. Though Camila and her grandmother, “la Perichona”, share many similarities. Her grandmother was also involved in an affair which forced her to be under house arrest for the remainder of her life. Famously, she had an affair with Santiago de Liniers, the 1st Count of Buenos Aires. Originally considered a hero when he fought the British, he fell out of favor when he fought against the independence of Argentina. Unlike her grandmother, progressive politics were very important in her search for love. When Camila’s friend reveals she is engaged to a handsome young man who just so happens to work for Rosas, Camila is unamused. How could she be with someone who likes Rosas? Camila’s grandmother never talks about political injustice. Later in her life, she lives in a land of make-believe waiting for her lover, Liniers, to come back. Camila is wide awake and only finds love when the new priest, Ladislao Gutierrez, shows his disapproval for Rosas.
Camila and Ladislao
Though Camila seems more aware of injustice than the rest of her family, next to her saintly lover, Ladislao, she seems extremely naive… at least at first. She does not understand just how much pain and suffering she is causing Ladislao because to fall in love with her would mean he would have to abandon his profession and his God. After one interaction with Camila, he goes to his room to whip himself for his sin while Camila goes to bed giddy. When he runs away with her, it’s clear that he is making the greater sacrifice. He is in constant conflict with his Jesuit values while Camila is clear-headed. She is sure because she is in love with a good man, that this is a good thing. It’s fairly simple for her. It isn’t until they are discovered that we see that Camila is the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, not Ladislao.
Ladislao gets discovered when he is invited to a cockfight of all places and he leaves abruptly. An army friend of Camila’s lets her know what is happening and gives her supplies to leave for Brazil. When she searches for Ladislao, she finally finds him in a church. She can’t take him away now that he is at peace and she can’t leave without her husband so she just won’t go. That is the moment we realize, just because she views things in simple ways does not mean she is incapable of sacrifice. Her simplicity is derived from her rigid moral compass which she is confident in, unlike Ladislao who doubts himself all the time. Camila is not naive, she is confident in her morals.
A Hopeful End
Camila and Ladislao meet their end in a firing squad. Bemberg could present this as a realist and gritty take on how regimes destroy hope and freedom, but she doesn’t. As Camila and Ladislao sit blindfolded in front of a firing squad, she asks where he is and he reassures he is at her side. In the next moment, the firing squad shoots. When the smoke is cleared, Ladislao is on the ground covered in blood and Camila is sitting straight up without a scratch on her. They shoot again and nothing happens. It takes three tries to finally kill Camila. Governments may be powerful but they cannot kill the spirit of women like Camila.
Even when Camila dies, the voice-over of Ladislao assuring her that he is at her side returns as the two are placed in a coffin together. Though they lay lifeless in that coffin, their love is still very much alive. Sure, it’s extremely melodramatic and sentimental but it’s effective. It’s no wonder that the first day that Camila started filming was also the day that Alfonsin, the first civilian president of Argentina, was sworn in. Camila exists at the dawn of a new era and Bemberg is extremely hopeful. The era of Rosas and Videla is over. It’s the era of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Camila.