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Set in 1915, Prisioneros de la Tierra (1939) follows a ruthless contractor who seduces and forces men into hard labor at a Yerba plantation. Injustices and cruelty are witnessed by a drunken doctor and his daughter and soon create an untenable situation.
In the early 1930s, the Argentine film business was barely in existence. Countries like Mexico and Brazil produced the bulk of Latin American films and the uneasy politics of the country made it seem as though Argentina would never be stable enough to support a booming film industry. However, in 1939, the great Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the film, “it is superior—faint praise!—to many that our resigned republic has given birth to (and applauded). It is also superior to most of the films that California and Paris sent us recently. One incredible and sure touch: there is not a single comic scene in the course of this exemplary film. . . In similar scenes in other pictures, brutal people are tasked to perform brutal acts; in Prisioneros de la Tierra it is the hero [Esteban Podeley] who must perform it, and he is almost intolerably efficient.”
Prisioneros de la Tierra changed everything. Unlike Allá en el Rancho Grande, this is not an upbeat musical that denies the need for a benevolent state. Made under a state controlled by the PRI, the Mexican film follows the conservative idea of the time that no more revolution is needed and a capitalist and just society has arrived. Argentina at this time was a very different place. The political and economic context in Argentina was not favorable for the development of a cinematic industry, for it coincided with what historians call the Infamous Decade (1930–43).
This was a period characterized by fraudulent elections designed to keep Hipólito Yrigoyen and his Radical Civic Union Party from regaining political power, by widespread corruption, and by an economic policy that sought to satisfy two constituencies: the landowning oligarchy and the workers, but often failed in the latter. At this time, Juan Peron was gaining momentum among these workers who felt left behind by their corrupt government. He would exercise state power to regulate the economy and place his worker supporters on a pedestal, but that would come a couple of years after this film.
All over Latin America, there was a growing need for the lawlessness of their society to be stamped out by a benevolent state. Authors across the continent made this the subject of their books. The Misiones region featured in the film links it to contemporary authors of regionalist works, most notably Horacio Quiroga (four of whose psychologically complex stories the film adapts), but also José Eustasio Rivera, whose 1924 novel La vorágine (The Vortex) denounces the exploitation of rubber workers in the tropical jungles of Colombia. They wrote of a beautiful land condemned to be exploited by foreign capital.
This is the main conflict of the film. Kohner is an Argentine of German descent who seduces men with the promise of wealth or forcibly takes them to his Yerba plantation. These men receive no riches. In one of the opening sequences, one of the workers is paid with an IOU instead of cash. This practice, widespread in 1915, when the film is set, was declared illegal in 1925, yet the practice continued into the 1940s when the Perón government finally enforced the provisions of the 1925 law. The film’s political message for contemporary viewers is therefore that Argentina needs a benevolent state willing and able to protect the rights of workers like Esteban against the excesses of ruthless foreign capitalists and their local representatives like Kohner.
The director, Mario Soffici, creates a land devoid of good powerful people. It is a mystical, beautiful, and imprisoning land. Even the rich are imprisoned. In a powerful string of scenes, we see Kohner in his office listening to German classical music and lamenting the fact that he cannot go to his father’s homeland and is instead bound to this godforsaken country. Unironically, he seems to forget that he is the one that creates the miserable conditions. And yet, his sorrows make sense. The doctor’s daughter, Chinita, later remarks that he is doomed to never know love due to his misunderstanding of the land. The following scene, however, cuts to the people that this trapped jailer has imprisoned. We see the workers or mensú on the boat as they sing a Guarani song (not German or Spanish) about how the mensú is condemned to suffer through overwork unless a woman can come along and heal them. No matter what position you hold or what language you speak, you cannot escape this beautiful and haunting land.
Everyone is a prisoner. Esteban, our heroic protagonist, is indebted and even when he pays off his contract, the superiors lie to keep him at the plantation. Kohner is doomed to a lonely and domineering life on the plantation. But it is the doctor who represents the true personification of this imprisonment. After years of trying to remedy the ills of the inhabitants of this land, he has become a nihilistic alcoholic. He is a drunken mess who knows that no effort he makes will get him out. He sees men like Esteban and Kohner as deluded with the false idea that they can get out. His daughter, Chinita, on the other hand, personifies the beautiful and destructive nature of the land that seduces and destroys men.
At one point when Esteban is sick, she appears to him and in his blurry vision, she seems like a Virgin Mary, ready to save him. Near the end of the film, however, her father is in the throes of his alcohol-induced paranoia hallucinations when he sees her blurry figure and thinks the worst. He takes a stick and hits her over the head, killing her and the last bit of hope he had. This is the final sign that no one is going to be able to leave the plantation. The doctor is debilitated with grief and the closest Esteban comes to real change is when he organizes a massive escape. The workers run off while he merely switches roles with Kohner, beating him with a whip until he dies. When he hears the news about his love Chinita, he cannot escape. He decides to die where she did and is gunned down by Kohner’s men. In Soffici’s eyes, this is Argentina’s curse. Maybe we can reverse roles between oppressor and oppressed but in its current state, the country cannot expect any real change. They will be condemned to an existence in a beautiful and cruel land.