One of the great pleasures of silent cinema is that there are always hidden corners to explore, new flavors to discover. About a year ago, I realized how many silent movies were made in Latin America and how little English-speaking fans know about them, myself included.
This is my contribution to Once Upon a Screen’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Be sure to read the other posts!
Armed with a desire to know more and the generous help of kind academics and Latin American readers, I decided to spend an entire month watching nothing but silent films made in Spanish-speaking nations. (I also reviewed Limite, which is a masterpiece of Brazilian cinema. It doesn’t count toward Hispanic heritage but I want to send a nod its way anyway because it’s brilliant and more people should see it.)
I am not an expert in Latin American silent film after my month-long exploration. Quite the opposite! This month has shown me how much more I need to learn but it has also left me hungry for more. Here are a few things I picked up along the way:
It’s easy to get started! Many of these films are available for free and legal streaming thanks to their nation’s archives.
What’s better than a silent movie? A free silent movie! Many, many, many Latin American silent films have been made available for streaming as part of the cultural heritages of their respective countries. Does it get any better?
Here is a partial list in alphabetical order:
(Most of these links will include sound films as well but we’re not going to complain about bonus talkies, are we?)
Do you know of a free and legal Latin American silent film source that I didn’t list? Please share!
Due to the relative lack of a studio system, many of these films were labors of love.
In the case of Wara Wara, José María Velasco Maidana wanted to put Bolivian history on the big screen in the style of a Hollywood epic. He called on his friends from within the Bolivian art community to help and his home was full of costumers sewing the performers’ outfits. Velasco Maidana wrote, directed and played the violin to entertain his workers.
The result is an intimate film that examines colonialism and gives the indigenous culture of the Aymara and Incan people a fair shake beyond the cliched “noble savage” nonsense that Hollywood still trots out on occasion.
By the way, as of this writing, Wara Wara is the only silent era Bolivian film still in existence.
There are harrowing tales of loss and recovery
Alas, the silent cinema of Latin America has a shockingly low survival rate. The one silver lining is that the tales of recovery are that much more exciting, which is small comfort but we’ll take it.
Wara Wara was found in a trunk as an unedited negative. Chile’s The Hussar of Death was discovered with missing title cards but, fortunately, writer-director-star Pedro Sienna was still alive and assisted in the restoration.
Heavy political content and a fresh perspective
Colombia’s Claws of Gold is definitely not for the sensitive but good lord is it impressively strong meat. The film tackles the corrupt U.S. government forces behind the secession of Panama and the takeover of the famous canal and no punches are pulled. Plus, we get some very 1920s dancing.
Anybody who thinks that political content in movies is a modern phenomenon is kindly directed to run, not walk, to this picture.
By the way, it was hidden in a movie theater due to the fact that the State Department was trying to suppress its release and was rediscovered in the 1980s. Told you this gets harrowing.
Letting their hair down
Lest you think that it’s all gloom and politics, Mexico’s The Ghost Train proves that there is fun to be had as well. It’s a Fairbanks-meets-Feuillade adventure with train robbers and fabulous stunts. Light as a feather but you won’t be bored for a minute.
Women participated in the silent cinema of Latin America as directors and writers but only fragments of their work remain. Lost films are always a tragedy but some sting more than others.
Latin American silent cinema is vibrant and varied and exciting. I figured it would be all these things going in but was unprepared for how much fun I had making this journey. I feel honored to help spread the word about these wonderful films.
In general, I have to admit that Chile has been teacher’s pet but everybody should give these silent films a shot and see which nation becomes their favorite.
I’m so glad that I took this journey and hope that you will give it a shot as well. There are so many cinematic treasures to discover and the cinema of Latin America has some of the finest in the world.
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