Imagining History: Imagining Argentina & Chile
This list of three movies and one just-published novel that are about as good a starter set as you could find for Chile and Argentina.
The Mission (1986) by Roland Joffe;
Evita (1996) by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice;
Imagining Argentina (2004) by Lawrence Thornton;
Inés of My Soul (2006) by Isabel Allende
Review by Rick Price
As I prepared to write this review of one book and three films on the history of Chile and Argentina, Chile’s former US-backed dictator, Augusto Pinochet, died on December 10th, 2006. The New York Times carried a front page story recapping the highlights of Pinochet’s extraordinary rule that spanned the years from 1973 to 1988 and influenced the Chilean military for a decade beyond that. I was a fully conscious adult throughout that whole period but the Times article brought me a critical glimpse of history that, quite honestly, I had fairly well ignored.
During several days when I was reading the Times coverage of Pinochet’s death I was also watching the DVD, Imagining Argentina which is reviewed below. I began to ponder the question “where do we get our history?” Most of us aren’t historians and don’t have the time or expertise to search out the history of complex social issues or regional narratives. That leaves us the newspaper, perhaps the history channel, magazine articles, movies and the occasional historical novel or popular history book. The mere weight and amount of history that an educated person needs to absorb is overwhelming. This is why, I suppose, that we as a nation get involved in the making of regional histories without really knowing what we are doing. Our reluctance to enter World War II in Europe is an example of that and our rush into Iraq in 2003 is another example.
This is why travel offers us the perfect opportunity to refresh the blank spots in our understanding of history. The psychologists and social scientists tell us that the anticipation of traveling and the memories of travel are every bit as important to the travel experience as traveling itself. So if you are headed to southern Latin America these brief reviews might be useful to you.
How do you prefer your history? Straight up like a strong shot of espresso, maybe a double? Or would you prefer to soften the impact with a little milk and some chocolate mocha? This list includes three movies and one just-published novel that are about as good a starter set as you could find for Chile and Argentina. The events described are all historically accurate and serve to remind us that history does repeat itself over and over, including around the world as I write this essay.
The book and movies presented here span four and a half centuries of Latin American history. There are huge gaps, of course. But the panoramic view is pretty spectacular and includes:
1) the settlement of Peru and Chile by the Spanish in the mid 16th century (Isabel Allende’s 2006 novel, Inés of My Soul.
2) Roland Joffe’s story of Jesuit missionaries in the border regions of modern Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay in The Mission. The film tells the story of politics and religion in the mid 18th century.
3) Evita (1996) is the film version of the stage musical about Eva Duarte Perón, the wife of Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón. The film tells the story of the Argentine President and dictator in the immediate post World War II period.
4) Imagining Argentina (2004) From the novel by Lawrence Thornton starring Antonio Banderas and Emma Thompson. It is set during the “dirty war” in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Paola and I began our review of Latin American history with Evita,. We found it fascinating and very entertaining – the chocolate mocha approach to history if you will. I can’t imagine a better team to put something like this together between the actors Madonna and Antonio Banderas and the score by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. Of course the story line in the film raised more questions than it answered, causing us to head to the library to find books on 20th century Argentine history (we found Jonathan C. Brown’s, A Brief History of Argentina, 2003, Facts on File, Inc.)
Eva Duarte was a third rate actress and sometime prostitute who made it big in Buenos Aires in the post-war period when she married Juan Perón, helping him to dominate his second election for president with an astounding 64% of the vote in 1951. Perón’s populist party took full advantage of “Evita’s” humble origins. She quickly became the heroine of Argentine women by supporting women’s suffrage in 1947 and as well as that of the working class. Eva Perón died of cancer in 1953 at the age of thirty-three while her husband continued to play a role in Argentine politic until his death in 1974.
Following up on modern Argentine history, Imagining Argentina is a brutal representation of a dark, dark period in Latin American history, that of the “disappeared” during the “dirty war” in Argentina from 1976 through 1983. Estimates are that thirty thousand political opponents, or those so identified, were kidnapped and murdered by the military junta that took control of Argentina after Juan Perón’s death in 1974.
Imagining Argentina is history “straight up” with no flavoring or sweetener. Antonio Banderas plays the director of a children’s theater in Buenos Aires. His wife (Emma Thompson) is a newspaper reporter who disappears one evening from their home. She was targeted for something she had written against the regime.
The movie unfolds with Banderas marching with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the protest group of women who lost family members to the junta. Banderas takes on the peculiar and unbelievable role of a clairvoyant who can “see” what happens to many of the disappeared. This flashback device, in the end, is very effective in conveying the history of a tragic era. It is also very brutal and not for the faint of heart. I enjoyed this movie, though it left me deeply disturbed.
Working backwards in time, Roland Joffe’s story of Jesuit missionaries in the border regions of modern Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay presents a fascinating snapshot of a little known period of history. The New York Times travel section featured this area recently under the title, "Missions of a Last Utopia," by Larry Rohter. Read that story, see this movie and I’ll bet you’ll be ready to go. I am.
The film tells the story of politics and religion in the mid 18th century at a time when Jesuit missionaries were proselytizing while the Portuguese (and some Spanish) were still capturing the indigenous population and enslaving them. The missions are caught in a political dispute between Spain and Portugal. The outcome is tragic and shocking but fascinating. Look at any map of Latin America and you’ll find the northeastern-most “protrusion” of Argentina along the Uruguay River separating Brazil and Paraguay. This is the “Misiones” region where the historic events occurred. It is also the site of Iguazu Falls, one of the most important tourist destinations in Latin America. We’re exploring a possible ExperiencePlus! tour in the area.
Inés of My Soul
Finally, to go back to the beginnings of European settlement in South America, Isabel Allende does a wonderful job of weaving her story of Inés Suárez, from Spain, into the principal events of Spanish history in Peru and Chile between 1540 and 1580. I’ve visited the principal venues where this story takes place, namely Cuzco, Peru, Santiago, Chile and Valdivia, Chile. Having been there makes this story come even more alive.
Paola is preparing to read this book as we head off to Chile and Argentina over the next several weeks (we’re likely there as you read this). I will see if I can convince her to write a review of the book. Her perspective as a feminist scholar on 16th century Italian (namely Venetian) literature will offer a valuable perspective on Allende’s description of a Spanish woman in the 16th century New World. So stay tuned for that.
My perspective, of course, is that of professional geographer, amateur historian and avid traveler. I found the book fascinating, especially the treatment of daily life of the explorers, the colonists, and the indigenous peoples. Of course, this is a fiction work based on the life of historic figures, including Inés Suárez. Allende spent four years doing background research for the novel. On one hand one wonders if life was anything nearly as violent as what she recounts. On the other hand, to understand that it was you simply need to remind yourself of what’s going on in the world today and what has gone on in just the last century. In the end so much of history isn’t pretty.