Camila (Bemberg, 1984) is primarily an assault on traditional Argentine patriarchal culture rather than an allegory of the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. Do you agree with this assessment of Bemberg’s film?
In my personal opinion, the statement that Maria Luisa Bemberg’s 1984 film Camila is mainly an assault on traditional Argentine patriarchal culture, rather than an allegory of the state’s military dictatorship, is not correct. Actually, this film truly is an attack against the patriarchal family values that dominated the state’s society during the 19th Century but along with that, it is a reflection of the tyrannical government that ruled the land of silver from 1976 to 1983. This allegory is not easy to find and to the common viewer, this statement will look as undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, if the spectator looks at the historical factors that contributed to the film’s creation, as well as with the plot, i.e. how it breaks out, they will find lots of relationships between the patriarchal views of the father of the main character in the 19th century and the principles of Jorge Rafael Vidala, the person responsible for establishing military dictatorship in Argentina in 1976. Camila’s father is a dictator at home just like Vidala, as then-president of Argentina, rules the state society with iron fists. On the other hand, Camila’s rebellion against her father can easily be linked to the civil war in Argentina that started as a revolt against the authoritarian regime that ruled the state through force and fear until it was abolished. The reason why director Maria Luisa Bemberg chose to use allegory instead of direct reflection is quite conspicuous. The film was released in 1984 but it obviously took her a few years to complete and disseminate her piece of art nation- and respectfully worldwide. The authorities could have charged Bemberg for breaking the state censorship regarding media and cinema. As a result, the director and her crew could have been arrested and deported to camps or in the least severe case, they could be banned from working in the film and media industry.
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To begin with, as I implied in the introduction of this essay, Argentina is a country with history in which events happened in parallel in the late nineteenth century under the rule of Juan Manuel de Rosas and during the military dictatorship alike. For instance, during the authoritarian regime in the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, women were isolated from society and treated like second class citizens just like they were oppressed under the grip of the 19th Century patriarchal society. Inequality of genders and the opposition to it by certain people was one of the key traits of these two particular historical periods. Knowing that well, Maria Luisa Bemberg gains advantage of the conditions under which women lived in the 19th Century Argentina to allegorically reflect the characteristics of the authoritarian government in the late 20th Century. This is how the film Camila (1984) came to existence. In the book South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, editor and critic, Timothy Bernard assesses Bemberg’s movie as possibly inspired by one of her earlier works, a motion picture called Señora de nadie (1982). The movie tells the story of a young woman who leaves her family, in order to achieve happiness, sexual and emotional alike. Because of this film, director Bemberg has had numerous disputes with the government due to the presence of the issue of homosexuality which is shown in the woman’s friendship with a gay man. In Camila, the protagonist Camila O’Gorman also seeks happiness wanting to get rid of the patriarchal oppression of her father and her fiancé, a wealthy man named Ignacio whom she loves not. In addition, she challenges the ideas of the 19th Century Argentine society under the iron grip of President Juan Manuel de Rosas. In my opinion, there is a great portion of truth in Bernard’s assessment. The woman in Señora de nadie shares many similarities with Camila O’Gorman. They both want the same thing. Those wishes are simply shown in diverse aspects. The wife of nobody has a friendship with a homosexual guy, something which was unacceptable in the 19th century Argentine culture and during the 1970s military dictatorship as well. In contrast, Camila falls in love and tries to escape with a priest, a deed which was then considered equally sinful from religious and from social point of view. Nevertheless, despite the many similarities between the two characters, in Camila, there is one thing that makes the protagonist different from the main personality in Señora de nadie. A clear illustration of this statement is the scene where during a family meal, Camila openly criticizes de Rosas’ ways of governing a state, something which is unacceptable in her father’s eyes due to the inequality of men and women in favor of the strong gender. His reaction is obvious – rage engendered by the fact that his daughter who, he thinks, is meant to be obedient to his will, dares talking about politics. Through his prism, such behaviour is not considered for someone who is thought of by society as a second class citizen. During the 20th Century military junta from 1976 to 1983, anyone, especially a woman, who is open-minded enough to castigate the regime, will be viewed as a criminal, an enemy of the state and certainly jailed or possibly executed. This is also another parallel between events in the history of Argentina which proves that Camila is not an assault on traditional culture rather than allegory of the 1976-1983 authoritarian government. It is an equal portion of both an attack on patriarchal and military oppression, respectively during the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Furthermore, the fact that the film was released in 1984, less than a year after the fall of the authoritarian regime, says a lot about its hidden characteristics. In the above mentioned critical essay regarding Bemberg’s work, the author Timothy Bernard annotates Camila O’Gorman’s desire and endeavor to gain identity and break the chains of the patriarchal traditions under which she was brought up. In the context of the film which is based on a real historical event, this assessment is true. Correspondingly, from 1976 to 1983, many Argentineans were also struggling to get rid of the grip of the authorities, be it by escaping the country or by secretly and illegally forming groups that were plotting to remove the ruling regimentation from power. Another famous film critic also talks about historical parallelism with reference to the context of Bemberg’s motion picture and a hundred and fifty years later. This is what David William Foster says in his book Contemporary Argentine Cinema, Chapter 1, entitled “Camila: Beauty and Bestiality”: ‘A film like Maria Luisa Bemberg’s Camila (1984) is an interesting example of sustained narrative overdeterminations and at the same time, it introduces significant punctuative ruptures for the purpose of encouraging a revised reading of the evoked historical text…’. In this quote, I assume that the key words are ‘revised reading’. What does Foster mean by saying ‘revised reading’ though? In the presence of historical equivalence, the response will come out quickly. To do a revised reading means not just to literally interpret Camila and its 19th Century background. Paying attention to the actual world circumstances is a must for us as film analysts, if we are to fortify our understanding of what Bemberg really wants to tell the spectator. To supplement, David Foster’s elucidations also focus on that if a text’s meaning can be deciphered too easily, the text receives a manipulative complexion and forces the understanding in the mind of the viewer that this text can only be close read or expounded in one single way. As an illustration serves the statement that the film Camila is rather an assault on Argentine patriarchal values rather than allegoric reflection of the oppressive government that ruled the country in the late 20th Century. In my opinion, this definition of the movie sort of forcefully attempts to coerce the film examiner to interpret it only as a challenger of events that occurred hundred and fifty years ago. In modern film criticism and in film criticism as a form of proofreading, there is no place for one-sidedness. If Bemberg had wanted only to remind the viewer of a juncture that came into being a whole century and a half ago, she would have probably started making the movie some couple of years after the end of the military tyranny. Provided the film’s shooting began during the last years of the authoritarian militaristic regime, one could assume that the famous film director wanted to achieve something more than just a recreation of a past occurrence. As David Foster clarifies, Rosas’ rule is based on violence, terror and abyss of human rights, specifically violence against women. In parallel, a century and a half later, Jorge Vidala and his successor were brutally dealing with any political opponents, real or imaginary alike. The Dirty War from the 1970s and the early 1980s, as Foster states are happenings that, in spite of having emerged in different periods, can be given identical attributes such as bloody oppression, tortures, executions etc. This annotation of the renowned film critic can as well serve as a justification of the statement that it is not correct to interpret Camila only as an attack on the patriarchal family doctrine typical for the 1800s Argentina. As a result, the analogue between the background of Camila and the situation in the land of silver in the 1970s and the early 1980s is well visible. Taking advantage of this parallelism, Maria Luisa Bemberg uses one past event to reflect another and meanwhile, she manages to avoid arrest, jail, beating or possibly even a death penalty.
Finally, my assumption that ‘Camila (Bemberg, 1984) is equally a rejection of the Argentine patriarchal society and an allegory of the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983′ cannot be fully argumented without a comparison between Maria Luisa Bemberg’s film and another motion picture that is directly reflecting the hard life of prisoners during Vidala’s junta. One such film is Israel Adrian Caetano’s 2006 historical drama called Cronica de una fuga (Chronicle of an Escape). It is about four men who are fortunate enough to escape a prison camp after being tortured for some definite period of time. When looking at Caetano’s film and Bemberg’s masterpiece, one can see lots of similarities between the main characters of both films. To illustrate, both Camila O’Gorman and the four men want freedom, even though this freedom desire is shown in different aspects. Camila wants to escape her pro-Rosas father’s clutches and seek her happiness the way she wants. She finds herself in love with a Catholic priest with whom she tries to flee and live a happy love life. In Cronica de una fuga, our heroes, Claudio, Guillermo, Vasco and Gallego want to get rid of the constraints that life in military jail has put them through. As a result, one can infer that the motif of escaping is present in both these jewels of Argentine cinema. Specifically about Chronicle of an Escape, director Caetano annotates in an interview for Netscape Cinematical at the Movies at the Toronto Film Festival, that the traces of a dictatorship that ended almost thirty years ago are still visible today. Obviously, Caetano wants to remind the viewers of a historical period that cannot be forgotten easily. He adds that some people see violence, torture, political oppression, fear of force as the only way to build a just society which conspicuously is not true through his prism. It is therefore evident for us as common film critics to conclude that through Cronica de una fuga, Caetano aims to also show his point of view that violence and oppression only make things worse in a certain society instead of improving its condition. Analogically, in Maria Luisa Bemberg’s film Camila, her father firmly believes in the preservation of the 19th Century patriarchal order. He shares the same point of view as Dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. From the final scene of Camila and Ladislao’s execution, his vision becomes clear. For him, there is nothing more important than keeping his aristocratic and male-controlled family order and this should be achieved by all means, even if his own child is to be shot. Moreover, Camila is pregnant at the time of her death. According to Rosas’ constitution, it is against the law to kill a pregnant woman, even if she is a political opponent or has committed a very heavy crime. Consequently, in Camila O’Gorman’s case, her pro-Rosas father is even ready to break the law only because his sort of holy mission is to preserve the aristocratic honor of his family. In correlation, during Vidala’s rule in 1976 until its overthrow, nothing was more essential than the preservation of the order which he established. This means the regime was supposed to survive at all cost, be it through deportations of political opponents, or with the means of torture, imprisonment and even capital punishment. Along with that, the book Magical Reels by John King supplements my understanding of both the incorrect interpretation of Bemberg’s photoplay primarily as rejection of traditional family praxis. Apparently, John King also sees this film as a fifty-fifty. He looks at it as a film in which ‘the spectator can perceive the contrast between the traditional patriarchal and the utopic family’. In other words, this is a clash between old and new, conservativism and progressivism. Camila O’Gorman and her lover, Ladislao belong to a new world, new way of thinking that has broken the chains of old-fashioned conservative conventions of the 19th Century Argentine society. In equivalence, people who were victims of Vidala’s authoritarianism, along with those who were lucky enough to get away from its grasp, view militaristic monocracy as immature form of governing a country with ruptured economy and values. For instance, as it is in Chronicle of an Escape, knowing that they alone are not strong enough to end the reigning tyranny, the four prisoners come up with the idea of undertaking another risky move – escaping the jail and leave Argentina as soon as possible. They are fully aware of the fact that on their way to searching freedom, they could be shot or possibly caught and jailed under even more severe conditions but at the same time, they cognize that this is their only chance to run away from hell. It is now or never. And as the spectators know, the captives’ goal of escaping gets accomplished in the end and they go respectively to Spain, France, Italy and other parts of the free world. In the same way, in Camila, Ladislao and his lover realize that only if they run away, can they achieve the romantic happiness they both have been longing for, since they fell in love. And if this jewel of Argentine film industry had been made and respectively released, a decade after the dictatorship’s end, I assume, it would possibly have been not about the Camila O’Gorman, who opposed her father’s conservative concepts of a woman’s role in the family. Instead, M. L. Bemberg would have possibly been more direct in her view and would make her female character a fighter for women’s right of being noticed with good by society in circumstances of a tyrannical misogynist government that obliged women to cover their hair and treated them as second class citizens. All this explains exactly why it is not correct to look at Maria Luisa Bemberg’s film Camila with the above mentioned one-sidedness as follows from the title.
To summarize, with her motion picture, Bemberg not only shows her feminist point of view by rejecting the 19th Century culture of her native land. Through her protagonist, Camila O’Gorman, who is based on a real 1800s personality with the same name, the renowned film director metaphorically reflects and opposes the harsh reality and the difficult life during maybe the hardest and bloodiest period in the history of Argentina. This was a period of political repression, executions, prosecutions and even a civil war that fortunately ended with the overthrow of Jorge Vidala’s regime. Nevertheless, during its reign, over thirty thousand people disappeared. Disappear can mean anything – either fortunate enough to escape, or murdered, or put in a top secret state jail, etc. Correlatively, in Camila, the oppressed victim of patriarchal order attempts to escape but is executed. Therefore Argentina during the 1800s was a state of oppression and tyranny as well. This parallelism ultimately disproves the false statement that Bemberg’s work is predominantly challenging the 19th Century Argentine society.
WORDS: 3000 (Without footnotes, bibliography/filmography and title)
Bernard, Timothy, South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography (1996, University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, USA)
Caetano, Israel Adrian, Interview about Chronicle of an Escape, Host: James Rocchi, video by Alexia Prichard Netscape and Cinematical at the Movies, 2006, Toronto Film Festival, online at: http://blog.moviefone.com/2006/09/11/tiff-video-interview-chronicle-of-an-escape-director-israel-adr/ in Moviefone.com, created and owned by AOL Inc. © (2011)
Foster, David William, Contemporary Argentine Cinema (1992, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, Missouri, USA)
King, John, Magical Reels, (1990, Verso, London/New York, UK/USA)
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