What's happened to salsa's celluloid soul?

The 11th Latin American Film Festival should offer more than clichéd brochure-friendly images.
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The Independent Culture

Three street punks look longingly at a cardboard cut-out of a bikini clad babe, an advert for beach holidays in the Caribbean. This image, the opening shot of Spanish film Barrio, sums up European attitudes to Latin America: a place of lush sensuality and exoticism, as attractive as it is artificial. Thank God, then, for the 11th Latin American Film Festival (at which Barrio will be shown), which opens at the Metro Cinema in London next Friday and allows British viewers a chance to look beyond the stereotypes.

Three street punks look longingly at a cardboard cut-out of a bikini clad babe, an advert for beach holidays in the Caribbean. This image, the opening shot of Spanish film Barrio, sums up European attitudes to Latin America: a place of lush sensuality and exoticism, as attractive as it is artificial. Thank God, then, for the 11th Latin American Film Festival (at which Barrio will be shown), which opens at the Metro Cinema in London next Friday and allows British viewers a chance to look beyond the stereotypes.

Recent history has not been kind to Latin American cinema. The glory days of the politically committed film-making of the Sixties - Chile's Miguel Littin and Brazil's cinema novo - are long past. In the Eighties and Nineties sporadic revivals came to nought. Fine film-makers such as Miguel Larrain - whose atmospheric La frontera achieved rare UK distribution - proved unable to sustain promising careers after initial successes. Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador were always unlikely to field more than one feature a year and even Mexico, with great filmic traditions to fall back on, was weakened.

What went wrong? US dominance and dictatorship at home played their part. The lack of a single market in a continent far larger and more varied than Europe remained a problem.

Spain's cinematic Renaissance in the Eighties was fuelled by a single director: Pedro Almodovar. Latin America has no equivalent figure. And when Europe turned to new territories, in the Nineties, they were East Asian.Ironically, the best known recent feature shot in Argentina was from Hong Kong: Wong Kar Wai's gay love story Happy Together.

The London Latin American Film Festival itself has not been without its problems. The Mexican films that were originally scheduled have dropped out. Meanwhile, the opening feature (Joyce Sherman's Salsa) is actually French and the largest number of features come from Spain. That Spain is part of Latin America would come as a surprise to most Spaniards, who are the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration in the EU and often ambivalent to their ex-colonies across the water.

Such qualms aside, there's much to enjoy. Showcasing some 40 features from 10 countries, almost all of them British premieres, plus a wide selection of documentaries, LAFF highlights include major new releases by established figures such as Littin and Larrain. But the main feature of the festival is the eclectic combination of historical epic and contemporary social comment.

Littin's Tierra del Fuego is a politically charged period picture worthy of a director with a distinguished anti-Fascist record. The film recreates an episode of brutal exploitation typical of the region's history. A European engineer (played by Strawberry and Chocolate's Jorge Perrugorla), beset by trouble as he mines in the bleak southern territories, offers gold coins in exchange for the body parts of mutilated Indians.

Visually worlds apart, Sergio Rezende's Maua, the Emperor and the King is a lavish historical epic charting the rags-to-riches story of Brazil's first capitalist. A stately heritage picture, let down by a saccharine musical score, Maua replays Merchant-Ivory in the unfamiliar setting of the 19th-century tropics. Maua also features some sober asides on Brazil's shamefully late abolition of slavery.

Somewhere between Littin's austerity and Rezende's extravagance is Larrain's stylish psychological drama Enthusiasm, which boasts terrific performances and stunning desert locations. A love triangle starring Maribel Verdu, one of Spain's best-loved actresses, Enthusiasm charts the bitter aftermath of Chile's dictatorship in which the personal and the political intertwine. Featuring handsome night photography and some barbed commentary on eco-tourism, Enthusiasm poses two questions: which lover will the lady choose and which course will post-dictatorship Chile take? As Chile's supreme court clears the way for Pinochet's possible prosecution the answer could hardly be more topical.

The Spanish selections in the Festival echo the Latin American trends, on the one hand investigating a violent history, on the other, exploring a problematic present.

The most expert example of the first tendency is Secrets of the Heart by established Basque ruralist, Montxo Armendariz. Appealing to a long tradition in Spanish cinema that stretches back to the late Francoist The Spirit of the Beehive, Armendariz uses the imaginative fantasies of a child to deal obliquely with the horrors of history. Nine-year-old Javi, growing up in the Sixties, confronts sex and death as he investigates a haunted house, a missing father, and the puzzling noises from his mother's bedroom. Sensitive but not sentimental, Secrets is a key Spanish film of the Nineties.

Very different, but equally successful, is Barrio, by newcomer Fernando Leon de Aranoa. Shot entirely in the mean streets of Madrid, it makes use of locations rarely shown in a Spanish cinema that, post-Almodovar, tends to celebrate the hedonistic pleasures of the city. Here the subways, freeways and high rises of the suburbs are the bleak habitat of Leon's three ugly protagonists, played by non-professionals plucked from the unemployment lines by the director.

At the same time, this is not a question of either/or. Aranoa has set his gritty visuals of land locked Madrid to a sensuous Caribbean soundtrack. The reality and the dream of the Spanish-speaking world...If UK audiences can overcome their aversion to subtitles, they have a feast in store.

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