OBITUARY: Maria Luisa Bemberg

The film-maker Maria Luisa Bemberg's home, in the Recoleta area of Buenos Aires, was deluged in the last weeks of her life with messages of support from men and women who had been part of her audience.

People felt they were losing one of those rare human mixtures: a woman with charm, genius, and a rebellious and pioneering spirit. In particular, it was her female characters, historical and contemporary figures resisting relegation and humiliation in an unjust society, that captured Argentina's support and imagination in the decade after the end of military dictatorship in 1983.

Bemberg was born into one of Argentina's wealthiest families, in 1922. Her father, Otto, was a patriarch and business wizard who took no nonsense from the women in the family, employed 30 different nannies to educate Maria Luisa in English, French and Spanish, and made sure the girl was not allowed to come under the corrupting influence of the movies. She grew up, she married into her class, she divorced, called for the cleaners and decided that she was going to be put down no more. Her four children, and later her 14 grandchildren, became her closest supporters.

She went into partnership with a theatrical and literary agent, Catalina Wulff, and set up the ground-breaking theatre company Teatro del Globo, then made a couple of advertising shorts. At the age of 48, she wrote her first script. It was Cronica de Una Senora (1970), for the director Raul de la Torre, which was followed by Triangular De Cuatro (1975).

Ten years later, at 58, she went solo with the feature Momentos (1980), about a middle-aged married woman who falls in love with a young man. It took prizes at Huelva, Chicago, and Cartagena. In 1982 came Senora De Nadie, about a browbeaten upper-class wife who breaks away from an indifferent and adulterous husband, which won awards at Taormina and Panama.

Her biggest and most lasting success opened in 1983: Camila is based on her life of a 19th-century woman, Camila O'Gorman, from an upper-class Buenos Aires family, who falls in love with a young priest. The incident was used at the time by opponents of the governor, General Juan Manuel de Rosas, who had attempted to stop the scandal by ordering the execution of the couple, she having become pregnant. Camila was nominated for an Oscar, among other awards.

But it was Miss Mary (1986), originally to be called "Miss Maggie", but for the name of the prime minister in Britain at the time, which won Bemberg wider international audiences. The "Miss Mary" of the title, played by Julie Christie, is an English nanny who, as the employee of a family of the old oligarchy, witnesses the rites of passage and the corruption of a macho-led society in the 1930s. It was Bemberg's upbringing taken to film.

Her life of Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz, I, the Worst of All (1990), was not a success. Long-winded, slow it was, but it was also a magnificent historical recreation of colonial Mexico in the 17th century, and of the repression suffered by a woman who is now celebrated as one of the founding poets and writers of Latin America.

Another controversial film was to follow, before Bemberg's strength seriously began to wane. De eso no se habla ("We Don't Talk About It"), which she made in 1992, and which starred Marcello Mastroianni, is about the love affair between an Italian and a dwarf. The story exploited once again the hypocrisy of Argentine society: mealy-mouthed in its charity and expostulations of concern; Fascist in its rejection of the unconventional or perceived threats.

Maria Luisa Bemberg was not a feminist, she said, in the militant and almost pejorative sense given the word, but identified herself as a woman determined to be treated as an equal and convinced she was going to enjoy herself while achieving that equality. She explained her aims thus in an interview: "My films are an attempt to make women recognise themselves and learn more about themselves through the protagonists' predicament. This is my ethical commitment, helping them to be free." There was little doubt that, for herself, she had achieved it, and left a band of disciples who will surely follow her road to freedom.

Before her death, she had been working on the adaptation of a novel by Silvina Ocampo, The Impostor. On 21 March this year, she donated her own and her family collection of paintings - a magnificent gift - to the Argentinian National Fine Arts Museum.

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Maria Luisa Bemberg, film- maker: born 14 April 1922; married; died 7 May 1995.

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