Latinbeart 2008: The Heart of Latin America Is Strong

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The New York Sun

Latinbeat, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual survey of Latin American cinema, kicks off its 11th annual edition on Friday with a program of 28 films from 11 countries. Also included in the series are a handful of sidebars, including Spotlight on Chile, the centennial celebration of the Brazilian author Machado de Assis, and a tribute to the Oscar-nominated Puerto Rican filmmaker Jacobo Morales. In some regards, the event is larger in scale than the New York Film Festival, which immediately follows it at Lincoln Center this month — not that most cinephiles around the city would know it.

“In New York, there should be an even greater presence for Latin American cinema, considering the number of Spanish speakers and people from Latin America we have,” the program director of FSLC, Richard Peña, who also curates Latinbeat alongside Marcela Goglio, said. “In a way, this series is, for many people, a little bit of a lifeline. It’s about the only time all year they get to see a real concentration of good work from Latin America.”

But aside from taking up the general need for a festival showcasing Latin American talent, Mr. Peña also felt compelled to address the relative dearth of these films in the New York Film Festival, which has already garnered its share of cheers and jeers for its heavily French roster of films. Though a few Latin American movies will screen at the NYFF, which begins September 26 (namely Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman,” Gerardo Naranjo’s “I’m Going to Explode,” and Steven Soderbergh’s Spanish-language biopic “Che”), Mr. Peña explained that, when choosing films for the NYFF, he courts the best, without consideration for region or ethnicity.

“Many of these films, for various reasons, wouldn’t enter the New York Film Festival or New Directors/New Films, where, in my mind, the artistic standards are much higher,” Mr. Peña said of the Latinbeat lineup. “Certainly, as is our way here at the Film Society, we tend to lean more toward films that we think are artistically significant and ambitious. That doesn’t mean we don’t have wonderful comedies like ‘O Pai, O,’ the Brazilian film this year, which I think is a really lovely, luscious film — a beautifully made film, but a very commercial film.”

Ms. Goglio has been behind most of the programming decisions for Latinbeat, having started out as a volunteer for the program in 1997. Mr. Peña credited her curatorial skills and passion for Latin American art for making Latinbeat a reality.

“Marcela has made a real effort to reach out to countries that one doesn’t normally think of in terms of cinema,” Mr. Peña said. “For example, a number of films this year are from Uruguay. We have Central American films from Ecuador. This is, I think, one of the recent phenomena of Latin American cinema. It is now spread so that you really have to check out every country. Before, it used to be Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Cajun, and Cuban films. Now it really has spread, so every corner of Latin America is producing work.”

Chilean and Argentinean films, especially, are generating a lot of excitement. But the star of this year’s program is the 73-year-old Mr. Morales, whom many regard as the best filmmaker ever to emerge from Puerto Rico. Mr. Peña noted that Mr. Morales is enormously famous in his homeland, but he has never caught on in America. He began his career as an actor at age 14, and still considers acting his primary profession (he played the role of Esposito in Woody Allen’s 1971 film “Bananas”). In fact, in nearly two decades behind the camera, he has produced only seven features. In 1989, his “What Happened to Santiago” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it never secured American distribution.

Now, as Mr. Morales told The New York Sun, he hopes that showing his films at Latinbeat will finally generate some overdue interest. The director will be on hand to present a trio of his films: “What Happened to Santiago,” “Linda Sara,” and the director’s latest, “Angel.”

“The main obstacles have been distribution and financing of the films,” Mr. Morales said. “We have very good actors and technicians, and the audience is supportive. But the issue is with international distribution. Puerto Rico is a very small country. To recover the investment is virtually impossible in Puerto Rico. But we have the energy and enthusiasm to go ahead.”

Mr. Peña began exploring Latin American films as an undergraduate at Harvard University, before spending a year in South America conducting film research. But although this is his area of expertise, he wasn’t sure at first if others would share his enthusiasm.

“Obviously, there’s personal interest in seeing what’s going on in Latin American cinema,” he said. “Over the years, it’s been great, but I think the arrival of Latinbeat kind of coincided with this wonderful flowering of Latin American cinema. I was reluctant at first. I didn’t know if the concept of Latin American cinema still had validity. Maybe we should just focus more on individual countries. But the director of the Instituto Cervantes at that time, a wonderful guy named Enrique Camacho, kept saying, ‘Try it.’ It turned out to be not only successful, but people loved it.”

Through September 25 (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, at Broadway at West 65th Street, 212-875-5601).

The New York Sun

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