- Cinema of Uruguay
Latin American cinema
The early days
Louis Lumière's invention was introduced to Uruguayan audiences for the first time on July 18, 1898, at the Salón Rouge, a popular local cabaret. Local businessman Félix Oliver purchased Uruguay's first film, camera and projector from the Lumiére brothers themselves; with them he made Bicycle Race in the Arroyo Seco Velodrome, only the second film produced in Latin America.
His first short film a success, Oliver established the country's first film studio and continued to make documentaries. One of Argentina's first cinematographers, French-born Henri Corbicier, took Uruguayan film in a new direction, however, when he produced The Peace of 1904, a documentary on Uruguay's recent political conflict and its resolution. Corbicier continued to produce newsreels and documentaries for the Uruguayan public for some time and influenced others to do the same.
Supplied most of their commercial film by Argentine production houses, Uruguayan audiences saw no domestic fiction film titles until, in 1919, local non-profit society Bonne Garde financed Pervanche, directed by León Ibáñez. Unsuccessful, the effort was the country's only one of its type until Juan Antonio Borges' Almas de la Costa. Released in 1923, it is considered the first full-length Uruguayan film. Its studio, Charrúa Films, produced one more full-length film (Adventures of a Parisian Girl in Montevideo) before closing in 1927.
Inspiring others, however, this modest start led Carlos Alonso to produce The Little Hero of Arroyo de Oro in 1929; the film, a realist tragedy set in the countryside, was in the vanguard for its frank and graphic depiction of domestic violence and was the first commercially successful Uruguayan film.
The year 1930, despite other difficulties, provided Uruguayan film makers an unexpected opportunity when their national football team won that year's World Cup. Justino Zavala Muñiz produced rousing documentaries on the event, as well as the coinciding hundredth anniversary of the Uruguayan Constitution. His success enabled him to establish the Uruguyan Cine-Club, from where he premiered the acclaimed Sky, Water and Sea Lions, among other documentaries and fiction films.
The great depression, however, soon dampened local film makers' plans and audiences would wait until 1936 to see the next locally-produced film.
The golden age
That year, Ciclolux Studios purchased Uruguay's first equipment for the production of film sound and released Director Juan Etchebehere's Two Destinies. Socially conscious, the film is reminiscent of Great Expectations and was made despite the repressive atmosphere that prevailed in Uruguay during President Gabriel Terra's règime. Beset by censorship, Argentine film imports and global instability, local film remained limited to documentaries, newsreels and lighthearted comedies and musicals.
A joint venture between Argentine and Uruguayan investors, however, resulted in Orión Studios. Producing four well-received full-length dramas between 1946 and 1948, the studio reintroduced local audiences to Uruguayan drama film with Argentine Director Julio Saraceni's version of The Three Musketeers and Belisario García Villar's version of Italian novelist Luigi Pirandello's Come tu me vuoi. The renewed activity brought Kurt Land to Uruguay, where he made The Thief of Dreams.
The post-war era continued to bring audiences well-received comedies such as Adolfo Fabregat's The Detective Goes the Wrong Way (1949) and documentaries like Enrico Gras' Artigas: Protector of Free Peoples (1950), though dramatic full-length titles continued to struggle; documentaries continued to be the local film industry's standby. Miguel Ángel Melino's ode to the Uruguayan independence saga, The Arrival of the Thirty-Three Easterners (1952) earned him plaudits and a long-term contract with the National Party for campaign film productions.
Years without local drama titles went by until 1959, when Hugo Ulive made A Song for Judas, a realist ode to the struggling troubadour. The realist and neorealist film genre found wider acceptance locally and Ulive and others made a number of cultural documentaries and after 1960, films for the promotion of tourism.
Winds of change
The shifting intellectual discourse in much of the western world during the 1960s influenced Uruguayan culture quickly and extensively; among film makers, this made itself evident in the production of muck-raking titles aimed at encouraging social concern. Mario Handler's Carlos: Portrait of a Montevideo Panhandler represented a local form of Cinéma Vérité that drew on Uruguayan film makers' tradition as documentarians. Handler, increasingly the target of harassment, followed this with studies on the day's student uprisings like the unequivocal I Like Students (1968), Líber Arce: Liberation (1969) and an ode to a massive local meatpackers' strike, The Uruguayan Beef Shortage of 1969.
Following Handler's exile to Venezuela in 1972, however, Uruguayan film makers increasingly limited themselves to conventional subjects and, aside from Jorge Fornio and Raúl Quintín's 1973 flop Maribel's Peculiar Family (the first Uruguayan film in produced in color), local full length productions of any type ceased until 1979. That year, the new dictatorship's public relations office (DINARP) recruited Argentine Director Eva Landeck and Spaghetti western veteran George Hilton to make Land of Smoke, a feature so disliked by the public it resulted in the Producers' bankruptcy.
The fiasco became a blessing in disguise, however, when in 1980, the DINARP opted to give Director Eduardo Darino nearly free rein over production of Gurí, a gaucho tale based on Serafín García's homonymous novel. The endearing tale revived the local film industry and drew Hollywood's attention, as well; the following year, Eli Wallach accepted the leading role in a version adapted for U.S. television.
Correction: GURI was produced by Zenit Intl. US, Eli Wallach participated since day one, and Darino had plans for 3 films backed by Richard Allen with HBO Interest. DINARP requested that Enrique Guarnero played the father role for Uruguay. Darino completed the film but backed off the other two titles. Robert Miller, Zenit Intl. Production VP.
Similar conditions enabled Juan Carlos Rodríguez Castro to make The Murder of Venancio Flores in 1982. Based on events surrounding the assassinations of President Venancio Flores and former President Bernardo Berro in 1868, the film fared meagerly at the local box office; but it earned an honorable mention at the prestigious Huelva Film Festival. The accomplishment, earned during Uruguay's deepest economic crisis since 1930, encouraged Luis Varela to make The Winner Takes It All, an indictment of the wave of financial fraud Uruguay (and much of Latin America) was subject to around 1980.
Challenges and freedom
Beset by a nearly unprecedented socioeconomic crisis, Uruguay's last dictator, Gen. Gregorio Álvarez, called elections for 1984. The advent of democracy under Julio Sanguinetti could do little for the local film industry economically, at first; renewed freedoms, though, encouraged the growth of the Uruguyan video industry (a genre less limited by distribution costs, for instance). Local video producers such as CEMA and Imágenes ushered in the new era with politically controversial titles such as Guillermo Casanova's The Dead, and Carlos Ameglio and Diego Arsuaga's The Last Vermicelli. Other video production houses, like Grupo Hacedor touched on social problems, as in the violent Fast Life (1992) and traditional screen film makers also made their presence felt, like César de Ferrari and his documentary General Elections, which focused on the plight of veteran leftist Wilson Ferreira Aldunate and his being banned from the 1984 polls.
Uruguay's economy began to recover despite the weight of foreign debt interest payments; but, continuing difficulties led Beatriz Flores Silva to make The Almost-True Story of Pepita the Gunslinger, a drama based on an 1988 incident involving a middle-class lady in dire straits and her audacious assault on a number of Montevideo banks. Released in 1994, the film did well locally and in Spain.
Addressing local film makers' economic difficulties, the city of Montevideo established FONA and the national government, INA, two funds designed to subsidize local projects that might not otherwise ever see the light of day. These funds enabled Alejandro Bazzano to make Underground, a futurist 1997 TV pilot whose series, however, were soon canceled. Pablo Rodríguez's Gardel: Echoes of Silence (on the legendary Tango vocalist) met a similar fate. The year 1997, despite these, setbacks, ended on a positive note for local film in Alvaro Buela's deceptively simple A Way to Dance and Diego Arsuaga's film-noir, Otario.
Uruguayan Directors pursued increasing varied subject matter from 1998, including Leonardo Ricagni's surreal The Chevrolet and Esteban Schroeder's mystery, The Vineyard. Luis Nieto took an Ibsen-esque turn with The Memory of Blas Quadra (2000), and Pablo Rodríguez lived down his previous disappointment with Damned Cocaine (2001). Brummell Pommerenck portrayed existential loneliness in Call for the Postman (2001), Luis Nieto returned to deal with a former extremist back from exile in The Southern Star (2002) and Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella gave an empathetic portrayal of youth in 25 Watts (2002); their dark comedy, Whisky (2003) earned the Un Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Marcelo Bertalmío's existential Noise (2005) was well-received and won the Audience Award at the Valladolid International Film Festival.
The rustic Uruguayan countryside became of interest to foreign film makers, as well. Swiss Director Bruno Soldini used the setting for The Brickmasons of Tapes a 1989 period piece filmed in Italian. Local film makers, likewise, took to the same bucolic setting to make two Uruguay/Argentina co-productions, Diego Arsuaga's unyielding The Last Train (2002) and Guillermo Casanova's sentimental The Trip to the Ocean (2003).
Uruguayan film production continues to make its modest though influential presence felt in the vast array of Latin American film, turning out four to six films a year and contributing to other countries' film industries, as well, with talent such as Director Israel Adrián Caetano, who has made a number of acclaimed Argentine films since co-directing Pizza, Beer and Smokes in 1997.
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