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Marx at the Movies

Marx at the Movies

Why are Latin American filmmakers so prone to sympathy for Stalinists?

Arvin Bahl

A common piece of advice for those looking to improve their abilities in a foreign language is to watch lots of TV in the target language. This has led me to watch enormous amounts of Portuguese and Spanish-language content. My listening comprehension has improved greatly—but I’ve been simultaneously subjected to a stream of far-left political ideas so endless that it seems as if I’ve been transported back to East Germany in the 1970s. While American conservatives complain of Hollywood’s left-wing bias, these films make you feel as if Joseph Stalin has risen from the dead and decided to reincarnate himself as a director instead of as a dictator.

A sampling of five highly acclaimed contemporary Spanish-language films featuring some of Hollywood’s and Latin American cinema’s biggest stars shows how these films distort history, sympathize with far-left revolutionaries, and whitewash the atrocities of Marxist totalitarians. While Marxism was fashionable among Latin American intellectuals in decades past due to economic inequality in their countries, free-market policies have dramatically reduced poverty in the region. Nonetheless, far-left populists have recently won power in many Latin American countries, which has had dire effects on these countries’ economies and financial markets. It is thus vital to understand the role media and culture play in promoting destructive ideas.

La noche de 12 años (A Twelve-Year Night) received rave reviews, and it was Uruguay’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2019 Oscars. It depicts the Uruguayan military dictatorship’s twelve-year imprisonment and brutal torture of three leaders of the Tupamaros militant group. The torture depicted is horrifying, and this is a story that needs to be told. But the film leaves out the fact that the Tupamaros were a Cuba-backed communist group responsible for fifty murders and numerous kidnappings. While the regime’s prisons are shown in graphic and gruesome detail, there is no mention of the Tupamaros’ horrifying “Carcel del pueblo” (prison of the people) or the kidnappings of Uruguayan politicians Ulises Pereira Reverbel (held 424 days) and Carlos Frick Davie (378 days), British Ambassador to Uruguay Geoffrey Jackson (245 days), and American academic Claude Fry (208 days), who suffered a heart attack while held captive and whose condition upon release was listed as “delicate.” Not only are the Tupamaros’ crimes ignored, but the movie even shows a Tupamaros prisoner helping one of his jailers woo a girl who eventually becomes his wife.

The film begins with a caption: “Uruguay is under a dictatorship after several decades of democracy. The Tupamaro Revolutionary Movement has been defeated. Its survivors are in prison. On September 7, nine Tupamaro prisoners are secretly taken hostage by the military government. This is the story of three of them.” The implication is that the Tupamaros were a democratic movement rather than a revolutionary communist one. One of the prisoners, Jose Mujica, was elected president almost forty years later, in 2010, which the film notes at its end.

A less biased film would have depicted the brutality of both the military regime and the Tupamaros, while showing Mujica’s forsaking of communism and armed struggle for democratic center-left politics.

The 2016 biopic Neruda features two heavyweights of Latin American cinema, director Pablo Larraín and actor Gael García Bernal. It focuses on the Chilean government’s persecution of communists in 1948. The plot centers around a police inspector named Peluchonneau, played by Bernal, hunting for the eventual Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. The film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Neruda was a staunch Stalinist and even wrote an ode to Stalin upon the dictator’s death. Reviewing a hagiographic Italian film on Neruda in 1996, Stephen Schwartz, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted that “Neruda played the role of a reverse Schindler” on a ship the Chilean government chartered to rescue Spaniards fleeing dictator Francisco Franco, with Neruda using his diplomatic status to ensure that only communists were allowed to board the ship. Adam Feinstein, in his biography of Neruda, notes that he refused “to stand up and condemn the persecution of his Soviet colleagues” like writers Joseph Brodsky and Boris Pasternak because of his loyalty to the Soviet Communist Party.

In a film that focuses deeply on Neruda’s communist beliefs, the word “Stalin” appears nowhere. The movie mocks Neruda’s and his wife’s “champagne communism” and Neruda’s reveling in the cat-and-mouse chase that endangered those close to him. However, the film is very sympathetic to Neruda’s ideology. For example, when former Chilean President Arturo Alessandri asks Neruda, “How will you govern? With a Soviet democracy of soldiers, of operatives and peasants? God forbid! The palate will be stinking with peanuts and wine. And you’re going to write laws with misspellings.” Neruda’s reply is, “Can be, but the cemeteries will not be filled with political prisoners.” This is a truly despicable scene. In real life, Alessandri would have feared dying in a gulag, not “laws with misspellings:” Perhaps no one in human history filled cemeteries with more political prisoners than Neruda’s idol Stalin.

Later in the film, Peluchonneau declares that the country is “full of intelligent communists. They speak French. They like building bridges,” again associating communists with positive attributes. The film ends with the formerly staunchly anti-communist Peluchonneau asking, “Why did he [Neruda] do all this? For your people. The poet gave them words to count their lives. Their lives are hard.”

Few Spanish-language films have received the acclaim of Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth). It won three Oscars and was nominated for six. It is the Internet Movie Database’s (IMDB) highest-rated Spanish language film of all time and the seventeenth-most highly rated film of all time in any language on the critic aggregator site Metacritic. The movie is set in Spain in 1944, where the eleven-year-old Ophelia, who is also a princess of the underworld, travels with her pregnant mother to live with her stepfather, Captain Vidal, a Francoist commander charged with hunting a band of anti-Franco Spanish Maquis rebels. The film paints the Francoists as the “bad guys,” and the rebels as the “good guys.” Vidal is a cartoon caricature of evil. He hits Ophelia, brutally beats a man to death with a glass bottle, and provides meager rations to the area’s population while partaking of lavish feasts. By contrast, Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes, the film’s secondary heroine, is kind, generous, affectionate, and a Maquis spy.

Franco’s brutality and his collaboration with the Axis powers must be condemned unequivocally, but the film hides the Maquis’ true nature. The word “communist” does not appear even once in the movie. While the Maquis consisted of anarchists, communists, and socialists, the communists were the dominant force because of the organizational power of the Communist Party of Spain. Dolores Ibárruri, who led the party from 1944 to 1960, was an unflinching supporter of the Soviet Union; she was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest civilian decoration. Only 17 out of 431,418 decorations went to foreigners. Even the Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the British Socialist Workers Party, in its gushing review of the film, describes the Maquis as communist.

The last two films discussed focus on Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man during the Cuban Revolution against the Batista regime, a minister in Castro’s government, and, after leaving Cuba in 1965, a leader of revolutions in Congo and Bolivia. Diarios de motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), directed by renowned Brazilian director Walter Salles, the first Brazilian to win a Golden Globe, depicts Guevara’s motorcycle ride around South America with his friend Alberto Granado, which he undertook at age twenty-three, just before finishing his medical studies. The journey transformed Guevara’s worldview as he encountered injustices from which his upper-middle-class upbringing had shielded him. Guevara, played by Bernal, is depicted as a humanitarian of unparalleled compassion. For example, while volunteering as a doctor at a leper colony in Peru, Guevara swims across the river that separates the lepers’ and medical staff’s living quarters to spend the night with the lepers, despite his asthma and the presence of alligators in the river. The film ends with the caption, “Ernesto Che Guevara fought for his ideals in Congo and Bolivia, where he was captured by the Regulation Army and, with the consent of the CIA, was assassinated.”

Yet, what exactly were the “ideals” that Salles holds in such high esteem? Guevara was a brutal totalitarian who established forced labor camps and believed that “to send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary.” It is a mere “archaic bourgeois detail.” He interned homosexuals in forced labor camps and was a white supremacist who wrote that “the black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink,” while the European has a tradition of work and saving that “drives him to advance himself.”

The 4.5-hour, two-part epic Che (2008), directed by A-list Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh, whose films have grossed over $2.2 billion worldwide and won seven Academy Awards, is even more egregious because it focuses on the era when Guevara had real power. Despite the film’s interminable length, there is no mention of the torture and summary executions that Guevara carried out. In a particularly dishonest sequence of scenes, Guevara, played by Academy Award-winning actor Benicio del Toro, who bizarrely won the Cannes Film Festival’s award for best actor in the role, executes a revolutionary for raping a teenager and stealing from the poor. The next scene flashes forward to Guevara giving a speech at the UN in 1964 in which he states, “Executions? Yes, we have executed. We execute, and we’ll continue to execute when it is necessary. Our fight is a fight to death.” This manipulates viewers into believing that Guevara executed only violent criminals. Likewise, in one scene the revolutionary leaders announce that their government would guarantee freedom of the press and the individual rights established in Cuba’s 1940 constitution. However, there is no mention of the fact that this promise was never kept. By contrast, the Batista regime’s brutality toward civilians is graphically depicted.

Soderbergh claims that he is “agnostic” on Guevara but “loyal to the facts,” which he insists were “all rigorously sourced.” Yet Che was such an appalling work of pro-Castro propaganda that Cuba’s official state paper Granmagave Del Toro a glowing review,” claiming that “he ‘personifies Che’ in both his physical appearance and his ‘masterly interpretation.’” At the film’s Cuban premiere at Havana’s Yara Cinema, “Del Toro was treated to a 10-minute standing ovation from the 2,000+ strong audience, many of whom were involved in the revolution.”

For those interested in watching high-quality Latin America programming based on sensible political ideas, the 2018 Brazilian Netflix series O Mecanismo (The Mechanism) is highly recommended. It is rated more highly on IMDB than even the famed La casa de papel (Money Heist), Netflix’s most-watched foreign language show of all time—which, though entertaining, promotes the usual far-left ideas discussed above. O Mecanismo tells the true story of the “car wash” corruption scandal—describing the corruption “mechanism” by which managers of state-run enterprises gave overpriced contracts to construction firms, which in turn provided kickbacks to these managers and funded the political campaigns of corrupt politicians, who in turn used the money of state-run enterprises to return the favor. Unlike the movies discussed above, O Mecanismo savages politicians across the political spectrum; but by showing the misalignment of incentives in state-run enterprises and the way their very presence enables corruption, it punctures the false idealism of 20th-century totalitarians, whose ideas appear all too often across screens in 21st-century Latin America.

Arvin Bahl is author of From Jinnah to Jihad: Pakistan’s Kashmir Quest and the Limits of Realism (2007). He has contributed to a variety of publications and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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