Critic Alan Pauls called María Luisa Bemberg’s Camila (1984) an “event.” He meant it in the sense that Argentine film history is full of workmanlike, repetitious storytelling oriented toward the formation of a tradition, and Camila, this melodramatic variation on the transgressive Argentine theme, is singular in all respects. But he gets at what I love about this movie: it is an event in that it belongs so entirely to a specific time and place.
It’s not an event anybody saw coming. María Luisa Bemberg, the heiress to the Quilmes beer fortune who got into filmmaking as a forty-year-old woman against all odds and every last convention, was both an unexpected success and an understandable sympathizer. Camila is the story of patriarchy and its violent repression of women, and its detrimental perversion of men. It’s something Bemberg looked in the face her whole life as Argentina’s first prominent female filmmaker, but of course, from Camila’s privileged position. Yet this is not just a personal catharsis, but something much larger.
Let me put it this way. You can enjoy this movie — its passionate real-life love story between Camila O’Gorman and Ladislao Gutiérrez, the society girl’s elopement with the young Jesuit and their politically motivated subsequent execution — without knowing much of history. But if you imagine yourself in the original audience, an Argentine upon the movie’s release in 1984, the thrilling tragedy becomes all the more powerful.
The movie’s action takes place in the 1840s under the totalitarian government of Juan Manuel de Rosas, caudillo or governor of the province of Buenos Aires and the de facto leader of the Argentine Confederation (what is now the northern half of Argentina, with the rest being unincorporated or indigenous territory). A few years after Ladislao and Camila were killed, Rosas was overthrown and went into exile in England. This is the story of power in decline, desperate to preserve itself, looking to make examples of its tyrannical hold wherever it could. This is the story of a tardy comeuppance and its senseless bloodshed.
The movie was written in 1982, as the Malvinas (Falklands) War destroyed the last shred of credibility held by the Argentine military dictatorship known as el Proceso. It was filmed in 1983, while el Proceso gave way to elections in April and the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín in December. Then it was released in 1984, the first full year of Argentina’s now unbroken new democracy, during which the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Conadep) filed the state’s report on the dictatorship’s torture and murder of political prisoners.
This is how that movie was watched: fresh off a totalitarian regime that fell too late for thirty thousand domestic victims and nine hundred war casualties. The Rosas government’s ambivalent relationship with the Church recalled their own discomforts in the pews these past years, Rosas’ union of political and sexual repression reminded them of the prudish tedium of military censors (Camila had the first sex scenes in eight years of movies), and the persecution of rule-breakers or deviants from the authoritarian norm was a blatant reprise. The parallels were there before Bemberg called upon them.
Rosas is everywhere in this movie and yet no one was cast to play him. His portrait appears on the walls of every house and church, on the jacket insignia of civilians, military, and clergy alike — his commands are quoted and inferred, but never spoken. He is this ultimate omnipresent judge who metes out death, whose image is everywhere but who never speaks for himself: he is that brimstone God he appealed to. This is Camila's surprising ambivalence toward religion, in a movie about the execution of a runaway priest and his lover. The Church is present here only as a political actor, not a religious body. After all, God himself only appears in Ladislao's conflicted prayer vigils and Camila's relieved pregnancy, which they take as a sign of His approval. No, here the villain is purely political, the sexual rules in place as convenient markers of political orthodoxy. The Federalist regime of Rosas will use this scandal to show his authority; his political enemy, Sarmiento, and his followers, the Unitarians, will use it to belittle their rival's moral inferiority and the regime's imminent demise. This is not about Ladislao. This is not about Camila. “No one,” laments Camila's mother, “no one thinks of her.”
We don’t dally in the given of conflicted repression and shame. Instead we indulge in their passionate love affair and the tragedy of their circumstances. It’s a melodrama, after all, and this gives us license to feel without shame as they do. We are given permission by the genre to feel these emotional enormities, to take up after Ladislao’s moral honesty in putting aside the collar he knows he cannot honor, to put aside our own pretensions of duty and to submit as he does to our own passions — sadness, anger, despair, hurt, everything this past decade has left us with. It is like opera, the circumstances so strained that every little occurrence is cause for a physically exhausting, ten-minute solo wail, because that is how a life like this feels. Melodramatic might be a negative adjective but it describes us accurately enough that we keep watching.
We know, watching this in 1984, that the dictatorship is over, that Rosas gets overthrown, but it is too late for Camila and Ladislao, it is too late for our friends and family, it is too late because it never should have happened in the first place. We watch their useless deaths and their late recompense, the civilians’ passive tolerance and the way it kills senselessly, and we are allowed to mourn the things we don’t know how to talk about yet. It’s as cathartic as an opera solo, and just as honest by being over-the-top.
And the romantic desperation of it all lets us reclaim these maligned historical figures, this written-off scandal, if not as heroes then as victims of circumstances we know all too well. Bemberg didn’t bring back the memory of Rosas for nothing: it was an ongoing fight. Five years after Camila was released, Argentine president Menem had Rosas’ body repatriated from its burial in England and reinterred in Buenos Aires’ elite Recoleta cemetery. The idea was that if we could forgive Rosas, we could make peace with el Proceso. The politics of memory is not an empty academic phrase but a political tool and Bemberg does not want us to forget that.
Camila is a story about submission to passion, romantic and sexual alike. But it is an event about submission to emotion, about putting aside pretensions of duty and patriotic unity in order to talk about what’s really happening. It is honest the way only a melodrama can be in all its exaggeration. It is emotional truth.
When it hit theatres in 1984, it was a blockbuster. Few movies have so thoroughly belonged to their viewers. Finally, a costume drama heavy on the latter. Finally, a romance we can actually believe. Finally, a political allegory we can grab onto. Finally, some action beyond a peck on the cheek. Not everything spectators loved about it was intentional — the political statements in particular are more a consequence of cyclical history than activist filmmaking. It was, at the time, the biggest success in Argentine film history.
Watch it, whether imagining yourself in 1984 or feeling its rawness in 2014. It is brilliant and unabashed and feminist and mournful and bright.