In his recent entry—Memory, History, Forgetting, and Oscars: The Secret in Their Eyes and film criticism of Latin American cinema—here on Postcolonial Networks, Mariano Paz offered an evaluation of the film El secreto de sus ojos and the Oscar it received, along with a critique of “the standard of Anglophone film criticism of Latin American films.” To represent film criticism in English he chose an article I recently wrote on the film for the journal Cineaste. I’ll accept the honor of representing what I consider to be a quite formidable critical tradition, and move on to the matter at hand. While I’m flattered when someone engages with my work, I must admit to being concerned by the selective quoting from my article and the erroneous characterization of my arguments found in Paz’ entry.
To cite one example, Paz writes that “Mr. Losada makes a number of problematic assertions, some of which are notoriously incorrect. First, and most important, is the fact that he simply fails to understand the historical moment in which the film is set.” Paz writes that I fail to understand that the film is partly set in the period of the Isabel Perón government (as opposed to the subsequent military dictatorship). Referring to my “failure,” he states the following: “This is not just a minor historical detail but an essential element for the political narrative of the film, which Losada seems to have missed. The film, precisely, is showing that the terrible violence that characterised the dictatorship did not originate with the military coup but should be traced further back in national history.” Paz specifies rightly that these particular historical facts are “relevant because the film shows the paramilitary taskforces that were already emerging in the country under a democratic government.” His citation of my piece is quite selective however, and indeed, decontextualized as they are in his entry, my words seem to confirm his claims, a matter to which I will return shortly. More serious is his overlooking of what I write in the paragraph that follows the one he refers to. I quote myself: “The film employs as spectacle the universally acknowledged brutality of the most recent Argentine military dictatorship—part of the film depicts the predictatorship period of Isabel Perón’s brief government and the viciousness of its paramilitary apparatus, the continuity of which is acknowledged to extend beyond the subsequent coup d’état—while declining to explore in a productive way the currently pressing question of memory of the dictatorship and its crimes” (my italics). I would hope that my drawing his attention to this sentence—and its location, in the paragraph immediately following the one he quotes—might cause him to reevaluate his low opinion of my historical knowledge and his judgement that I “simply fail to understand the historical moment in which the film is set.”
But to return to the decontextualization I refer to above, the section of my article Paz refers to reads as follows: “Why apply such a nullifying finish to a film centered on a graphic account of such an important episode in the nation’s history—the military junta’s ‘Dirty War’—one that continues to resound in the national political discourse some thirty years later with the recent prosecutions of agents of state violence during the dictatorship.” In his article Paz eliminates all but the following: “centered on a graphic account of such an important episode in the nation’s history—the military junta’s ‘Dirty War.’” This selection distorts my point that the film is centered on—not necessarily set in—the episode of the dictatorship and the related state violence, which indeed runs from the Isabel Perón period until, arguably, the present, in cases like that of the 2006 disappearance of Jorge Julio López during a trial in which he was testifying as a prime witness against a since-convicted torturer from the dictatorship period.
To support another of his points Paz again uses a partial quote from my article. I write that “Campanella [the film’s director] employs the visually spectacular, from graphic murder scenes to action sequences, even indulging in the frisson of the false taboo on frontal male nudity. But the sequence that has most attracted the attention of the press as the ‘must-see’ marketing point of the film is an aerial shot that follows in the long tradition of virtuosistic long takes…” But Paz quotes only the part that reads that Campanella “employs the visually spectacular, from graphic murder scenes to action sequences.” The period (full stop?) here creates another misleading impression of my argument, and an easy straw man which Paz goes on to counter by stating that there is only one graphic violence sequence and one action sequence in the film (There are more, unless one radically narrows down the definitions of these, as he seems to do in his entry). But in the context of my article it is clear that I am not arguing about how many action sequences the film may or may not contain, but rather proposing that Campanella privileges visual spectacle in his directorial decisions, in the interest of commercial success.
Another problem has to do with Paz’s misinterpretation of a point I make later in my article, that the film provides a “spectacle of instant justice.” I believe it is quite clear in the article that I am not (as Paz thinks) referring here to an “instant” in the temporality of the film’s plot or in the subjective experience of the Mr. Colotto character, but instead to the experience of the film by the spectator, to whom the pleasure of symbolic revenge is offered before he or she stands up to leave the theater.
Finally, while I agree with Paz’s opinion that it was a formidable accomplishment on the part of the Alfonsín government to successfully prosecute certain military leaders after the dictatorship, this accomplishment was nullified several years later by the pardons given them, and has only in recent years been addressed more effectively. Paz chooses, however, to favorably compare Argentina with those neighboring countries that prosecuted no one at all. I can only offer my opinion that he is setting quite a low standard for justice.
The overall point of my article is a critique of how commercial considerations (including the Oscar) led to, in the case of El secreto, the use of a particularly ugly period in Argentine history as spectacle. Paz, in contrast, argues that the resulting Oscar will be beneficial for Argentine cinema in general. Whether this is true or not depends on how one defines Argentine film and what one privileges within it. Paz writes that the awards “are by no means an indication of artistic merits and cinematic quality; they are more a huge publicity event for industrial cinema.” I am in complete agreement with him on this point, which is why I believe—along with many Anglophone and non-Anglophone filmmakers and critics who favor more experimental work—that it will be detrimental to Argentine cinema if a larger portion of the limited amount of government funding ends up going to the commercial industry, which would inevitably lead to a further “blockbusterization” of the field, and along with it the tastes of Argentina’s present and future filmgoing public.
While it can be argued that Anglophone critics are subject to certain limitations regarding some aspects of Latin American culture, in the context of this debate it could also be argued that they might benefit from a critical distance that helps one to overcome loyalties that might otherwise lead to nationalistic grandstanding.
Paz argues that in awarding the Oscar to an Argentine film, the AMPAS “decided to suspend its Eurocentric standards to recognize a film from Latin America,” and argues that this “should perhaps be seen in a more positive light.” I hope I am not the only reader to see the irony of a critic expressing such an opinion in a “postcolonial” forum. I personally hope for a great level of self-reflexivity in a truly postcolonial Latin American critic, one for whom the rather colonial symbolic value represented by the Oscar statue would be less seductive, and who might instead value the acclaim awarded by the public of Buenos Aires’ own festival of independent cinema in 2008 to Historias extraordinarias (directed by Mariano Llinás), the film I discuss in my article as representing an alternative, radically independent production model. Such a critic might consider Llinás’ model a decolonizing alternative to the values represented by Campanella’s film and the golden aura of its Oscar.