One of Argentina's leading film directors speaks candidly about her art and her commitment to women's issues
It is an improbable script to which few film directors would give credence: Into the largely male-dominated world of moviemaking, an Argentine woman dares to enter. From the privileged upper crust of Buenos Aires, she has no high school diploma, no college degree, only private tutoring at the hands of a governess, an education sheltered from the tumult. She is divorced, raising four children, but somehow has done a few scripts and directed two short documentaries. Otherwise, this self-taught upstart has no filmmaking experience. Most remarkably, she dives in at age fifty-six, already a grandmother. But in the passage of twelve years, she directs six feature-length films, which in her own words, "propose images of women that are vertical, autonomous, independent, thoughtful, courageous, spunky." In the critics' judgment, each film is better crafted and conceptually more daring than the last. Two are featured at the Venice Film Festival, and one is nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film. Admittedly, this scenario may seem far-fetched; yet all of it is true. It is the story of Maria Luisa Bemberg and her efforts to portray women, especially those with the courage to step out of line.
What gave Bemberg the impulse, the courage to make movies? After all, she grew up a member of one of Argentina's wealthiest families, the beneficiary of frequent trips to Europe, a protected life on estancias that stretched for miles. But with the "curse of wealth and the curse of an inquiring mind" (a phrase American biographer Waldo Frank applied to Bemberg's famous aunt, Victoria Ocampo) came severe limitations as to what was proper for upper-class women: suffocating propriety, empty lives of appearance over substance, creativity and intellect permitted only within the narrowest of bounds. "I entered film for ideological motives," Bemberg explains. "Since childhood I had felt a sense of frustration, a double standard between my brothers and I. This was a rebellion I had had since being a girl, and it manifested itself especially after reading Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, which was like an explosion in the minds of the majority of women of my age. I will never be able to adequately express my appreciation for that book. It was like a dam that burst."
She admits she also was influenced by that man of action Andre Malraux, who visited her aunt's Villa Ocampo in 1959. The French writer long had espoused the idea that one must live what one believes. "I began a period of self-criticism and I said, 'What are you doing with your life apart from boring everyone with all your anger and impatience?' Since youth, I had been a very imaginative girl. I decided, OK, I am going to try to tell 'that which to me hasn't been told' (to quote another Bemberg hero, cinematographer Robert Bresson). "I am going to tell it with the point of view of a woman, with female protagonists, a bit like a promise to my own gender." When the public, that of Argentina, the Americas, even Europe, reacted immediately to her early efforts, she said to herself, "My dear friend, you're on the right track."
Until that point the road had been rather rocky--not only her marriage at age twenty which ended in divorce ten years later, but also her efforts to form feminist groups, which were effectively muffled by the military regime that superseded Peron in the mid-1950s. After her children grew up, she began to explore scriptwriting, then film production and direction on a limited scale. She made two documentaries, El mundo de mujeres (1972) and Juguetes (1974). The latter film argued that toys are not innocent, that trucks and dolls program children stereotypically so that boys want to be firemen and executives, while girls aspire to be teachers, nuns, and housewives.
In 1972 she wrote her first feature-length script, Cronica de una senora, which was directed by Raul de la Torre. Largely autobiographical (the quest of a rich and anguished wife), it was a huge success, due in part to the controversy it provoked. "I remember having tea with Victoria Ocampo not long before she died and she liked very much my first script. She saw it four times. Earlier she had said, 'I want you to have tea with me at San Isidro because Graham Greene is coming. He's seen your film. He wants to meet you.' So I went. Those were pregnant days. I was just beginning as a professional writer. Later, at the Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain, when Graciela Borges won the prize for the best actress, we were sitting on the bed awaiting news . . . Raul de la Torre and Leopoldo...