By Javier Corrales
In my course on Latin American politics at Amherst, I invariably cover challenges to democracy such as populism, authoritarianism, and the less conventional topic of heteronormativity. Many films can be used to address these topics, but my favorites are: Eva Perón, O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias and XXY.
Eva Perón is always a huge hit in class. the film illustrates the multiple dimensions of populism, especially its democratic aspirations (the inclusion of previously excluded sectors) and its authoritarian lapses (the mistreatment of the opposition and institutions). In a scene between Eva and the damas de beneficiencia (representing the oligarchy), Eva Perón (representing populism) is portrayed as cunning and caustic as the very same damas that Eva is trying to belittle. In scenes with extreme right-wingers and extreme left-wingers, Eva is portrayed simultaneously Machiavellian and accommodating with each group. And in dealing with the military, Eva is portrayed as both respectful and disdainful. the ability to show this diversity of personalities—within and across scenes—is a testament to superb acting, but also to superb portrayal of the political needs of populism. Eva needs to work with both ideological extremists and the military, and these groups need to collaborate with Eva, while hoping to undermine her. the movie also shows the struggles within Peronism, not just with its outside enemies. A powerful scene between Eva and railroad workers shows, like few other scenes in political movies, the limited but still effective tools available to populist leaders to placate internal dissent. tired of unfulfilled promises, railroad workers are ready to strike against Perón. Eva is desperately weak because she knows that workers can cause trouble, but also harsh enough to intimidate. Again, this emotional mix is both superb acting and superb representation of state-labor relations in classic populism. the movie even works as a gender-study tool. Eva’s relationship with her husband—in which political and love interests are hard to differentiate—and her relationship with the masses—in which Eva acts as a “sacrificing” matriarchal icon representing a patriarchal militaristic state—offer enough complexity to make discussion of gender issues appealing to students. there is even a quick scene in which Eva’s fashion designer and confidant compares the plight of the descamisados to that of gays. this scene might be a bit ahistorical, but it makes for excellent discussion of the issues that unite and separate non-dominant groups.
O Ano is, to my mind, one of the most original treatments of the impact of military juntas in Latin American films. Most movies on the topic of military abuse go for the overkill, leaving no doubt that the victims suffer transgressions that fundamentally alter, in fact, destroy their lives and minds. the perpetrators are true devils, and the victims are irreparable damaged goods. but in O Ano, we see a different sort of victim—a kid whose life undergoes trauma, but in many other ways, remains fairly intact as a result of military rule in Brazil. the transgression against the victim is unquestionable. his parents must go into hiding and are thus forced to leave the kid with his grandfather, whom he hardly knows, in a neighborhood where he knows no one. the kid is lied to—the hiding is explained as nothing other than an adults-only vacation to which he is not invited to come. And immediately after his parents leave, the guardian-grandparent dies, and the new guardian proves to be a kid-despising grunt. For any middle class kid, this is as traumatic as life can get, and many scenes in the film show the damaging effects. but the movie also shows, much more powerfully and often comically, that in so many other ways, this kid continues to be a kid. he makes friends just like any ordinary kid and plays tricks on his friends just like any other kid. Sometimes he outsmarts his friends, and other times, he is the outsmarted one. And he experiences typical (almost stereotypical) troubles and illusions in dealing with females, both his age and older. In other words, normalcy and anomaly coexist in the life of this victim. All this takes place in a neighborhood in São Paulo that, were it not for the Portuguese language, the hardly-changing weather, and the ubiquitous soccer matches, could look like just any ordinary neighborhood in New york, Chicago or San Francisco in the 1970s: the neighbors consist of Italians, Jews, blacks, Latinos, and plenty of mixed-race folks. For an American student, even the neighborhood is both exotic and ordinary, simultaneously. Few Latin American movies about the trauma of dictatorship make such clever use of ordinariness to portray extraordinariness.
In contrast, there is nothing ordinary in XXY. this is the story of 15-year old Alex, an intersexual teen whose time has come to choose. Many intersexuals do not face the luxury of choice: their parents are the ones who decide what to do with anatomical ambiguity, shortly after the child’s birth. but Alex was “lucky” enough to have enlightened parents who actually chose not to choose. they opted instead to wait until Alex became old enough to choose for him/herself. they even moved from Buenos Aires to a beach town in Uruguay to protect Alex from social stigmatism. these all qualify as the most dignity-respecting positions that any parents could take. yet, at 15, this dignity proved to be a source of anguish for Alex. Alex knows the time has come to decide on a gender, an urge that stems from his/her inner self, not just from peer pressure. but Alex doesn’t know what he/she wants to be. Alex is attracted to both boys and girls, and no one at the same time. he/she understands the benefits of being a man and the benefits of being a woman, or rather, the harsh sacrifices that each gender choice would entail. Alex wants to be both, but he/she also wants to be one and not the other. Alex is both the victim of hate and the perpetrator of hate, especially against people who simply offer love. Alex is raped, physically and verbally, but he/she also finds compassion. Alex is resentful of his/her parents because they too have expectations for him/her, but Alex knows that nobody else can be trusted to understand his/her predicament. In short, there is not a single minute in which Alex feels at ease, all the result, ironically, of plenty of love.
Psychologists often tell us that having too much choice can be a form of enslavement. the story of Alex tells us that having just one choice can be an impossible cruelty, if that choice has to do with gender identity. Alex’s story conveys forcefully the plight of intersexual individuals even in environments that are as free from homophobia as one can possibly recreate in real life. that environment will never be that free from homophobia nor that free to offer real choices. Alex the victim will not necessarily become anyone’s hero, but many non-intersexuals will come out of this movie understanding better that, certainly for Alex and maybe for many of us, there is no clearly preferable gender choice. In this movie, the plight of the extraordinary becomes palpably ordinary.
Javier Corrales was the 2009 DRCLAS Central America Visiting Scholar. He is an associate professor of Political Science at Amherst College. Corrales is the author of Presidents Without Parties: the Politics of Economic Reform in Argentina and Venezuela in the 1990s.