María Luisa Bemberg and Marcello Mastroianni on the set of De eso no se habla

To Silvia Delfino, gratefully

A “women’s issue” like this one presupposes that women constitute an issue, and that something must (rather than should or could) be said on the matter. Specific places and categories are built to talk about women, almost like camps to refugees. In fact, every subject marked as belonging to a minority owns – in this liberal society of ours – a particular discursive shelter. Where the condition of enjoying the benefit of being sheltered is that one be perceived as handicapped, the sheltering speech, like the camp, simultaneously cares and restricts. It is true that these ‘shelters’ haven’t been constructed by the protectors but by the ‘refugees’ themselves, nevertheless, who’s to say for sure that these ‘shelters’ are true rooms of one’s own and not a reflection of the desire of the other? Haven’t we learnt that confinement is the way of excluding something keeping it inside, under control? (1)

And what about those subjects who fill the criteria of being housed in more than one shelter at once? If each shelter is designed to assist a particular handicap, none of them can properly care for this problematic subject. Furthermore, it could be the case that the demands of these different handicaps were conflicting. So, should the relevant shelters construct additional rooms or should a whole new shelter be constructed, perhaps between those that are relevant, as if it were the intersection of n sets? Or, might it be time to break the wire fences off completely?

This difficult situation is exactly the one from which I would like to talk about (or, best, who I would like to make talk to us), María Luisa Bemberg, a woman and a Third World person – a Latin American woman, to be more specific. As such, she needs two shelters (double handicap). Consequently, the reader would now be expecting to read all the difficulties and obstacles that this brave Latin American woman encountered along her way to becoming and staying a filmmaker… well, the reader will be disappointed.

Born in 1922, María Luisa Bemberg became, during the ’80s, one of the key figures in Argentine cinema – not only as the most important female director (the first openly feminist) but moreover as one of the few interesting filmmakers during the relatively ‘sterile’ period between the prolific generation of the ’60s (its ’70s echoes included) and the so-called “new Argentine cinema” of the ’90s. And it gets worse – not only did her films win critical acclaim, they also did well commercially. That is, Bemberg was hardly the representative of a different and marginal cinema, aesthetically or philosophically. Her third film, Camila (1984), was the greatest national box-office success ever in Argentina, earning her an Academy Award nomination in 1985 (to the Foreign Language film category, of course). In fact, from then on, all Bemberg’s features were co-produced with foreign investors (which guaranteed their international distribution) and had popular stars in the leading roles (Julie Christie, Assumpta Serna and Marcello Mastroianni).

All this could hardly be considered the career of a marginal voice. Unless we were interested in writing about the history of women in the cinema as the history of unstoppable-Scarlets (2), we must accept that it isn’t feasible to listen to Bemberg’s voice as the voice of the Weak – a place attributed to woman and Third World people every time their respective ‘issues’ are discussed. In fact, Bemberg’s directorial debut is far from a weeping complaint on the ‘feminine condition’. Momentos (Moments, 1980) is the story of a married woman, Lucía (played by Graciela Dufau), who falls in love with a man almost 15 years younger and decides to have an affair with him, even though her husband is neither evil, villainous nor unattractive but rather a very sensitive and caring psychoanalyst.

Now the reader is somewhat skeptical – are you sure, writer, that she was a feminist? Isn’t hers a female cinema more than a feminist one? Was her work politically challenging or is it merely a case of pseudo-feminism? Did this director who appeared as a woman ultimately say what men wanted women to say? This is partly the question I will attempt to answer in this essay, but since I would prefer not to forget Bemberg’s Latin American condition (among other ‘handicaps’ and ‘qualities’ that I’ll discuss later), let me rephrase it as following: are María Luisa Bemberg’s films rebellious or submissive? And if they are rebellious: what allowed them to circulate with such popularity and what saved them from censorship? (3) What were Bemberg’s strategies?

Married Passionate Women

As previously mentioned, the lead character in Momentos is not a victim of patriarchy – or of passion, as is usual in melodrama. Lucía decides to have an affair with a younger man, and when she returns to the ‘home’ she is not punished. In fact, the victim is more the husband than the wife, since the latter’s decision cannot be seen as a form of feminist-inspired revenge or attack against the former’s oppression (as stated earlier, he is presented as the husband every feminist wants). Furthermore, in her extra marital relationship, Lucía is the rational one and her younger lover, passionate and impulsive. So, the men could be considered more the ‘victim’ than she is. Yet Lucía is not a bitch who gets everything she wants; instead, she’s equally unsatisfied, endures suffering and is as devastated at the end of the film as the loyal husband and the abandoned lover.

In her second film, Señora de nadie (Nobody’s Wife, 1982), Bemberg gets closer to commonplace situations and relationships. Leonor (played by Luisina Brando) decides to leave home (where ‘home’ includes her two sons) after accidentally discovering that her husband cheated on her. She is not upset at the fact that he’s had sex with another woman. Rather, she detests the lack of respect that all ‘minor’ lies presuppose. Towards the end of the film, via a flashback, Leonor remembers saying to her husband “you won’t lie to your business partner. Why me?” So, what is it about the marital contract that doesn’t imply respect; that even seems to imply exactly the opposite?

Leonor isn’t the typical sad-because-unfulfilled, dependent wife. When she later encounters her husband at a social gathering at a friend’s place, at which point they are separated, she plays a seduction game, has sex with him and even realizes that she is attracted to him…yet by now she’s learnt that happiness together is impossible. Señora de nadie suggests that given the terms according to which the places of woman and man are defined in our culture, the heterosexual relationship has no chance of succeeding unless one of them, the woman, resigns her right to respect – and therefore, self-respect. At the end of the film, Leonor chooses to live with a gay friend, Pablo (played by Julio Chavez), with whom she feels respected (i.e. considered an equal), rather then return home.

In both films, the problem is marriage itself more than people (or even gender). When Leonor discovers that the man she has just met and slept with is married, she doesn’t get mad. Rather, she laughs at the pathetic nature of situation. In Momentos there’s nothing wrong with the husband, nothing that would ‘justify’ the affair… except the loss of passion implied even in a ‘good’ marriage.

Argentine women, Argentine history

More than classical melodramas, these two films may be regarded as psychological bourgeois dramas – there is a lot of Ibsen under the bridge, and Ingmar Bergman is explicitly quoted in Momentos. However, despite this reference to Bergman (and Keaton in Señora de nadie), Bemberg’s is not an avant-garde or a modernist cinema, and could hardly be described as of the essay tradition. This helps explain Bemberg’s later success with the audience, but doesn’t answer our question of whether her films are rebellious or submissive since avant-garde is not the only means through which to break with tradition (understood as masculine and dominant culture), particularly in Latin American and Argentine culture. Since 1937, for instance, Silvina Ocampo, an exquisite Argentine writer, has been, subverting the classical narrative mode in literature through irony and other techniques. (4) But such challenges to classical narrative won’t appear in Bemberg’s work until her last film, De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want to Talk About it, 1993), the rest being classical and serious (too serious at times).

Bemberg’s spirit is closer to Silvina Ocampo’s older sister, the legendary Victoria. Both Victoria and Bemberg were daughters of very rich, traditional families, both wanted to be actresses when teenagers (shocking news to their social circle), both got married very young, and both divorced their husbands and always talked about divorce as liberation. No doubt Victoria Ocampo was a major influence on Bemberg’s worldview and personal growth, even if Victoria never produced art (she preferred to master criticism and direct the most influential Argentine magazine of literature) or never joined any feminist group among other substantial differences.

The reader’s attention, meanwhile, has surely noticed a new problem – María Luisa Bemberg’s privileged position. Her family was one of the richest in South America, belonging to a traditional class known in Argentine history as the “the oligarchy” (the closest thing to aristocracy this country has ever had). The supposedly challenged Latin American woman turns out a rich heiress, raised within the dominant class of a poor country. What to do? In Argentina, at least to date, critics have taken two separate paths: either Bemberg was a feminist and the rest doesn’t matter (being rich was ‘mere luck’, a blessing that facilitated her work), or she was a rich, bored and pretentious girl (which is very ironic since she got involved in cinema at the fresh age of 48 and made her directorial debut ten years later). I prefer to take her case as a good one to analyze the relations between ‘attributes’ that have conflicting values, that is, that can be read as advantages and disadvantages. Once more, what happens when the voice of the ‘refugee’ is not so weak? (5)

Rich women in poor countries

It is obvious that Bemberg’s privileged position was a great advantage; most significantly, the alliance between her class and the military regime helped her avoid censorship (which will be further discussed below). Although she received ‘observations’ from the censors and occasionally experienced conflicts with them, Bemberg’s films were finally made and exhibited (treatment not all directors received). In a Catholic country in which divorce still wasn’t legal – Catholicism was at the time not only in the Constitution, as it is today, but also bolstered via mutual support and cooperation between the military regime and the ecclesiastical hierarchy – Momentos‘ understanding of adultery as an emotional rather then moral issue was highly risky both towards the free circulation of the film and the personal security of the artist. The sexual liberalism of Señora de nadie – shot during the penultimate year of the dictatorship – was much more offensive and insolent, and therefore dangerous.

Bemberg was truly challenging the symbolic order on which the regime was based. However, paradoxically, she could do so because she was both a woman and of the ‘aristocracy’. That same regime would never have been possible without the alliance of the Church, the US government (through CIA) and Bemberg’s own class. Viewed as voicing ‘women’s issues’, and shrugged off accordingly, the regime could tolerate such opposition; it didn’t imply a threat to the regime’s overall survival because such opposition was perceived as coming from an ally. Conversely, we might suppose that when the same kind of opposition was used as a pretext to eliminate something (or directly someone), it wasn’t so much tied to that opposition as to the fact that this ‘something’ or ‘someone’ was already perceived as an ‘opponent’ (before having said a word).

Furthermore, Bemberg was attacking an abstract ‘male order’, not a concrete political order. There is no military regime in Momentos and Señora de nadie, films which seem to transpire in democratic countries or, at least, in a country where nothing unusual is going on. Targeted toward a middle-class who was trying to live ‘as if nothing unusual was going on’, when released, Momentos and Señora de nadie were a little more than non-rebellious – they seemed to say “we live in a country so civilized, so common, where nothing unusual is going on, that we may discuss such serious and controversial topics as women vs. men, which the advanced European society are discussing”. Needless to say, this stressing of an illusory intellectual ‘equality’ with Europe in order to screen a Latin American, and therefore marginal, condition has been a traditional habit in Argentine culture.

Of course, since the feminists have always stressed that the personal is the political, I’m not claiming Bemberg’s films posit a non-political world simply because I don’t see military forces kicking civilian doors, heads (or wombs) in the films. In a society such as Argentina, completely saturated with violence and horror, it is notable that any violence is completely repressed within the private world of Bemberg’s films. It never appears where it ‘should’, that is, within the institutional repressive relationships (for example, between husbands and wives). When it rarely appears, it does so only marginally: in Momentos, violence manifests itself as the rapture of Lucía’s lover (justified by passion and because he feels that he’s loosing his lover), and in Señora de nadie, it only surfaces in Pablo’s relationships (apparently because gay people are too promiscuous).

Clearly, Bemberg was trying to offer positive ‘Images of Women’ (6). And avoiding any naiveté, she was also interested in showing that the bravery and courage of these women was not enough to attain happiness, since any conciliation between masculine and feminine desire is impossible in contemporary conditions. No doubt Bemberg was feminist, but her feminist speech, at that time, was politically submissive. It not only showed a country in peace, where nothing unusual was going on, but also a universe where the institutional relationships were quiet and peaceful (and the others hadn’t any happiness to offer, either).

Treats of the not so weak

I can by now identify two basic Bemberg strategies that enounce a marginal speech – let’s call them ‘capitulation’ and ‘prosthesis’. By the first, I understand the fact that, far from intransigence or radicalization, Bemberg preferred a subtle negotiation. A simple glance at her crew members says enough about this – except direction and production (places occupied by her and her business associate, the producer Lita Stantic), all the other roles reflected traditional gender assumptions: wardrobe, sets and makeup to the girls; technical and heavy stuff to the boys. This ‘capitulation’ also extended within the films themselves, as it always happens with production conditions. Once it has ended, long fade out included, Señora de nadie has a regrettable epilogue, a long scene with a congratulatory song to the heroine (named ‘Leonor Song’), in which she enters a huge and immaculate apartment where she’ll live with her sons (riding their bicycles through the living room) instead of Pablo, her gay friend. Furthermost, capitulation is also aesthetical – both films wholeheartedly accept the values supposed by the male order. Instead of proposing a new feminine canon, Bemberg not only accepted the White Male Canon, she showed her acceptance in order to be accepted. She also accepted (and repeated) the separation between high and popular culture and, as discussed before, the established forms of narrative realism. Last, there’s capitulation even with the audience. These first films not only didn’t talk like women, they didn’t talk to women either. Her feminism pretended to be ecumenical. The offered ‘positive Images of Women’ pretended to be mirrors to stimulate change not only in women but in men too. The pedagogical tone was unavoidable, and all this capitulation, more than a she-wolf disguised as a lamb, winds up with the sad image of the she-wolf trying to say something from inside the lion’s stomach.

By ‘prosthesis’, on the other hand, I refer to the particular use made of an advantage to compensate for a handicap. This advantage, as we saw, cannot be any advantage but an advantage central to the survival of the order. What comes to mind here is the history of the affirmation of one’s intelligence used by women and other ‘refugees’ to stand for their right to talk along men in the Modern Age (7). Doing so, in such a rational culture, they not only accept the values of the order but also the condemnation of the ‘irrational’ and ‘sensitive’ spirit that this same order attributes them. Prosthesis becomes a particular kind of capitulation, and capitulation turns out to be no more than an elaborated prosthesis – therefore, the one who employs it accepts their position as ‘handicapped’.

Moving towards rebellion: reading (history) like a woman

Camila

Based on Camila O’Gorman, a young girl that shocked 1847 Argentine society by running away with a young priest, Bemberg’s third film, Camila (1984), represents an abandoning of the isolated position of ‘woman’ and the attempt to incorporate politics via history. It is set during one of the most controversial political periods in Argentine history, Rosas’ government. To date, most historians have considered Rosas a cruel dictatorship, while several others point to it as the first populist administration. Truth is it was a violent time, and Rosas’ supporters usually employed torture and homicide. In fact, Camila (played by Susú Pecoraro) and her lover, Wladislao Gutierrez (played by Imanol Arias), were finally executed by Rosas’ direct command.

Regarding the political, Bemberg was careful not to show Rosas decision as simply motivated by his own evil but rather portrayed it as a result of the pressure of his major opponents (who from Montevideo and Chile wrote about the case as a sign of the corruption of his government). Nevertheless, politics seems all the time to be a matter of fanaticism rather than of specific economic and political interests. Of course, much of this is related to Bemberg’s decision at this point to abandon classical narrative and embrace melodrama, to read history like a woman (or like women are supposed to read history).

Released few months after the return to democracy, Camila couldn’t avoid an allegorical reading relating Rosas to the recent horror of the military dictatorship, which has a lot to do with its commercial success (as well as its Academy Award Nomination. The prize however was won a year later by another Argentine film, much more mediocre, but on the same topic, The Official Story [Luis Puenzo, 1985]). Once more, trying to define a problem of women, Bemberg offered Argentine society an excuse to conciliate with itself and to be blind to its own political responsibilities.

Señoras

It wasn’t until her fourth film, Miss Mary (1986), that María Luisa Bemberg was able to articulate the ‘women’s issue’ with politics. In spite of the appalling acting of the three children, it is certainly one of the most interesting and accomplished Argentine films, a very intricate and complex representation of the whole society between the ’30s and ’50s, and its relations with imperialism (almost a Lukácsian dream). It has usually been read as Bemberg’s critique of her own class, but Miss Mary goes beyond this single topic.

When it starts, though the title says ‘Buenos Aires, 1930’, there are two girls saying their prayers in English under the purview of their governess. When they finish, their mother enters together with their father and says to them ‘buenas noches’ (Spanish for goodnight). Both the parents’ elegance and their response to a question posed by one of their daughters (that they are going to a political celebration) implies their social position. After leaving, the father tells the girls “God bless you”, and the governess greets him saying “Congratulations, señor”. This schizophrenic mixture of English and Spanish (that is constant throughout the film, in which the ‘grandfather’, for instance, is called ‘grandpapá’, papá being Spanish for dad) is a sign of the conflictive relations between empire and colony (8). The confusion is mutual, as we see in the next scene, in which another British governess, while packing her clothes, bitterly observes: “Perhaps you should have gone to India, Miss Mary. At least, there it’s clear who the natives are.”

Already from Miss Mary’s (played by Julie Christie) arrival in 1938, there’s a conflict between the empire’s expectations and the country’s material conditions. On her first night at the rich estancia in which she’s been hired, she writes to her mother (i.e. she reports to the empire): “My arrival was quite an event. The whole family was waiting for me at the train station. They’re warm and friendly. The low, white, Spanish house has a large patio in which this evening the whole family danced the tango to the sound of strumming guitars. It was lovely to watch, and I soon would be able to dance the tango myself.” Not even close to the truth, as Miss Mary’s bitter tears show during the writing of the letter. Truth is she’s been received at the train station by a distant and surly uncle (played by Gerardo Romano) and then taken to a large house where Mecha (Nacha Guevara), the mother, shows her the house and openly criticizes English people for their concern about Hitler, “come on, he’s a maniac. You shouldn’t take him seriously”. Of course, not what the empire expects of ‘natives’. After being introduced to the children, she’s given strict instructions by the father, and finally receives an awful gift from the girls – a bottle of perfume filled with urine.

But this governess – who sees herself as a direct representative of the empire (“The war is over. The British soldiers are going home… so is old Miss Mary”) – is not only lying about her own position within the house, but also about the ‘native’ habits. She expected tango (as still happens nowadays with every foreign tourist who has just arrived to Argentina), but these people dance foxtrot, jazz and waltzes. She won’t ever listen to tango, and the only time she tried a ‘native’ dance (chamamé, during the wedding of an estancia laborer), she falls to the floor. Quickly aided by a worker who tries dance with her, Miss Mary says to him violently “Soft, you native!” Many years later, preparing to return to England in 1945, when seeing the workers crying out “Perón! Perón!” on the streets, she’ll ask herself: “Who are these people? Where are all them coming from?”

To Miss Mary, Terry’s marriage (as she calls the youngest of the girls, Teresa) is much more important than the 17 October (9) events (shown in photographs at the end of the film, in contrast to the photographs at the film’s beginning of the rich oligarchy in political power), that she only knows about by way of the shouts that emanate through the window from the streets below and the little groups passing by (or the speech of the cab driver who refuses to take her to the Church because “andan todos los negros sueltos” – “all the niggers (10) are out”).

Miss Mary’s confusion as to “who the natives are” is part of the schizophrenic order of the family already pointed out, a schizophrenic order that finally produces an impossibility of self-recognition.

Miss Mary: Why don’t you speak to me in English?
Johnny (eldest son of the family, his Spanish name is never mentioned): Because when I speak in English I feel like an actor.
Miss Mary: And when you speak in Spanish?
Johnny: When I speak in Spanish too.

The oligarchy is a class constantly acting, whose identity is a complete façade because it believes in nothing but its own economical interest (as shown clearly by the family father’s cynical comments on politics). Yet it has to act in order to produce values that reassure its social place and position (for example, that religion is used to dominate the lower classes is clear in the scene in which Mecha arranges the wedding of a couple of workers of her estancia), and this acting-out is mainly an obligation carried out by the women. Women of the family are the victims and administrators of the fictions (religion, honor) used to constitute the symbolic universe of the class, and they’re not so much supposed to act in public as in private. Mecha has “the little crying room, for when she’s sad”, and when she sees her husband cheating on her she’s to act as a tragic diva, shooting him with a gun. This scene motivates the daughter, Carolina’s (Sofía Viruboff) terrible question, later recovered by Johnny (Donald McIntire): “Miss Mary, do you think my family is mad? Do you think we have too much money?” Actually, Carolina (the eldest daughter, called Caroline by Miss Mary) will end up the madwoman of the attic, the one who cannot stand this world where she’s supposed to learn “English, history, needlework, art, etcetera” and where her sister is supposed to marry a man she doesn’t love just because they’ve had sex once (sex that hasn’t even been good, moreover). If we compare Miss Mary to Bemberg’s former films, the new development is that this act of becoming mad is the only exit from the symbolic male order.

Miss Mary has been granted the responsibility of imposing this order on the girls, and when she hears about Carolina’s madness she asks if the girl hasn’t got a boy who cares for her, “what does she want?” – a question that is immediately asked by the father as he is beating the door and furiously crying to Carolina “¿Qué mierda querés?” (“What the hell do you want?”). Miss Mary is representative not only of the culture of the empire but also the law of the father, thus becoming both the same, a symbolic order that constitutes the base of political power. Nevertheless, near the end she would regret “They’re all alike. These señoras with their sad painted faces, so arrogant and so helpless…what a waste!” The empire regrets the results of its own symbolic dominance, but doesn’t regret their causing pain or harm. “What a waste!” The empire needs ideology to survive, but regrets the huge amount of energy that this same ideology requires for its self-preservation, stealing part of the energy the natives were supposed to give to the empire as work. All señoras are the ‘waste’ of a complex system of political dominance, that’s the place of women in Third World countries.

In this order, there’s no need to murder women (as in other ones), they’re already death in its own petrifaction and repetitiveness, and this is the secret of its strength. Like Mecha, who plays over and over on her piano Satie’s Gnossiens imposing death and stillness to the whole estancia, while her mother separates photographs of relatives in two piles, death and alive, and asks her “Decíme, Mecha. María Teresa… ¿ya murió?” – “Tell me, Mecha. Is María Teresa already death?” – to which Mecha quietly nods.

Perón, the populist general, pretends to offer an end to this order, but this is not entirely true. As the father has said, Perónism is a menacing force with which the oligarchy could possibly negotiate and arrive at an agreement convenient to both parties (though he recognizes his own class is not intelligent enough to do so). The image of Miss Mary’s trunk being shipped is eloquent – freezing halfway through, as though she never leaves the city. Like we’ve seen in Pacheco’s widow’s attitudes (who Mecha despises because “para mí sigue siendo la manicurista del Jockey” – “to me, she’s still the manicurist of the Jockey [Club]”), more than the definitive change of an order, the populists want to insert themselves into this same order. They believe it is possible to use the same order to their own benefit – they haven’t learnt Carolina’s lesson. Consequently, the arrival of populism is not the end of the señoras, but the extension of señoras to all social classes. It is announced in Mecha’s hate to Pachecho’s widow (that anticipates señoras hate to Eva Perón) – Mecha is frightened of Pacheco’s widow taking her place, not as a threat to the place itself. There’s a very enlightening dialogue once Pacheco’s widow has got what she wanted:

Mecha: Decíle a esa mujer que se calle, Ernesto. (Tell that woman to shut up, Ernesto.)
Ernesto (Mecha’s brother, who has become Pacheco’s widow husband): Mecha, es mi mujer. (Mecha, she’s my wife.)
Mecha: Por eso. Que se calle. (That’s why. She must shut up.)

Mecha says it clearly: it’s because Pacheco’s widow has became a señora that she has to shut up. With populism, the working class pays its supposed rise to power with silence, accepting the same symbolic order imposed by the empire, instead of building a new order. The problem is not merely women in Argentina. The problem is that today, in Argentina, we’ve all became señoras. What a waste!

What a girl wants, what a girl needs

If knowledge as a means of colonial domination appeared clearly in Miss Mary, in the figure of the governess, it would seem strange that in her next film Bemberg would focus on women’s rights to knowledge. Truth is Bemberg could have employed Mexican writer, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s biography, on which the film is based, to question what the chances of marginal subjects intervening in knowledge itself are, but she didn’t (11). Too fascinated with its subject, Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All, 1990), reads Juana’s struggle for the right to study and knowledge in such romantic terms that knowledge is finally presented as positive in itself, unhistorical and neutral. The problem is not knowledge, but its administration by men (who, once more, seem to be irrational and fanatics in their behavior toward women). Even if constantly articulated during the film, Juana’s Latin American position is completely set aside and seems to be no more than an aggravating circumstance to her female condition. The insistence on her intelligence brings once more the prosthesis to discussion, as well as the problem of positive Images of Women, so falling into the same problems as her first three films.

Yet Yo, la peor de todas has a new problem, another ‘handicap’ problem. During Bemberg’s life it was commonly said that she was a lesbian. This surely had a lot to do with the macho prejudice that assumed every feminist to be an angry butch, but even so, it’s very interesting to observe Bemberg’s own reaction. She never ‘came out of the closet’ and never denied being a lesbian – she merely kept quiet. Yo, la peor de todas is her only film in which lesbianism explicitly appears (if implicit in Miss Mary), in the relationship between Sor Juana and the wife of the viceroy. The thing is it appears as a spiritual passion lacking the need of consummation, as sublimation – meanwhile carnal consummation had always appeared as a fundamental part of ‘straight’ love and even as a means of liberation. This prudish attitude by Bemberg is not only an acceptance of the same code she was criticizing, it is also the extension of this repression to a ‘positive model’, then making sublimation the ‘recommendable’ attitude to lesbian women. Women must learn to satisfy their desire (i.e. every demand of theirs) not reaching its goal.

Some girls are smaller than others

Luisina Brando as Doña Leonor in De eso no se habla

De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want to Talk About it, 1993), the last of Bemberg’s films, can be read as the sequel to Miss Mary. What has happened to this universe once the empire has supposedly retired and Pacheco’s widow has taken the place of señora? Actually, Doña Leonor (played by Luisina Brando), the dominant señora of the little town in which De eso no se habla takes place, is not only also a widow but is played by the same actress too. And another interesting relation – this is the same actress who played Leonor in Señora de nadie.

The widow, Doña Leonor, has inherited a little grocery store within the town from her late husband, a European immigrant. As store-owner, she enjoys a privileged position in the town. Power is no longer bound to large estates – trade is now its source (an activity not even started by the natives themselves but received as the remains of the empire). The marginal or ‘Third World’ society no longer relies on production so much as consumption. Accordingly, it’s become more parochial and absurd, and the privileged proportionately minor. Empires left behind ridiculous societies only halfway through modernity, and whose members are blind to their own marginal condition, their actions becoming an involuntary parody of the rituals and positions in advanced societies. At the same time, the empire is blind to its own barbarism thus made objective, and cannot see these societies as its own natural extension but as exotic and unknown structures. These societies allow the empire to ignore its present decadence (as it’s clear in Ludovico D’Andrea [Marcello Mastroianni]), even worse – to think its present decadence as its greatness and magnificence.

The progressive weakening of this society has its expression in Doña Leonor’s daughter, Carlota (Alejandra Podesta), a midget. Re-named by her own mother ‘Charlotte’ (trying to use French as she saw the other señoras used English in Miss Mary), she’s finally called Charlotita, a hilarious mixture between the French name and the Spanish diminutive. To Carlota’s handicap, her mother would oppose two strategies. The first would be, of course, prosthesis through knowledge, knowledge of arts and literature, and the second the elimination of any possibility for Carlota to recognize her difference (in a scene, Doña Leonor destroys the statues of midgets that another widow has in its garden). Doña Leonor isn’t working to subjugate her daughter, as the other mothers were in Bemberg’s films. She wants her daughter to be successful, but tries to get this by eliminating Carlota’s difference.

Fortunately, the whole film is the story of Carlota’s triumph over her mother. When Carlota gives a piano concert, her mother wants her to be already in the stool when the curtain goes up. To her disappointment, when the curtain goes up Carlota enters the stage walking to the stool, sits and then plays. This will happen all through the film. Each time Doña Leonor tries to apply the prosthesis, Carlota stresses her difference. At the end, Carlota leaves town, her mother and her husband (a man desired by all women in town, including her own mother) and joins a circus.

Doña Leonor despises the order (the town) they are living in, but she thinks that this order is the only possible one, and so she’s interested in her and her daughter being powerful within it. Carlota, on the other hand, won’t recognize this order’s values, neither power (and therefore empire) as a value in itself. Instead of knowledge as prosthesis, she’s interested in a concrete use of knowledge to produce difference – the same happens with Mojamé, the Arabic salesclerk of the store, that will finally be able, from difference, to build a speech of his own.

In this highly parodying film, full of poisoned irony even of her own career, Bemberg finally shows that the best strategies are not those that, covering the handicap, look for acceptance, but those that use the order to exhibit the handicap itself. In doing so, and in contrast to every one of her former films, happiness appears as a possibility. Not as a positive woman, a heroine, a madwoman, a Saint or a genius… but as a midget, taking for positive what is supposed to be negative, not recognizing one’s condition as handicapped, not accepting neither prosthesis nor shelters, using makeup, riding elephants. This is the long travel to happiness: waking up and no longer waiting for the other to give us a legitimacy that could be nothing but the condescending signal of its dominance and our submission.

Endnotes

  1. See Michel Foucault, Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Plon, Paris, 1961). Something that is, at the same time, interior and strange to a culture, is excluded (as a defense from the inner menace) by confining it (to reduce its otherness).
  2. The way the history of men in cinema is told, as arrogant and potent phalluses.
  3. Let me remind the foreign reader that Bemberg started her career during the most brutal military dictatorship Argentina knew during the 20th century (1976-1983).
  4. The relation is a little more than an example – Bemberg’s last project (after her death completed by an assistant) was based on Victoria Ocampo’s “El impostor”.
  5. The importance of this perspective is stressed because almost all prominent women in Argentine culture until the ’80s (excepting very rare cases, as Alfonsina Storni) belonged to oligarchy.
  6. One of her biographers, Clara Fontana, centers Bemberg’s feminism in two books: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
  7. This ‘affirmation’ – evident for example in the position “Even though I’m a woman, I can speak because I’m as intelligent if not more so than men” – is clear in very early feminism, for example, in Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or George Sand.
  8. Strictly speaking, the place known today as ‘Argentina’ was a colony of the Spanish Empire (not the British one). Nevertheless, since the independence, there’s a strong economic alliance with the British Empire that soon starts becoming a particular kind of dependence (similar to the one that Latin American countries have today with USA).
  9. On 17 October 1945, a never before seen mobilization of workers won the Plaza de Mayo (square facing the Presidential Palace) demanding Perón’s freedom.
  10. Since most of the black Argentine population was sent to death in war during the 19th century, the word ‘negro’ in a derogative sense applies in Argentina not to colored people but to workers and poor people.
  11. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Mexican writer of the 17th century, is considered the greatest Latin American Baroque author. Challenging the Church, she also wrote on theological issues.