BEMBERG, Maria Luisa
Nationality: Argentinian. Born: Buenos Aires, 1925. Family: Divorced, four children. Career: Established Argentina's Teatro del Globo theater company, 1950s; wrote her first screenplay, Cronica de una Senora (Chronicle of a Woman) , 1971; moved to New York and attended the Strasberg Institute, late 1970s; returned to Argentina and directed her first feature, Momentos , 1981. Died: 7 May 1995.
Films as Director and Scriptwriter:
Momentos ( Moments )
Señora de Nadie ( Nobody's Woman )
Yo, la peor de todas ( I, the Worst of Them All )
De eso no se habla ( I Don't Want to Talk about It ) (co-sc)
Films as Scriptwriter Only:
Cronica de una Señora ( Chronicle of a Woman )
El Mundo de la Mujer (short)
Triangulo de Cuatro (Ayala)
El Impostor ( The Imposter ) (Maci)
By BEMBERG: articles—
"Maria Luisa Bemberg: El rescate de la mujer en el cine Argentino," an interview with J.C. Huayhuaca and others, in Hablemos de Cine (Lima), March 1984.
Interview with K. Jaehne and G. Crowdus, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.
Interview with Sheila Whitaker, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1987.
Interview in Cine Cubano (Havana), 1991.
Interview with Z.M. Pick, in Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta), Fall-Winter 1992–1993.
Interview with B. Olson, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 36, 1994.
"Accents and umlauts," in Films in Review (New York), September-October 1994.
On BEMBERG: book—
King, John, and Nissa Torrents, The Garden of Forking Paths: Argentine Cinema , London, 1988.
On BEMBERG: articles—
Maeckley, Monika, "Machismo Takes a Knock," in Guardian (London), 10 December 1982.
Rich, B. Ruby, "After the Revolutions: The Second Coming of Latin American Cinema," in Village Voice (New York), 10 February 1987.
Jackson, L. and Jaehne, K., "Eavesdropping in Female Voices," in Cineaste (New York), no. 1/2, 1987–1988.
Noh, D., "Bemberg's Late-blooming Career Thrives with Mastroianni Starrer," in Film Journal , September 1994.
Obituary in Film-dienst (Cologne), 23 May 1995.
Obituary in Classic Images (Muscatine), July 1995.
Obituary in Time , 22 May 1995.
Obituary in Village Voice , 30 May 1995.
Obituary in Angles (Milwaukee), vol. 3, no. 1, 1996.
* * *
Maria Luisa Bemberg entered the filmmaking world only after leading an "asphyxiating and uneventful" life (her own words). Born into one of the wealthiest families in Buenos Aires, she entered the film industry at age forty-six after her children had grown and she had obtained a divorce. Despite her belated entry into the profession, Bemberg became one of the most subversive and popular Argentinian directors of the twentieth century. In addition, she has been acclaimed in Europe and the States.
Bemberg's first (semi-autobiographical) screenplay, Cronica de una Señora , gained acclaim as a contemporary domestic drama, focusing on a regressive political system as it affected the female protagonist. Wishing to exert more control over her screenplays, but with no formal training, she spent three months as an actress at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York and returned to Argentina to direct. In 1982 she caused a stir with Senora de Nadie , which featured a friendship between a gay man and a separated woman, challenging in one swoop the sacred notions of marriage, family, and the Church. Released on the day that Argentina invaded the Malvinas (Falklands), the film's impact was overshadowed somewhat by political events, but the crumbling state of the military regime (which had exerted so much censorship and control over the country's film industry that by the late 1970s only twelve films were being produced per year) ultimately helped the film succeed. Hugely popular with female audiences, it made a powerful and overtly feminist intervention into a culture crippled by its own repression and machismo.
After the overthrow of the military regime, and the humiliation of defeat in the Falklands War, Bemberg still saw much to come to terms with and much to struggle against in her national identity. She felt that her role as a filmmaker, and as a woman in a fiercely patriarchal society, was to explore political oppression as a backdrop and context for intense personal conflict. Her films dwell anxiously on Argentina's troubled past, and suggest that only by coming to terms with it can the nation—and the individual—put it to rest.
In 1984 Bemberg directed Camila , the first Argentinian film ever to break into the American market. Recipient of an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, it is all the more remarkable in that many other directors who wanted to film this true story of illicit love between a priest and a young woman in 1847 had previously been prevented from doing so by the government. By casting the Priest as a beautiful object of desire and Camila (historically portrayed as the innocent victim) as the temptress, Bemberg created a passionate melodrama in which she consciously moved away from her earlier, hard-bitten domestic dramas into a more emotional, lyrical sphere. The historical basis of Camila offers a mythical arena in which to explore her very real contemporary political concerns.
Miss Mary continues to focus on these concerns, exploring English influence over the Argentinian upper class through the crucial figure of the nanny in the years before World War II. Politics and history are expressed through family structures, sexuality, and human behaviour. Female characters, even the repressed and unsympathetic nanny (played by Julie Christie), are portrayed with understanding—although Miss Mary is a reactionary agent of oppression, the film works to explore why she is so—in an attempt to study the forces that could create both she and the sick family for which she works.
Bemberg's strong sense of the melancholy is an integral part of her work, causing an uneasy tension in all her films: while all her works indict the reactionary political system, they are also impregnated with a tragic sensibility that presents events as somehow out of the protagonists' control. The bleak endings (in which transgressors are punished and traditional structures remain apparently intact) of Bemberg's films might seem pessimistic. But the very expression of transgression in the films—along with the tentative exploration of the disruptions that inevitably threaten an apparently monolithic system—by an individual who could so easily be a victim of that system (female, bourgeois, divorced), is not merely laudable, but remarkable.
Camila and Miss Mary remain exceptional films, the former a passionate and profound examination of a doomed romance and the latter a sumptuous, evocative account of a repressed woman. If both films are not overtly autobiographical, they do deal in very personal ways with Bemberg's own identity as a woman existing in a male-dominated society. A third, most impressive, feature from Bemberg is I, The Worst of Them All , set in Mexico during the seventeenth century. Her heroine is a nun possessed of a deep thirst for knowledge who becomes a writer. She also is destined to becomes the antagonist of her country's misogynist archbishop. Bemberg followed that up with what would be her final directoral effort, I Don't Want to Talk about It , a fitfully interesting drama about two women—one a dwarf and the other her physically appealing but obnoxiously controlling mother—who become involved with an aging but still-suave bachelor (impeccably played by Marcello Mastroianni).
The unfortunate aspect of Bemberg's career is that it began so late in her life, thus robbing her of time to write and direct other films. Still, before her death in 1995 she was able to transcend the repressive political forces at work in her country and the constraints placed upon her because of her sex. Moreover, her films show her ability to discerningly philosophize about these aspects of existence in her country.
—Samantha Cook, updated by Rob Edelman