¡Viva! Film Notes – María Luisa Bemberg

Camilla Baier, co-founder of Invisible Women, explores María Luisa Bemberg’s Miss Mary and Camila, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2024 on 20, 21 & 24 Apr.

In April 2024, the feminist film collective Invisible Women partnered with Natalia Christofoletti Barrenha and Julia Kratje to present two newly restored films that celebrate the legacy of the Argentine filmmaker María Luisa Bemberg at ¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival in Manchester. With this Focus on María Luisa Bemberg we look back at Bemberg’s extraordinary career and acknowledge her indelible contribution to feminist filmmaking by bringing Oscar-nominated and famously tragic Camila and Miss Mary, with specially commissioned subtitles, to audiences in the UK.


Focus on María Luisa Bemberg

Bemberg’s journey into filmmaking was anything but conventional – she started making films when she was in her fifties –  but once she got there, she dedicated her career as a screenwriter and director to portraying women who seek to break free from the constraints placed on them by class and patriarchy.

Born in 1922 in Buenos Aires, she was the descendant of German Catholic émigrés who established the Quilmes Brewery in the late 19th century – still operational today – and they became one of the richest and most powerful families in Argentina at the time. Despite her immensely privileged upbringing, Bemberg did not receive a formal education and was instead tutored at home by a garrison of over 30 European governesses that came through the Bemberg household throughout her childhood.

In 1945, shortly before the rise of Peronism in Argentina, Bemberg married the architect Carlos Miguens, and they would eventually move to Europe, where they started their family. Ten years after their wedding, and on returning to Argentina, Bemberg separated from Miguens (and because divorce was not officially recognized at the time in Argentina, she could only officially divorce in Europe).

A self-proclaimed feminist, Bemberg co-founded the Unión Feminista Argentina (UFA) in 1970 an organisation which spread the views of second wave of feminism. It became a safe haven for like minded women to come together and discuss issues that moved them like gender inequality, and the lack of access to divorce and safe abortions. The acronym formed by the name, “UFA,” forms an audible sigh aimed to express women’s frustration. I still do a lot sighing UFA when looking at the state of the world 50 years on.

Bemberg’s first (semi-autobiographical) screenplay, Cronica de una Señora from 1971, gained acclaim as a contemporary domestic drama. It had not been directed by her, but instead by the (male) director Raúl de la Torre and she wasn’t really happy with how the film turned out in the end. Wishing to exert more control over her screenplays, but with no formal training, it took another decade until she dared to direct her own films and moved behind the camera herself…

And then, right off the bat, with her first solo director credits for Momentos (Moments) and then Señora de Nadie (Nobody’s Wife) in the early 80s she caused a stir tackling topics such as extramarital affairs and, as in Señora de Nadie, a friendship between a gay man and a separated woman. In one fell swoop she challenged the sacred notions of marriage, family, queerness and the Church; all topics which she loved to subversively dissect in her films.

If you would like to further your ‘Bembergian education’, past the films shown in this programme, I’d invite you to seek out one of my favourite films hers; Yo, La Peor de Todas (I, the Worst of All, 1990) which examines the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Catholic nun from Mexico City who, in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, established herself as an important New World philosopher, poet, playwright and most notably as one of the first feminists on record in Latin America.

Her influence also extended beyond the screen; she was one of the founders of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival, which is now facing uncertain times due to government defunding under the new President Javier Milei. Just last month his government moved ahead with plans to withdraw all state funding from the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA), which will affect national film festivals like Mar del Plata, as well as suspending financial support for national film releases. This is why I think it is especially important to be showing Bemberg’s films today! Films that defied censorship (see Camila) and oppressive power structures (see all of her films) in Argentina, some of which are still (or again) ringing true today.

María Luisa Bemberg passed away in 1995 when she was preparing the script for El Impostor (The Impostor, 1997), which ended up being directed by Alejandro Maci. And I can’t help but comment on the fact that it is ironic that her last screenplay would be made into a film by a male director, considering the main reason she got behind the camera herself was to bypass male directors appropriating her work. However, it has to be said that Maci was Bemberg’s longtime assistant, so I’d like to think that she wouldn’t have been too upset by this!

In her short, but remarkable, career Bemberg wrote and directed two short films and six features, and it’s very exciting we get to see two of them on the big screen this weekend here in Manchester.


Miss Mary (1986)

María Luisa Bemberg said about about Miss Mary: “What I wanted to demonstrate with this film, which was absolutely autobiographical, was the criminality of how well-bred girls were educated to become ‘an accomplished young wife’.”

It follows a family that represented the ruling elite in Argentina for over 50 years, that clung to a patrician dream that was shattered when Juan Domingo Perón came to power.

Spanning from 1938 to 1945 the story is recounted by Miss Mary, played by a prim and proper, yet spirited Julie Christie, hired to teach and discipline the family’s three young children from childhood through to young adulthood. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Miss Mary powerfully illustrates the repression of emotions within a rigid, male-dominated society that Bemberg knew so well herself.

To quote Julie Christie on María Luisa Bemberg: “She had a very fine mind, and great daring and courage. She was fearless about challenging the status quo, mischievous, irreverent, and playful”.


Camila (1984)

Her third film, Camila, was the greatest national box-office success in Argentina for a long time, and it earned Bemberg an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film (only the second ever Argentinian film to be nominated).

When thinking about the incredibly tragic story Camila within the context of her wider body of work, a quote from Bemberg rings even truer than ever: “All of my protagonists are women who in some way break the mold and strive to live autonomously. Some fare better than others.”

Also referred to by Bemberg as ‘Romeo and Juliet from the Pampa’, the film is based on the true story of Camila O’Gorman. She was raised within the confines of traditional upper-class values in the mid-19th century (you can see why this story may have resonated with Bemberg) and defied her prominent and politically-connected Buenos Aires family by publicly criticising the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas.

When she meets Father Ladislao Gutierrez, who preaches against the dictator’s death squads from his pulpit, she falls deeply in love with him. Their impassioned affair compels them to flee, in defiance of the government, family, and the church, as they confront the forces of authority and tradition.

We should say that not only her doomed lovers, but also Bemberg herself had to outrun the government and church to make this film. She said: “Camila was a film that many directors before me had wanted to make. They sought permission from the national film institute, but due to the church’s significant influence in Argentina, were denied. But I didn’t ask for permission. And that’s why I succeeded.” And we’re so glad she did!