Juan Sebastián Ospina León’s Struggles for Recognition: Melodrama and Visibility in Latin American Silent Cinema historicizes Latin American silent cinema by tracing film melodrama’s northbound journey from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles. Echoing Linda Williams’s influential reading of melodrama as “the fundamental mode” of popular American cinema, Ospina León makes a case for melodrama as the “dominant mode” that made visible the experiences of modernity in early-twentieth-century Latin America. The melodramatic mode’s notoriously protean nature—what Christine Gledhill calls its “historical genericity”—enables the book’s ambitious comparative study of Argentine, Colombian, and Mexican cinema that is both rooted in archival research and attentive to close textual analysis. Struggles for Recognition adopts a comparative approach to film history that is sensitive to the local and global inflections of this intermedial and industrial art form.
Struggles for Recognition argues that melodrama is always political because it seeks to change the world. At the same time, Ospina León emphasizes that the melodramatic worldview, though suffused with what seems to be a universal sense of justice, should not be taken to be atemporal. Indeed, he contends that melodrama’s contrast between “how things are” and “how things ought to be” is historically and culturally specific.
In pursuing this line of inquiry, the book departs from some of the key assumptions about the mode proposed by Peter Brooks in his seminal study, The Melodramatic Imagination. Following Brooks, Struggles for Recognition acknowledges that melodrama is a mode of recognition. However, unlike Brooks, Ospina León asserts that melodrama’s recognition is not limited to moral recognition. Instead, he argues that melodramatic recognition operates at several levels, including personal-emotional, legal, and social (17). The book neither demonizes melodrama as manipulation nor valorizes it uncritically. Melodrama, rather, is a contested site of recognition; a mode known to generate pathos for the powerless, it is not always “objectively just” as it renders some sociocultural struggles visible while erasing other injustices.
Ospina León situates melodrama as a “traveling theory” by examining its local articulations in cinematic texts, film cultures, and trade journals as well as its global exchanges. Struggles for Recognition traces the uneven development of cinema industries in Latin America, highlighting the connections, conflicts, and negotiations between organized capital and independent endeavors, and connecting these various national film industrial contexts by focusing on the production, circulation, and reception of melodrama. Ospina León makes a noteworthy distinction between what he terms the melodramatic “regime” and the melodramatic mode, the latter having long been the focus of melodrama scholarship. This shift in emphasis is in keeping with the book’s preoccupation with the relationship between the sights of film melodrama and the sites of Latin American urban modernity. Using moving-image melodrama as a structuring device enables Ospina León to explore the industrial, social, technological, and urban experiences of modernity. This allows him to sidestep a teleological account of modernity, especially theories that posit Latin American modernity as “incomplete,” and instead to approach modernity as “felt experience” (9).
Struggles for Recognition explores film melodrama’s cross-cultural dissemination to shed light on the cultural politics of location. The dialectic between the national and the global dimensions of the melodramatic mode is not the book’s main focus, and Ospina León explains why he is not interested in the question of national cinema. Although the book acknowledges the struggle between various urban film centers for national dominance, it nevertheless argues that such contests do not confirm the presence of national film cultures. This disavowal of the national, however, leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Indeed, during periods of postcolonial emergence, melodrama, one could argue, sought to fulfill what Timothy Brennan calls the “national longing for form.”
The first chapter, “‘Filmdom’ before and during the Great War,” maps the global circulation of cinema and the rising popularity of film melodrama in Latin America before and during World War I. Tracing the global travels of melodrama, it highlights the “cinematic colonization of the planet” by charting Latin America’s emergence as a viable market for European cinema (26). It explores how the Great War affected film industries and their global markets by redrawing the center/periphery of the cinematic world. While it points out the rising popularity of Hollywood films in Latin America during the war, especially when the European industries could not meet local demands, the chapter makes the case that this transition cannot be completely attributed to cultural imperialism and passive consumption. Instead, drawing on filmic cartographies and polemics of trade journals, it argues that Latin American distributors and exhibitors played an important role in this reconfiguration. In so doing, the chapter highlights the many film cultures that emerged in the region during this period and the ways that global film practices, particularly melodramatic cultures, came to suffuse everyday life.
The second chapter, “Buenos Aires Shadows: Urban Space, Fallen Women, and Destitute Men,” focuses on cinedrama porteño (“porteño cinedrama”), city films that competed with and even surpassed the nationalistic gaucho films in popularity. While the gaucho films responded to modernization by valorizing Argentine cowboys, porteño cinedramas’ reaction to the changes brought about by modernization was bleak. Primarily set in Buenos Aires, these films responded to rapid urbanization and its resulting mass immigration by featuring the trope of the fallen barrio woman in urban-specific settings, such as department stores and cabarets. Porteño cinedramas struck a cautionary note against moral decadence, the perils of consumerism, and aspirations for class mobility by appealing to the audience’s “sentiment, status anxiety, and moral self-consciousness” (57).
For Ospina León, the popularity of porteño cinedrama demonstrates the ways that melodrama rendered visible the sociocultural tensions unleashed by modernization. The pathos that they generate, he suggests, is almost Brooksian in that they imbue everyday life in a postsacred world with moral legibility. However, the next set of films that Struggles for Recognition focuses on marks a significant departure from this model.
The films that Ospina León analyzes in his third chapter, “Bogotá and Medellín: A Tale of Two Cities and Conservative Progress,” do not take place in a world that has lost the “traditional Sacred.” Rather, Bogatá’s narrative cinema is, he notes, an “officially progressive—and holy—endeavor” (80). He makes the case that its religion and religious imagery form a part of the melodramatic imagery, especially in the form of the tableau. As he points out, Colombian patriarchal family melodrama is not tasked with resacralizing a postsacred world. Instead, he demonstrates that, during the period of “conservative hegemony,” religion continued to be at the heart of this iteration of the melodramatic imagination, cohabiting with the processes of modernization. Modernity, in this case, is not a rupture but a continuation. This argument, scaffolded by close readings of family melodramas, advances Ospina León’s overall claim that Latin American modernity is different but not deferred.
Chapter 4, “Orizaba, Veracruz: Yesterday’s Melodrama Today,” focuses on El tren fantasma (The Ghost Train, 1926) and El puño de hierro (1927), two surviving Mexican feature-length films, both directed by Gabriel García Moreno, that have been “reconstructed” in the archive by film preservationists. Melodrama, here, is more than text; current-day preoccupations, aesthetics, and even a melodramatic “horizon of expectation” can be projected onto its texts during their restoration in the archive (110). Thus, the current version of both films invokes what Walter Benjamin called “dialectical images,” as the chapter argues, “wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation” (110). The chapter examines the linkages between curatorial work, film preservation, and anxieties about appropriation. Through its close textual analysis, it concludes that melodrama is a polyphonic and unending “sense-making enterprise” and as such, the site of a ceaseless struggle for representation (136).
The fifth chapter, “South to North: Latin American Modernities,” concludes the book’s northbound journey. Ospina León examines how transnational exchanges affect local film cultures. In its final chapter, Struggles for Recognition revisits some of the concerns it had raised in the first chapter—in particular, the question of cultural imperialism. It interrogates the popular understanding of the “one-way” influence of American cinema over Latin American film cultures, illuminates the complex networks of Latin American film cultures across the Americas, and highlights the cultural reciprocity between Hollywood and Latin American film industries.
Ospina León focuses on Julian de Ajuria’s ambitious Una nueva y gloriosa nación (The Charge of the Gauchos, Albert H. Kelley, 1928), which experimented with melodramatic conventions to appeal to both American and Argentine audiences. The narrative impulse behind The Charge of the Gauchos is an amalgamation of authorial ambition, nationalism, patriotic enthusiasm, and cinephilia. However, as Ospina León points out, its aesthetic is equally shaped by the demands of transnational finances. Seeking to cater to both domestic and international markets, the film eschews historical accuracy in favor of cinematic spectacle. The chapter highlights the film’s ultimate inability to cater to national and nonnational audiences: its attempt to forge a “universal” narrative language was subject to local misreadings.
Ospina León argues that the Colombian film Garras de oro (The Dawn of Justice, P. P. Jambrina, 1926), unlike Charge, exhibits an unequivocally anti-US sentiment both in its narrative and in its visual aesthetics. By constellating the two films, the chapter highlights the complexities of transnational cultural exchange during the silent era.
Struggles for Recognition, given its subject, scope, and method, will be of interest to melodrama scholars; film scholars, particularly historians; and scholars of Latin American cultural studies. It joins a growing body of melodrama scholarship, cinematic and literary, that no longer tasks itself with “rescuing” melodrama from allegations of excess. In its closing remarks, the book departs from its historical preoccupation to consider the current state of the melodramatic field. It brings to the foreground the more pressing stakes of contemporary melodrama studies by returning to the politics of representation. Turning its historical lens onto the present, Struggles for Recognition reminds its readers that melodrama can be (and has been) used for liberal and illiberal ends. However, Ospina León poignantly notes that scholars, instead of getting caught up in skepticism or euphoria, must be mindful of textual and contextual mediations as they engage with melodrama’s sense-making possibilities in reel and real life.