María Luisa Bemberg’s historical drama Camila (1984) is a somewhat difficult proposition in that it can be read in several distinctly different ways—any of which are valid, none of which are entirely satisfying. The problem with Bemberg’s film is that the director herself doesn’t seem quite sure what she’s making. It’s based on an historical event, making it a kind of biopic. The event is a story of doomed love involving a headstrong young woman, Camila O’Gorman (Susú Pecoraro), and the Jesuit priest, Ladislao Gutiérrez (Imanol Arias), she falls in love with, making it more than a little bit of a soap opera—complete with tragic ending. Because the film was made in Argentina right after the fall of a military dictatorship, it also earns a certain allegorical quality, owing to being set against the backdrop of an oppressive government from 1847.
Bemberg’s film—which is bathed in more soft-focus photography than a 1970s Penthouse magazine photo spread—appears to want to be all these things, with a layer of quietly dark comedy on top. And to some degree it is, making it part of the world of one of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican romances in that it mocks its own conventions while adhering to them. Or does it? That’s the trick. There’s something about the tone of the film that never quite settles the issue. One moment, it appears to be overheated melodrama (this is one of those affairs where someone falls into a “fever” out of an attack of conscience), the next it seems to look down on that sort of contrivance. The approach may be deliberate—and it’s certainly interesting—but it kept me at arm’s length throughout. Try it for yourself. It’s certainly of historical significance in introducing Argentinian cinema to the world at large, thanks to its glossy surface and Oscar nomination.