Violence and Sex in the Work of Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli
Violence and Sex in the Work of Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli
- Victoria RuétaloVictoria RuétaloModern Languages and Cultural Studies, University of Alberta
Director-producer-actor Armando Bó made films featuring nude appearances by the voluptuous star Isabel “Coca” Sarli that challenged the social constraints that were taking hold in a more restrictive and violent Argentina. The period from the fall of Juan Domingo Perón in 1955 until the end of the “Guerra Sucia” or Dirty War in 1983 marked a volatile time in the history of Argentina, with ever-increasing acts of state violence. It coincided with a parallel in the film industry: the state began to intervene in production and exhibition practices through laws that limited what was seen on the screen, until censorship was formally legalized. The work of Bó and Sarli falls perfectly within the historical period of onscreen and offscreen violence. The enterprise began in 1956, and their final film was released in 1984 (after the end of the dictatorship and the death of the director). The couple produced films that suffered from the aggressive effects of censorship—through the cutting of specific scenes that displayed the female body—and reflected the growing violence in everyday life. Films like Carne (Flesh, 1968) and Furia infernal (Ardent summer, 1973) tell simple stories of seemingly weak females and aggressive macho males. A closer look at their narratives, however, reveals a more complex femininity and masculinity, one where violence begets violence. Throughout the twenty-seven films they made together, Bó and Sarli consistently revealed sexuality and gender issues at a time when these were invisible in Latin America.
- History of Southern Spanish America
- Cultural History
- Gender and Sexuality
In the 1968 film Carne (Flesh), a character sarcastically declares: “Secuestros de día . . . por favor! En un país civilizado, ¿cómo van a ocurrir esas cosas?” (Kidnappings by day . . . please! In a civilized country, how could such things happen?). The irony couldn’t be more explicit as Delicia, the protagonist of the story, is kidnapped and hidden in a meat delivery truck where she is repeatedly violated by different men. Carne, like many of the films made by Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli, exposes underlying truths about violence that are enacted in a trope relating to relationships between people, one that was not too distant from the historical circumstances that were enveloping Argentina at that time.
Empowered star and producer Isabel “Coca” Sarli and producer-director Armando Bó were pioneers in Argentina. They challenged censorship, good taste, and the disgust associated with working-class and racialized bodies through an erotic cinema with clear social commentary. Bó and Sarli’s brand of films was centered on the nation but also assimilated different national contexts throughout Latin America. Between 1956 and 1981, Bó made twenty-seven films with his star, Sarli. They included the first nude scene in Argentina in their inaugural El trueno entre las hojas (Thunder among the leaves, 1958). This film propelled Sarli to stardom, and she soon became a partner in Bó’s enterprise, owning 50 percent of the rights to each project.1
Their quickly produced, independent, and cheap films were popularized across Latin America, especially as they entered small markets such as Paraguay, Uruguay, and Panama through coproductions. In the case of Paraguay, especially, films such as El trueno entre las hojas, Sabaleros (Put out or shut up: Positions of love, 1959), and La burrerita de Ypacaraí (The girl ass-keeper of Ypacaraí, 1962) became part of its institutional film history.2 In more established film markets, like Mexico and Brazil, the duo defied standards such as miscegenation—in La Leona (The lioness, 1964)—and, for some projects, joined forces with the large Mexican distributor Pel-Mex, who set up a branch office in Argentina to stimulate similar popular productions. Eventually the collaborations with other international partners and companies were distributed by Columbia Pictures International.
Bó and Sarli’s films were notorious for their onscreen nudity, and they consistently pushed the limits on other sexual taboos. “Hot,” or uncensored, versions entered US and European sexploitation markets, while their “cold,” censored, less offensive versions remained at home to play to more Catholic audiences. Their most lucrative movie, Fuego (Fire, 1968), was the first to premiere abroad before being seen in Argentina.3 It had a large following in New York during its initial run, and it was later released on VHS by the distribution company Something Weird Video in an English-language dubbed version. In fact, the US-based company can be credited for stimulating and creating the second wave of global fandom of the couple’s films.
However, despite their international triumphs, they were confronted with an incessant battle against censorship at home. They defied this state-mandated censorship in the production of their very first joint venture in 1956, and they continued to do so in all of their subsequent films until the end of the dictatorship in 1984, when censorship was finally abolished. The pair challenged the vicious acts performed on Sarli’s onscreen body through an offscreen activism that strategically tapped into Bó’s vocal criticism of the censorship apparatus in the media. They persisted despite the increasing obstacles that the state imposed.4 They teamed up with international partners to pursue their art, but it can also be argued that through their narratives, and mainly via the trope of violence, they were commenting on and reflecting what was happening on the streets of the nation at a time of increasing political hostility.
The mid-20th century became a defining time in Argentina for divisive political ideals to take shape. It was a volatile era, and any type of change elicited a repressive reaction from the state, which was accustomed to forceful tactics. In the span of twenty-one years, from Perón’s exile in 1955 to the arrival of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (the Process of National Reorganization) in 1976, ten different governments came to power—only four of which were elected democratically (those of Arturo Frondizi, Arturo Umberto Ilia, Héctor Campora, and Juan Perón). The rest gained power through military coups and, in some cases, from internal coups within the military, like those orchestrated by Roberto M. Levingston (June 1970) and Alejandro Agustín Lanusse (March 1971).
The long stretch of enduring political brutality was marked by a coup d’état in September 1955 that toppled President Juan Domingo Perón and brought another general—Eduardo Lonardi—to the helm. But Lonardi’s victory was short-lived, since he was considered too moderate; and in November of that same year, Pedro Eugenio Aramburu dethroned him under the new banner of “la revolución libertadora” (the liberating revolution), which aimed to de-Peronize the nation. On March 9 of the following year, Perón and Peronism became illegal, and it was a crime to use the party’s symbols or discourses.5 Peronism thus took a position on the margins, which ironically most likely gave the party an edge and allowed it to develop in ways that may have been impossible had Perón not been exiled.6 While public demonstrations of Peronist ideology were not tolerated, a pro-Perón army uprising in June 1956 set a new standard for dealing with opposition.7 When the government decided to execute the twenty-seven rebels to make an example of them, a new form of state violence was born, one that may have left a particular trace in the nation’s memory.8
Nonetheless, in the 1950s and early 1960s, while violence existed, it was not as rampant as it was under the subsequent Onganía regime of the late 1960s, which imposed measures that ensured widespread government repression and produced countermovements of homegrown guerrilla organizations. Violence was met with violence, as a fresh brand of Peronism was allowed to brew; and it was even encouraged by Perón from exile.9 Notably, Juan Perón and the Justicialista party would continue to cast a shadow on the political scene until the election of the Campora government. On March 11, 1973, General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse announced new presidential elections and stated that a candidate from the Justicialista party would be allowed to run for the first time since their leader’s exile. When Perón returned from exile on June 20, 1973, the Ezeiza International Airport provided another scenario for the internal conflict in his party. Some three million people gathered to welcome him home.10 The celebration resulted in a clash among opposing ideological factions that left 13 dead and 365 wounded.11 The instability continued under Perón until his death in July 1974.
His third wife and vice president, Isabel Perón, took over the government in advance of the military junta’s plot that overthrew the government in 1976. They ran Argentina in the most brutal dictatorship in recent history called the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional (hereafter “the Proceso”)—a time of repression, torture, assassination, and intimidation. The dictatorship, or Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), meant the disappearance of thirty thousand people, many of whom vanished in plain sight, like those in the film Carne. One of the apparatuses used to impose state violence was the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (Argentine Anti-communist Alliance, aka “Triple A” or “AAA”), a far-right death squad initiated by José López Rega, Perón’s minister of social welfare. López Rega used state funds to finance the Triple A and allowed it to grow under Isabel Perón’s reign to rid the nation of the Peronist left and other leftist organizations.
The historical timeframe of staging violence transferred onto the screen through the implementation of a central censorship apparatus that targeted ideological opposition, but also through the presence of the body and pleasure, both of which were linked to ideological dissension. While Isabel Sarli was a staunch Peronist, Armando Bó was not. Nonetheless, their work aligns with the desire to make the body central at a moment in history when bodies and pleasure expressed specific political ideas.
The violence levied on the onscreen body in Argentina began by attempts to prohibit Sarli and Bó’s films through a series of lawsuits in the late 1950s. It was around this time that the diva first “scandalously” exposed her breasts in El trueno entre las hojas. The lawsuits continued throughout the 1960s, until all films made in Argentina eventually fell victim to the heavy-handed tampering of the censor’s shears. Early movies were held to the standard of Penal Code 128, where any citizen could denounce obscenity.
At the beginning of Bó and Sarli’s career trajectory together, each new attempt to exhibit a film was met with lawsuits that prohibited the full, uncensored, version of their film being shown in cinemas. As the global influence of the Cold War was increasing, state authorities exercised ways to deal with ideological opposition. Since the media, and particularly cinema, had the potential to corrupt young minds, the state developed legislation to control what was allowed to flourish onscreen. Pressure from parental groups and the growing influence of the Catholic Church ensured that censorship became legalized and centralized throughout the 1960s.
In 1957, with the implementation of law decree 62/57—through the creation of the Instituto Nacional de Cine (INC)—a new legal framework marked the beginning of state interference in a historically privately funded industry. The apparatus increased through law decree 8.205 in 1963, with greater manipulation from the state in the regulation of culture. This state intervention was intensified still further through law decree 18.019 in 1969. This law legitimized censorship through the creation of the Ente de Calificación Cinematográfica (Argentina’s Classification Board), the ultimate body responsible for overseeing the films exhibited in the whole nation.12 The law also fully sanctioned censorship as a way of eliminating scenes or prohibiting entire films that were perceived to go “against the national lifestyle or the cultural rules of the Argentine community.”13
Censorship’s trajectory coincides with the duo’s history of filmmaking. During 1957 to 1984, any attempts to release a film they had made proved to be a frustrating exercise, as all of their films pushed the limits of the visible. As early as 1960, even before official censorship, the INC interfered with the appearance of Sarli’s body in India (Indian girl, 1960), setting a different standard for the star from her coactors—indigenous women from the Maká tribe who were permitted to appear topless.14 These early experiences with censorship pushed the couple to collaborate further abroad, eventually entering the new and thriving sexploitation market in the United States and Europe.15 As censorship in Argentina tightened, dual versions of their movies were filmed, one for Catholic sensibilities (at home and in other similarly repressed nations), and another for the more liberal and open markets.
The struggle to get their films seen in Argentina was unceasing, as each new law brought with it more restrictions and made it harder to screen full versions of the films. The release of completed films was postponed until adequate cuts made them acceptable for expected norms. By 1968, the limitations experienced in Argentina meant that Fuego premiered first in New York to the growing fan base both in the Hispanic and sexploitation markets. Fuego was not screened in Argentina until 1971, and by that time two of its scenes had been cut. Other films made during 1969 (while the 18.019 decree was in operation) were held for long periods before premiering; for instance, Embrujada (Bewitched) was made in 1969 but was not released until 1976, and Extasis tropical (Tropical ecstasy) would wait nine years for its debut in 1978.
Just twenty-four days before the premiere of Furia infernal (Ardent summer, 1973), Octavio Getino had taken over the directorship of the Classification Board, and a new era of unlimited onscreen pleasure had seemingly arrived. The ban on Perón’s party from running for election had been lifted, and with the electoral success of its candidate, Héctor Campora, it seemed Argentina was well on its way to democracy.
The opening in politics ostensibly meant potential new prospects for film culture—what would be referred to as the “destape” or unveiling. At this time more onscreen sex was permissible, although there were still limitations, as the case of Intimidades de una cualqiera (Intimacies of a prostitute, 1974) shows, with its release postponed until 1974.16
This small liberation of onscreen content was to come to an end after Getino had a falling out with the minister of culture. His term as director was not renewed, although he still advised on film legislation until the death of Perón, in July 1974, and the eventual exile of the filmmaker.17 At that time, Miguel Paulino Tato became head of the Classification Board and launched a new era of film censorship, a level of state manipulation unseen before in Argentine cinema. This censorship tightened even further with the Proceso in 1976 when the Pautas or “guidelines” were published. The Pautas provided clear direction on how to interpret the specifics of law 18.019.
What legitimates the study of Sarli and Bó’s films is that, as censorship was growing and becoming legalized in Argentina, through a violence experienced on the material frames of the films themselves—by cutting away scenes that showed too much or implied problematic moral standards—the content of their films correspondingly also explored a level of violence that cannot but be tied to the state of the nation.
In and Through Violence
Shockingly, from Bó and Sarli’s very first project, a common thread of personal and societal violence unites most of the films’ narratives. While it is not wise to only focus on the intricacies of plot—as they were influenced greatly by censorship practices, generally interfering with the overall content and morale of the stories—one finds continuity while working across the films they produced, one that even censorship could not erase.
For instance, their earliest project, El trueno entre las hojas, based on the first-ever script written by notorious Paraguayan boom writer Augusto Roa Bastos, tells the story of the exploitation of workers in a sawmill deep in the Paraguayan jungle. The domineering foreign boss gains pleasure from abusing and humiliating the laborers and the Maká, the indigenous group whose land the company occupies. In the end, they orchestrate a rebellion, where the boss dies, and the men occupy the company in a cooperative take over. This was unlike any other film in Argentine cinema at the time.
El trueno entre las hojas and their second feature, Sabaleros, also scripted by the famed Paraguayan writer, both introduce a theme of societal violence, showcasing the problems of disproportionate social structures that will be present in all future films made by the pair.
However, as their joint work develops, Bó and Sarli shift the focus from socially conscious narratives based on work environments, to more seemingly trite topics, such as love and sex, to exploit the growing star power of their leading woman. From collective stories of occupations to highly emotional melodramas, the female star’s predominance on the screen through Sarli’s roles does not, however, eliminate a socially conscious backdrop that eventually incorporates questions of sexuality and gender.
The male-driven narratives from the early examples become female-driven, and begin to explore issues relevant to their sexualized characters, such as prostitution. In this vein, violence becomes a key thread throughout the work. It makes an appearance through the lens of the harsh law in India and La burrerita de Ypacaraí, and as a solution to an injustice caused by corruption in Los dias calientes (The hot days, 1965), where the antidote for crooked corruption is only crueler violence.
The dramas of oppression, abuse, violation, and vengeance carry over from film to film. For instance, the same protagonist from India (1960) appears in Embrujada (1976), many years later as Ansisé, a mestiza indigenous maiden who had been taken from her community by a rich landowner. The trauma of her experience of displacement only resurfaces in her violent acts, performed through the folkloric Guaraní figure of the Pombero, whose role in mythology is to maintain a balance in nature.
In Embrujada, the Pombero possesses Ansisé, who enacts vengeance on men, particularly her evil husband, the cause of her own initial trauma exacerbated by his inability to give her a child. The natural equilibrium is recalibrated when she kills her unproductive and exploitative husband. In Y el demonio creó a los hombres (And the devil created men, aka Heat, 1960), there is a documentary-like scene where the two brothers, on the Isla de Lobos, off the coast of Punta del Este, club to death sea lions and seals on the Uruguayan rocks. The juxtaposition of Magda (Sarli) in a black dress, sitting on the rocks, replicates the sleek bodies of the pinnipeds and suggests that the female, as a vulnerable guest in the remote island, is also at the whim of possible severe treatment by the barbarian men.
In all the aforementioned examples, the interaction between nature, depicted through Sarli’s characters, and the “men” that surround her, is central to the narratives, suggesting an unnatural imbalance. As a result, the interaction plays out in the aggressive pursuit of Sarli’s different characters by various men, usually involving force as a way of acquiring or desecrating the many yet similar iterations of the females she plays. Sarli’s character finds herself rapaciously pursued in each movie: by the stepfather in Favela (Shantytown, 1960); the workers in La Leona; many men in Lujuria tropical (Tropical lust, 1964) and Una mariposa en la noche (A butterfly in the night, 1977); father and son in La mujer de mi padre (Muhair, 1968); and Cholo, the pimp and boyfriend, in Intimidades de una cualquiera.
While all the films tell different versions of the story, there is a persistent kernel that often remains in all, the reason why Bó and Sarli were accused by film critics of making the same film repeatedly. Driving most plots are the urges that Sarli’s body produces for all men. The implication is that her body, representative of the ultimate female body, unleashes unrestrained, naturalistic, and euphoric chaos. And thus, it inspires a rebellion (El trueno entre las hojas), murder (Y el demonio creó a los hombres), incestual attraction (Favela and Intimidades de una cualquiera), suicide (La diosa impura and Fuego), physical combat (Sabaleros and La mujer de mi padre), and rape (Carne and La tentación desnuda).
The case of Carne, just like La tentación desnuda (Naked temptation, 1966), re-enacts a rape culture replicating a game of predator and prey.18 In both films, Sarli’s character is chased by men who torment her, and in Carne they succeed in violating her (see figure 1). On the surface, the violence inflicted on a seemingly defenseless female, by aggressive and uncouth men, constructs caricature messages about femininity and masculinity. And yet both films offer more complex readings about gender roles when compared jointly. Carne exposes the ostensible macho masculinity as false, since new masculinities emerge and materialize behind closed doors inside the meat delivery truck that is meant to control the outcome. The pact made by all the men was that they would all “enjoy” Delicia in the truck by having their way with her, and yet the assembly-line rape does not actualize in all cases. Instead, different masculinities emerge in the truck, questioning the sole macho identity existing outside.19 The film allows for homosexual and morally diverse positions that are not visible on the surface (see figure 2). And yet the different masculinities exposed in the truck do not all achieve the same outcome.
Similarly, in La tentación desnuda the female prey is pursued by three men who harm the main male protagonist, José María, in order to impose themselves on Sandra. Nonetheless, Sandra manages to enact revenge by killing one of her predators in self-defense. More importantly, she can manipulate the others by pitting the men against each other, eventually eliminating all threats. Sandra’s own intelligence and survival instincts legitimizes her eventual escape from the hunters.
In the case of La tentación desnuda, Sarli embraces a strong role beyond any weak societal standard of female agency. The film puts in motion a resistance mechanism based on revenge and empowerment. When Sarli’s characters’ actions, and those of the men behind closed doors in Carne, are read within a history of censorship and side by side to the political context of violence, they offer a survival mechanism for a generalized societal culture of brutality. They also introduce gender and sexuality nuances that are socially loaded in a historical moment when these topics were ignored by prioritized Cold War ideological divisions. This fresh focus on gender and sexuality furthermore arises alongside direct references to state violence, such as the dialogue in Carne referred to in the section “Introduction” of this article. Other films make personal and state oppression more explicit, as in the case of Furia infernal.
Furia infernal premiered on August 30, 1973, to an ecstatic crowd drawn by the allure of seeing an uncensored Isabel Sarli on the screen. It became a key film, as it was shown in the country as “el primer film del binomio . . . que . . . podía exhibirse sin cortes en Argentina” (the first film from the duo . . . that was allowed to be seen without cuts in Argentina).20 When studying cinema, film historians habitually take for granted that movies were clear aspirations of their creative teams, their directors. However, censorship taints such possibility, as it adds a different layer into the already complicated, normally collaborative filmmaking process. In the case of Bó, who directed, wrote, produced, and essentially had complete control over his productions, censorship muddles any analysis of the films because the state apparatus had as much creative authority as the all-consuming auteur. Therefore, Furia infernal presents an interesting case to the study of the couple’s work, as it exists as an unfiltered example.
The film comes at a time of political opening when Octavio Getino is made director of the Classification Board. Throughout his short time as comptroller, Getino aimed to change its focus and replace censorship with classification. Thus, Furia infernal offers an opportunity to see through censorship, hinting at some of the previous and future attempts of incorporating violence in the filmmaking duo’s work. As a matter of fact, Furia infernal can be considered the culmination of the couple’s theme of violence, since it predicts the state violence that will ensue, with a kidnapping and the predominance of a strong authoritarian figure. It is the last film made with clear violent topics, as the ones that followed were heavily censored, and the earlier ones remained unreleased.
The story is about a striptease artist named Barbara who performs in a club. One night a gaucho and caudillo, Martín, from the south, watches her performance and wants to take her home. Barbara’s husband refuses, and so Martín and his thugs orchestrate a kidnapping, taking Barbara away after killing her husband. Taken to the inhospitable south, Barbara is kept by Martín in a place surrounded by male gauchos, all of which are his sons. When she arrives at the estancia (ranch), Barbara meets Napoleon, Martín’s domesticated puma. The parallel between Barbara and the puma as “animals,” kept captive as prey and domesticated establishes a correlation that will eventually shift, whereby the caged become the hunter.
In the unwelcoming environment of the south, the father-patron has full power over everyone who follows his lead by coercion. Slowly, but surely, however, Barbara wins all the men over to her side through her sexual whiles and eventually corners the caudillo into a position where no one is prepared to defend him. She finally kills him with the revolver that he gave her, becoming the predator of the story. On one level, the film can be seen as a political allegory, a nation ruled by a despotic dictator. The allegory has no clear political bent, since both ideological sides used disappearance as a tool. Only history will show the uneven effect of disappearance, when the military junta were exposed for their excessive use of force and the ultimate disappearance of as many as thirty thousand opponents.
Like most of their films, Furia infernal featured the personal, showing how one woman overcame the sexual and daily oppression of a man, who constructed his small empire in a remote land, to dominate everyone around him. On the other hand, it also exposes how violence infiltrates the narrative of a seemingly sexy onscreen film and suggests that the personal is additionally national. An aggression imposed on a victim of domestic abuse, Barbara is restricted and cannot live freely as a human being. She nonetheless overcomes her external limitations by the overbearing and domineering new husband, a dictator of the land and his people. She offers all the people under his control an opportunity to free themselves from his clutches.
The film gives its audience what it has promised, scenes of the diva stripping, frolicking in the snow, and enjoying a bubble bath. The sex onscreen that Barbara exhibits offers a reprieve from the harsh reality of her imprisonment and the violent control of Martín. But it also allows Barbara to embrace her body and empower herself to eventually kill her oppressor (see figure 3). She is seen being raped by her violent husband, copulating with the man’s sons, and constructing her own revenge in a calculated way by building a true resistance with all of Martín’s progeny. Like Sandra in La tentación desnuda, eventually Barbara’s vengeance becomes the driving force of the narrative. Violence begets violence.
The open and less controlling period of more onscreen liberty ended as Getino left his position and was replaced by Miguel Paulino Tato, one of the most ruthless censors in Argentina’s history. Tato’s reign (1974–1979) meant that the full, untouched versions of the films Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli had been making could not be seen in Argentina. The moral repression reached a level where both the violence infiltrating their excessive narratives and the onscreen sexual exploitation of Sarli’s body were not tolerated by the board nor Tato. Many films took years to be released, and when their exhibition was finally permitted, what was left were poor severely mutilated versions of the original.
Una mariposa en la noche was released, with a number of missing scenes, in 1977, one year after the initiation of the Proceso (see figure 4). During some of the more risqué parts of the film, the image becomes blurred. This blurring of images was a new technique unseen in the duo’s films up to that point, eliminating the crispness that defined the sexploitation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Insaciable (Insatiable, 1984) was outrightly banned and not released until 1984 after the end of the dictatorship, and posthumously after Bó’s death. A film like Furia infernal was to become an allegory of the violence that existed and was increasing in society. Violence in Sarli and Bó’s work became normalized, following the growth of state brutality. Equally of note is that the attacks on their films were amplified, until they were eventually producing movies lacking their trademarks of violence and sex.
The last two films made during the dictatorship, Él último amor en Tierra del Fuego (Last love in Tierra del Fuego, 1979) and Una viuda descocada (A madcap widow, 1980), included neither element of sex or violence, thus appealing to the censor’s sensibilities.21 Both were released in theaters; however, they were still surrounded by controversies, suggesting that the content of the films was not the only reason the couple offended the censors. The former had received a credit from the INC and had been considered to be the most complicit with the authoritarian regime. It tells the story of a star, Isabel Borja, who remembers her past life when she retires to Tierra del Fuego, and then becomes a teacher. The press criticized the final scene, where its star appears in a classroom with a large Argentine flag in the background. However, the film only played a short time and was removed from theaters after Sarli had an altercation with a priest.22
Their final movie was not given the film credit that the INC promised. At that point, the couple swore never to shoot another production in Argentina. They traveled to the United States to embark on their next project, but Bó fell sick and did not finish the film before dying. The melodrama that the duo experienced offscreen replicates the ones performed onscreen. Violence was the result of a culture that had not come to terms with the changing sexuality of the times. Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli challenged that culture and produced a brand of films that both reflected and pushed the limits of society’s norms.
Discussion of the Literature
From the early 1960s, just as censorship was becoming legal, it became a rising concern among filmmakers, especially for the new Generación del 60 (generation of the ’60s), led by auteur director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. It also impacted the work of a growing political film movement, known as the New Latin American Cinema. In Argentina, directors Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino produced the notorious La hora de los hornos (The hour of the Furnaces, 1968), an example of what they called “third cinema.” The film was banned due to its clear ideological agenda, until 1973 when Getino became comptroller of the Classification Board and was intent on releasing films considered politically offensive.
Armando Bó was not part of the generation nor the political movement, but his ongoing struggle against state-imposed censorship should have secured his inclusion in the public outcry of the filmmaking community. Yet, Bó was considered an outcast by his peers, and his films were not defended in public. His fight was his alone. The shock that Bó and Sarli’s films produced was echoed in some of its criticism. The excessive violence, the bad acting, and simplistic plots were often criticized by the press and most of all by fellow filmmakers. Laura Podalsky explains how the films “were ridiculed by contemporary intellectuals for not having any political or social bite.”23
It was not until the 1980s and 1990s, when a brand new appreciation of the kind of movies Bó and Sarli had accomplished, began to take place. Jorge Abel Martín’s Los films de Armando Bó con Isabel Sarli set a foundation for a positive reception to their brand of erotic cinema.24 Full of anecdotes, interviews, images, and a thorough filmography, the compilation brings together a clear history of their work and establishes the many myths that surrounded their films. The material in the book came from Bó’s personal archive. It was first promised to Rodolfo Kuhn, in 1976, to accompany a reflection about the value of Bó’s work, right before Kuhn was exiled. But the publishing house canceled the contract, and Kuhn took his unpublished manuscript abroad. Armando Bó: el cine, la pornografía ingenua, y otras reflexiones finally sees the light in 1984, when the filmmaker returns to Argentina after exile.25 Kuhn’s reflection appreciates Bó’s innovative and unique style that challenges authority.
In the 1990s, two more books are released—La gran aventura de Armando Bó: biografía total and Isabel Sarli al desnudo—both of which reproduce much of Martín’s work, with additional anecdotes.26 Around the same time, Sergio Wolf publishes the first serious scholarly article that gives a comprehensive overview of the couple, by dividing their production into three clear phases. This is a classic study that pays attention to the “other” history of Argentine film.27 The duo entered official national film history with their inclusion and representation in different parts of Cine argentino, 1957 to 1983: modernidad y vanguardia, a two-volume analysis of the film industry after the 1957 cinema law and ending with the conclusion of the Proceso.
The above research has inspired more contemporary studies of specific films. Of particular interest are Braslavsky, Barredo, and Pereyra’s Insaciable; Barredo’s Carne; and Zangrandi’s El trueno entre las hojas.28 A parallel trend in North American film studies has been the reappreciation of low popular cinema from the 1960s and 1970s and its exploitation in film circuits abroad. The anthology Latsploitation: Exploitation Cinemas, and Latin America, based on a dossier published in the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, inaugurates a new understanding of the highly popular productions that remained absent from the academy, and thus film history, resisting the marginal position of exploitation cinema in Latin American national histories.29
The case of Sarli and Bó fits perfectly, as it enacts a globally successful cinema that has led many to see their work as internationally focused and distant from its Argentine reality. The outward focus of their films has been captured in a few studies.30 Conversely, to not consider the complications imposed by their mode of production—the Argentine social and political reality, censorship practices, the global framework of the sexploitation trends, and the affective register that exceeds the simplistic plots—is to ignore the complex circumstances that contributed to the rich work that they both played in Latin American culture throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which garnered them a popular local, regional, and international audience.31
The Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires contains archives for studying the pair. It houses a collection of photographs from films and other publicity shots. The museum also amasses objects, such as some of Sarli’s costumes designed by Paco Jamandreu. There are folders with press clippings, press releases, and letters for each of Bó and Sarli’s films. The archival work of the museum includes restoring films. In 2009, they found a copy of India (1960) in their repository. The film was believed to have been lost. It was restored by the museum and was exhibited at the Buenos Aires Festival de Cine Independiente in 2012.
The library at the film school run by the Instituto Nacional de Cinematografía y Artes Audiovisuales (National Film and Audiovisual Arts Institute, INCAA) has a collection of press clippings for Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli. When Octavio Getino passed away, his widow donated his archive to the library. This included photocopied parts from the Ente de Calificación Cinematográfica files, which were open to researchers in the early 1990s and have since disappeared. This archive includes a part of the Intimidades de una cualquiera (1974) file. The library also has the original Pautas or guidelines that interpreted the censorship apparatus more explicitly circulated by the military junta in 1976.
Armando Bó’s private collection of print material was given to Jorge Abel Martín, much of what appears in the 1981 book. Later, Isabel Sarli donated filmic clips to critic and filmmaker Diego Curubeto. Bó had kept many of the cuts that were demanded of him in the different versions of the films. Curubeto made a film entitled Carne sobre carne: intimidades de Isabel Sarli (2008), with the never-before-viewed material, to show how censorship affected the filmmaking duo.
Juan Carlos Maneglia, Paraguayan filmmaker and fan of Bó and Sarli, won the original scripts of El trueno entre las hojas, Sabaleros, and India. Sarli donated the original scripts to her biggest fan in Paraguay. The typed scripts, written by authors Augusto Roa Bastos and José Martínez, show handwritten annotations by Bó.
Links to Digital Material
Many versions of their films exist, and some of inferior quality are accessible on YouTube.
- Calori, Santiago, dir. Un important pre-estreno. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Tira Truenos, 2015.
- Capalbo, Armando, and María Valdez. “Amor constante más allá de la pantalla: Armando Bo e Isabel Sarli en Colombia Pictures.” In Cine argentino: modernidad y vanguardias, 1957–1983, Vol. 2. Edited by Claudio España, 358–371. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 2005.
- Couselo, Jorge Miguel. Historia del cine argentino. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Editor de América Latina, 1992.
- Curubeto, Diego, dir. Carne sobre carne: intimidades de Isabel Sarli [DVD]. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Flesh and Fire, 2008.
- España, Claudio, ed. Cine argentino: modernidad y vanguardias, 1957–1983, 2 vols. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 2004–2005.
- Fernández, Rodrigo, and Denise Nagy. La gran aventura de Armando Bó. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Perfil Libros, 1999.
- Getino, Octavio. Cine argentino: entre lo posible y deseable. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones CICCUS, 1998.
- Goity, Elena. “Las batallas calientes: Armando Bó edifica a Isabel Sarli.” In Cine argentino: modernidad y vanguardias, 1957–1983, Vol. 1. Edited by Claudio España, 364–375. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 2004.
- Kuhn, Rodolfo. Armando Bó: el cine, la pornografía ingénua y otras reflexiones. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Corregidor, 1984.
- Martín, Jorge Abel. Los films de Armando Bó con Isabel Sarli. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Corregidor, 1981.
- Ruétalo, Victoria. “¡Prohibida! Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli’s Struggle with Censorship in Argentina.” Porn Studies , no. 4 (2018): 380–392.
- Ruétalo, Victoria. “Temptations: Isabel Sarli Exposed.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2004): 79–95.
- Ruétalo, Victoria. Violated Frames: Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli’s Sexploits. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022.
- Ruétalo, Victoria, and Dolores Tierney. “Reinventing the Frame: Exploitation and Latin America.” In Latsploitation: Exploitation Cinemas and Latin America. Edited by Victoria Ruétalo and Dolores Tierney, 1–12. New York and London: Routledge, 2009.
- Wolf, Sergio. “Armando Bó con Isabel Sarli: el folletín salvaje.” In Cine argentino: la otra historia. Edited by Sergio Wolf, 79–89. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones Letra Buena, 1994.
1. All dates refer to the Argentine releases, except for Fuego, which first premiered in New York. Many projects were completed years before they were finally released. From the beginning, the couple experienced difficulty premiering at home. For example, with El trueno entre las hojas, Sarli had to travel to Karlovy-Vary International Film Festival, where the film was seen for the first time before being approved in Argentina. See Jorge Abel Martín, Los films de Armando Bó con Isabel Sarli (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Corregidor, 1981), 59, 158–159.
2. Sabaleros originally had nude scenes that were later cut. It was exploited in the United States with a new title Put Out or Shut Up: Positions of Love. Extra scenes of nudity and sexuality, performed by another actress, were added to the US version. The additional material was not authorized by the couple.
3. Like Fuego, there were other films where sexuality was the focus of the narrative. They include Desnuda en la arena [Naked on the Sand, 1969]; Extasis tropical [Tropical Ecstasy, 1978]; Fiebre [Fever, 1972]; Intimidades de una cualquiera [Intimacies of a Prostitute, 1974]; El sexo y el amor [Sex and Love, 1974]; Una mariposa en la noche [A Butterfly in the Night/Like a Bitch in Heat/Like a Dog in Heat, 1977]; and Insaciable [Insatiable, 1984].
4. From the beginning, the challenges came from legal battles for their use of obscenity. As the censorship apparatus grew, the pair continued to produce their films in collaboration with investors from abroad. But even in the most difficult political circumstances, Bó was very vocal about the censorship that his films were experiencing. Bó and Sarli were seen as a menace to morality and received a death threat from the Triple A, a right-wing terrorist group made up of right-wing Peronist members. In his book, Néstor Romano reproduces the death threat that accuses them of being obscene and pro-Marxist. The note gives them 72 hours to leave the country, but the pair stayed and fought censorship head on. See Néstor Romano, Isabel Sarli al desnudo (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ediciones de la Urraca, 1995), 130.
5. Jill Hedges, Argentina: A Modern History (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011), 171.
6. Perón fled to Paraguay, then to Panama, where he stayed for nine months. He then left Panama for Venezuela, and went to the Dominican Republic. He finally left for Spain, in 1960, where he was received coldly by Francisco Franco, but allowed to stay with relative security. All countries that hosted him were governed by dictators.
7. David Rock, Argentina 1516–1987: From Spanish Colonization to Alfonsín (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 336.
8. Jill Hedges, Argentina, 172.
9. By 1968, Perón had published the book La hora de los pueblos, which called for Latin American unity and announced the third position against imperialism, summoning a popular revolution. The reflection attracted the youth to the Peronist cause and laid out the foundation for many of the revolutionary movements that eventually developed in Argentina.
10. Jill Hedges, Argentina, 200.
11. Jill Hedges, Argentina, 201.
12. Victoria Ruétalo, “¡Prohibida! Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli’s Struggle with Censorship in Argentina,” Porn Studies 5, no. 4 (2018): 382.
13. Ruétalo, “¡Prohibida!”
14. The film publicizes the fact that Isabel Sarli was the first actress to appear naked in an Argentine film. As Matt Losada points out, El trueno entre las hojas itself featured other nude indigenous women, who are completely ignored. It begs the question whether similar scenes appeared before 1958. See Matt Losada, The Projected Nation: Argentine Cinema and the Social Margins (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018), 175–176.
15. In the United States, the films played to Hispanic markets in New York, Texas, and California. Furthermore, in New York, they also had a sexploitation following. Many versions were tampered with. Like other sexploitation films in the United States, they included extra clips with scenes featuring different actors performing more sexual acts.
16. See Ruétalo, “¡Prohibida!,” 380–392.
17. After a failed kidnapping attempt, Getino left Buenos Aires for Lima, Peru. The military government filed an extradition order in 1978 charging him for the release of Last Tango in Paris (a film made by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1972), during his time as comptroller. The order called for his return to Argentina, to answer to crimes committed with the release of the film; but the Peruvian government denied his extradition. See Nicolás Mazzeo, “Entre lo possible y lo deseable: Octavio Getino frente a la gestión pública en 1973,” Cine documental 7 (2013).
18. Carne fits within the US sexploitation shift from “nudie cuties” to “roughies,” taking place in 1964. The “roughies” were deemed a more “mature and realist-inclined sexploitation” that represented the unleashing of male sexual psychosis and female alienation. Moreover, rape culture was prevalent in sexploitation, and after 1964, the male voyeur became deviant, enacting a sexualized fantasy based on an instinct of control. See Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 130. Whereas in the case of the Sarli–Bó films, the male voyeur had violent inclinations from the beginning, and was a more active participant, even if that role shifted to his social circumstances, as in the case of El trueno entre las hojas.
19. Tamara Drajner Barredo, “¿Cosificación o uso politico? Carne de Armando-Bó-Isabel Sarli,” Imagofagia: Revista de la Asociación Argentina de Estudios de Cine y Audiovisual 14, October (2016): 21.
20. “La Coca se mira y no se toca,” Siete Dás, September 1973, Armando Bó Folder, Archive Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
21. Una viuda descocada [A Madcap Widow, 1980] is a comedy and the third film of a trilogy that followed La mujer del zapatero [The Shoe Mender’s Wife, 1965] and La señora del intendente [The Mayor’s Wife, 1967].
22. El último amor en Tierra del Fuego [Last Love in Tierra del Fuego, 1979] was shot in 1978, but the film was not allowed to be released by the censor Miguel Paulino Tato. After Tato retired, and after the successful retrospective of the Bó–Sarli films in April of 1979, Bó locked himself up to finish the film in the editing room, including footage from old films and the Super 8 footage from their trips abroad. It was released on October 11, 1979. The release was short-lived, because an incident with a priest at a celebratory event meant that its run ended abruptly, one week after the event. See Rodrigo Fernández and Denise Nagy, La gran aventura de Armando Bó (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Perfil Libros, 1999), 255–257.
23. Laura Podalsky, Specular City: Transforming Culture, Consumption and Space in Buenos Aires, 1955–1973 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2004), 205.
24. Martín, Los films de Armando Bó con Isabel Sarli.
25. Rodolfo Kuhn, Armando Bó: el cine, la pornografía ingenua, y otras reflexiones (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Corregidor, 1984).
26. Fernández and Nagy, La gran aventura de Armando Bó.
28. Eliana Braslavsky, Tamara Drajner Barredo, and Barbara Pereyra, “Insaciable (Armando Bo, 1984): entre la liberación sexual y el castigo moralizante,” Imagofagia: Revista de la Asociación Argentina de Estudios de Cine y Audiovisual 8, October (2013); Barredo, “¿Cosificación o uso político?”; and Marcos Zangrandi, “Una mujer desnuda en la selva: Bó, Roa Bastos y El trueno entre las hojas,” Imagofagia: Revista de la Asociación Argentina de Estudios de Cine y Audiovisual 14, October (2016).
29. See Victoria Ruétalo and Dolores Tierney, “Reinventing the Frame: Exploitation and Latin America,” in Latsploitation: Exploitation Cinemas and Latin America, ed. Victoria Ruétalo and Dolores Tierney (New York and London: Routledge, 2009), 1–12.
30. See Victoria Ruétalo, “Temptations: Isabel Sarli Exposed,” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13, no. 1 (2004): 79–95; David William Foster, “Las lolas de la Coca: el cuerpo femenino en el cine de Isabel Sarli,” Revista Karpa: Dissident Theatricalities, Visual Art and Culture 1, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 1–6; and Victoria Ruétalo, “Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli beyond the Nation: Co-productions with Paraguay,” Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 24, no. 1 (2013): 83–98.
31. Since the early 2000s, a shift has taken place in film history to incorporate new reflections on the political context of filmmaking during and after Peronism. See Ana Laura Lusnich, Pablo Piedras, Silvana Flores, and Andrea Cuarerolo, Cine y revolución en América Latina: una perspectiva comparada de las cinematografías de la región (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Imago Mundi, 2014); Ana Longoni and Mariano Mestman, Del Di Tella a “Tucumán Arde”: vanguardia artística y política en el 68 argentino (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Eudeba, 2008); Clara Kriger, Cine y Peronismo: el estado en escena (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2009); and Victoria Ruétalo, Violated Frames: Armando Bó and Isabel Sarli’s Sexploits (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming, January 2022).