Reading Nick’s article on his favorite Latin American movies, I just can’t help giving a shout out to a couple of my own particular favorites. Both are by the same director, Werner Herzog, and both are set in the Amazon: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”
Aguirre Wrath of God starts off with an awe-inspiring opening scene, shot just below Machu Picchu on a steep ridge descending into the jungle. A long, serpentine column of people march downwards, out of the Andes, Conquistadors and indigenous slaves, heading into the unknown in search of El Dorado.
The entire film was shot on a hand held 35 mm camera in Peru on a low budget, and is based (very loosely) on the story of Lope de Aguirre, an infamous Conquistador who participated in an expedition into the Amazon in 1560. Aguirre was not the leader of the expedition, but he mutinied and took it over. Overcome by the elements and starvation, the expedition degenerated into chaos and tragedy. Klaus Kinski plays Aguirre. Classic Werner Herzog, the movie is on Time magazine’s list of “All Time 100 Best Films.”
Fitzcarraldo (1982) relates the story of an obsessed eccentric in Iquitos (a city in the Peruvian Amazon) who dreams of building an opera house like the famous one in the Brazilian city of Manaus (the biggest city in the Amazon).
To do so, he plans to first raise a fortune by harvesting an expanse of rubber trees that are on a nearby but isolated river that lies just over a small mountain (the movie is set during the early 20th century Amazon rubber boom).
To access this river, he conjures up the idea of hauling a 320 ton steamship over the mountain between the two rivers, using native workers to do the dragging with an improvised pulley system.
The incredible thing is that this feat was actually accomplished during the shooting of the film, on location in the Amazon, making the movie simply astonishing to watch. Here is the original trailer for the movie:
In this context, a third movie worth mentioning is a documentary called the “The Burden of Dreams,” which is about the filming of Fitzcarraldo. Originally, Jason Robards and Mick Jagger were cast, but both left before filming was completed and Herzog finally hired Klaus Kinski in the lead role and reshot the entire film. Kinski was a volatile figure and detested by the locals, who reputedly even plotted to murder him during the shooting. The full story behind the movie is a fascinating read.