Prisioneros de la tierra (Prisoners of the Earth, 1939), the prolific Argentine director Mario Soffici’s masterpiece, shocked audiences of its day with its unflinching examination of exploitation and violence in Misiones, a remote Argentine province bordered by both Paraguay and Brazil. Set in 1915, the film depicts the plight of the mensús, monthly contract workers who labored on the region’s yerba maté plantations, harvesting the leaves used to make the popular tealike beverage known as maté. The film’s striking cinematography, its detailed depiction of injustice and cruelty, and its tragic ending still have the power to stun today.
Some have labeled the period to which Prisioneros de la tierra belongs the “golden age” of Argentine cinema. The country’s nascent film industry had been overwhelmed by competition from Hollywood in the early 1920s. By 1932, the industry was in free fall; only two domestic films were released that year. But the invention of the talkie led to a reversal of fortunes, as Argentine audiences clamored to hear Argentine actors on-screen. The nation’s first two modern studios using optical sound technology began operations in 1933, and by 1939 Argentina was producing dozens of films per year. Hollywood movies remained extremely popular there, but the local studios thrived as well, finding audiences at home and throughout Latin America. The industry would soon enter another period of decline, ceding its position of regional dominance to its Mexican counterpart, but in 1939, Argentine cinema was at a commercial high point.
Soffici was born in Florence in 1900 and moved to Argentina with his family at the age of nine, one of more than two million Italian immigrants who poured into the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After establishing himself as a stage actor, Soffici met the pioneering Argentine filmmaker José Agustín Ferreyra in 1929 and, convinced that sound film would soon rescue Argentine cinema, offered to act for free in his films. After a few on-screen parts, including two for Ferreyra, he made his directorial debut in 1935 with El alma del bandoneón (released in the United States as The Soul of the Accordion). The movie, an early vehicle for the singer and film star Libertad Lamarque, was typical of the tango melodramas that proliferated in those years. Soffici later recalled his first impression of the script: “I thought it was terrible. But then I thought, One way or another, I need to learn.”
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