Explore the very best movies from South America, based on a selection of over 8,500 films.
Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.
As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.
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The History of South American Cinema
Early South American cinemas depended heavily on the import of European and North American providers. Local production, much like in Central America, remained focused on creating documentaries. During the 1910s, the film industries of Brazil and Argentina saw rapid growth, which solidified them as the main suppliers of other South American film industries.
Together with Mexico and Spain, the two South American nations extended financial support to local film companies across Latin America. Most South American countries were unable to compete with American films, as they struggled to adopt new technologies such as sound and color film. Co-production deals often demanded a certain number of cast and crew members from each participating country to be working on a film. This meant that as a whole, the Latin American film industry became an international, culturally diverse landscape where actors and directors from different nations would freely work together.
In the 1930s, Brazil started the production of so-called “chanchada” films; melodramatic movies that exaggerated the themes and narrative styles of Hollywood films. This would eventually lead to the creation of “pornomiseria” films. Pornomiseria films were dramatic features showing the poverty and social struggles of the people of Latin America. Though the films were lauded abroad, local critics panned the films, as they misrepresented the true financial and social state of Latin America. Both the chanchada and the pornomiseria paved the way for the now world-famous South American telenovelas.
Political unrest in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and other countries forced many actors and directors to leave their home countries. Setting up small production companies in both North America and Europe, these exiled artists continued to create political films criticizing the problems troubling their home countries.
Around the late 1980s, most of the military dictators which had ruled South America were ousted, paving the way for democracy. From the late 1980s onwards, a new wave of highly critical social and political films introduced the world to the issues South America had been dealing with under authoritarian rule. Having already established a solid film industry, Brazil and Argentina diversified their output with comedies, horror, and action films.
The Best Films from South America
Enter South America through diverse Colombia, and traverse the jungles of Venezuela to get to vibrant Brazil, before traveling down the west coast crossing the equator in Ecuador, and heading into Peru to explore the country’s less touristic rural regions.
Colombia: Maria Full Of Grace
Director: Joshua Marston, 2004.
Soon after the introduction of film in Colombia in 1897, a civil war known as the Thousand Days’ War broke out. The war led to a severe economic crisis, and the nation continued to battle with governmental instability. Due to this, very few films were made in Colombia. Before the now lost fiction film María (1922) came out, only documentaries were made.
Colombia’s early feature films were mostly based on folklore and nationalism, though some films addressed political issues, such as Garras de Oro: The Dawn of Justice (1926), in which the main focus lies on the separation of Panama from Colombia. Criticizing both the separation as well as the role of the United States in the event, director P. P. Jambrina made some bold choices in the film. Due to a severe lack of funds, and the rising popularity of foreign films among the Colombian public, the only Colombian film of note before 1940 was To the Rhythm of the Guitars (1938).
Writer Gabriel García Márquez and painter Enrique Grau attempted to rekindle the Colombian film industry in the 1950s with their surrealistic short film The Blue Lobster (1954). It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that film production efforts really picked up again. Many films produced in Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil during this period were known as “Pornomiseria” films: films that exaggerated and exploited the idea of poverty and human suffering in South America. The films gained critical acclaim at festivals around the world, but misrepresented the reality of life in Latin America.
Later, more authentic films like The Snail’s Strategy (1993), The Rose Seller (1998), and A Ton of Luck (2006) would be lauded both locally and internationally. The co-production Embrace of the Serpent (2015), a film about a journey through the Colombian Amazonian jungle, was the nation’s first film to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Another film to gain attention was the crime drama Maria Full of Grace (2004), which was co-produced by the United States. Though many foreign films had already been made about the Colombian drug trade, many of these had focused on spectacle and action. Maria Full of Grace, on the other hand, focused on the desolate life of María Álvarez, a seventeen-year-old girl who is tempted to work as a drug mule.
A pregnant Colombian seventeen-year-old in desperate need of money is tempted to become a drug mule.
Find Maria Full Of Grace on Amazon.com.
Venezuela: My Straight Son
Director: Miguel Ferrari, 2012.
Following Brazil, Venezuela became the second South American country to witness the newly invented medium of film. In January 1897, the first locally produced documentary-style films came out, and over a decade later, the first feature film The Lady of Cayenas (1913) followed. Though Venezuelan cinema had an early start, film production stagnated and Venezuela became one of the least prolific filmmaking countries in South America. Outside of producing a handful of fiction films and documentaries, the industry remained dormant.
In the 1940s, with the support of the Mexican and Argentine film industries, the Venezuelan film industry finally flourished. While some studios focused on co-producing films with Mexico to finances films, other studios tried to commercially exploit successful Mexican films by copying their themes and style. Both Mexico and Argentina required Venezuelan actors to appear in their local films, and vice versa, to agree on shooting co-productions. This gave Venezuelan cinema an international feel, which suited the interests of the nation’s public. Soon, Mexican and Argentine film pushed out American films at the cinema.
The Venezuelan government started funding films in the 1970s. This led to the production of several local films which became international successes, such as I Am a Delinquent (1976) and The Smoking Fish (1977). Unfortunately, due to the country’s dependency on exporting oil, Venezuela entered a period of economic downfall after the prices of oil dropped in 1983. The film industry coped with this by co-producing films with Spain and other Latin American countries hit by the Latin American financial crisis.
Like Colombia and Brazil, many “Pornomiseria” films were produced in Venezuela before the local film industry started to paint a more authentic picture of contemporary Venezuelan life. While crime dramas such as Sicario (1994) and Secuestro Express (2005) still focused on poverty and crime, depicting a negative presentation of Venezuela, later films would do the country more justice. Beautiful examples of these later films are My Straight Son (original title: Azul y no tan rosa, 2012) and Bad Hair (2013). The two controversial films explore homosexuality and the idea of sexual freedom in a repressed society. In turn, The Solitude (2016) reflected back on life during the economic crisis in a more realistic and thoughtful manner.
Fashion photography Diego, who’s in a relationship with surgeon Fabrizio, is visited by Diego, his insecure heterosexual teenage son from an earlier relationship.
Find My Straight Son on Amazon.com.
Director: Sebastián Cordero, 2004.
Situated right on the equator and world-famous for the splendorous wildlife of the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador has been a popular destination for documentary filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Early local productions included a host of documentaries, news programs, and travelogues.
Following the country’s first fiction feature Atahualpa’s Treasure (1924), not many films were produced, as it was difficult for local directors to compete with the advent of “talkies”. Like many of its surrounding countries, Ecuador sought the help of Mexico to continue producing films. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Ecuadorian film industry began to grow. Fueled by international successes such as the countryside drama The Tigress (1990) and crime drama Rodents (1999), the cinematic output of Ecuador was placed on the world map.
Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, who had previously made Rodents, continued to direct several successful films. His suspense thriller Chronicles (original title: Crónicas, 2004), was a typical example of Latin American cinema: though the film was locally made, it was a co-production between Ecuador and Mexico, featuring Spanish actress Leonor Watling and Mexican actor José María Yazpik alongside an Ecuadorian cast.
A sensationalist reporter from Miami travels to an Ecuadorian village to cover the story of a mysterious serial killer who targets children.
Find Chronicles on Amazon.com.
Peru: The Milk of Sorrow
Director: Claudia Llosa, 2009.
Like in many other South American countries, Peruvian cinema started in the late 1890s, and its cinematic landscape was heavily characterized by the production of documentaries for several decades. Early Peruvian films were Water Business (1913) and Resaca (1934), the country’s first sound film.
With its massive mountain ranges and lush jungles, Peru became a popular destination for foreign directors to shoot their films. These films often included low-cost B-movies and travelogue-style documentaries, such as Italy’s Empire in the Sun (1956). In the 1950s, The Photo Cine-Club of Cuzco attempted to breathe new life into the local industry by producing a series of documentaries and several fiction films, among which the drama Kukuli (1961), set in the countryside of Cusco.
Peruvian cinema thrived with the help of government support. Both Kukuli, Cholo (1972), and The City and the Dogs (1985) managed to outperform foreign films at the local box office. Modern Peruvian films take great pride in their history, as they often explore the rich culture of Andean civilization, Amazonian mythology, and local Peruvian legends. Peru also developed a strong animation sector, with films such as Ainbo (2021) exploring the mythologies of the native inhabitants of the Amazon rain forest.
Many films from Peru are adaptations of popular Peruvian novels. Two critically acclaimed book adaptations are Don’t Tell Anyone (1998) and My Brother’s Wife (2005), both based on novels by Peruvian author and talk show host Jaime Bayly. Additionally, Peruvian cinema often focused on the country’s social and political issues and the country’s violent internal conflicts. A beautiful example of a Peruvian film dealing with these issues is Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (original title: La Teta Asustada, 2009), a film co-produced by Spain. The film paints a gorgeous picture of Peruvian society and all its shortcomings, through the story of a young woman suffering from a mysterious disease.
The young Fausta is suffering from a rare disease called the Milk of Sorrow, which is transmitted through the mother’s milk of women who were violated or mistreated during the war of terrorism in Peru.
Find The Milk of Sorrow on Amazon.com.
Brazil: Elite Squad
Director: José Padilha, 2007.
From its start, Brazilian cinema was heavily influenced by Hollywood. One of the country’s first big successes was Rocca & Carleto (1908), a remake of the American film The Great Train Robbery (1903). Other successful films were fictionalized reconstitutions of crimes that had made the press headlines. From the 1930s until the late 1950s, melodramatic “chanchada” films, which exaggerated the themes and styles of Hollywood films, dominated the local box office.
In spite of being one of Hollywood’s largest export markets, Brazil also managed to develop its own distinctive narrative style through the chanchada and similar productions. Gilda de Abreu’s The Drunkard (1946) is often mentioned as a typical Latin melodrama. The film drew in large crowds at the box office and sparked the development of the overly dramatized “Pornomiseria” films, and preceded the dawn of the world’s first telenovela, Your Life Belongs to Me (1951).
Though the 1964 coup d’état forced many artists into exile, Brazilian films would gradually move back towards social and political criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. Political drama Memoirs of Prison (1984), based on the unfinished memoir of Graciliano Ramos, tells the story of the author’s time in prison after he was deemed a subversive element by the government.
From the excellent City of God (2002) to the humorous The Man Who Copied (2003), Brazilian cinema would continue to make its mark on the world in the early 2000s with thought-provoking, challenging films portraying life on the edge in modern-day Brazil. As the country’s economy grows and its telenovelas are shown all over the world, it is sometimes easy to forget the struggle of the millions of citizens still living in the country’s favelas – the infamous Brazilian slums.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, athletes were instructed not to visit the metropolis’ favelas. Violence resulting from the narcotics trade in the slums turned the poverty struck neighborhoods into small war zones and to this date, the struggle for life within the favelas continues. Director José Padilha’s immensely popular film Elite Squad (original title: Tropa de Elite) offers audiences a look inside the city’s favelas, through the eyes of the Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE), the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police.
The film’s loyalties are at times unclear, shifting from the brutal struggle for police control within the favelas to detailing matters of corruption and excessive violence on behalf of the BOPE. Based on the book Elite da Tropa, written by the ex-police officers André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel together with author Luiz Eduardo Soares, the film offers a painfully realistic look inside the Brazilian slums every tourist happily ignores.
During a brutal campaign to secure part of the favelas in time for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Rio de Janeiro, Captain Nascimento and his squad mercilessly wage war against the drug-lords that plague the city.
Find Elite Squad on Amazon.com.
The Best Films from the Southern Cone
Travel onwards through Southern America to visit the continent’s Southern Cone, where we explore ‘the heart of South America’ in Paraguay, travel down the coast of Chile, hit the birthplace of tango in Uruguay, and end our journey around the world in prolific Argentina.
Paraguay: 7 Boxes
Directed by: Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schémbori, 2012.
Compared to the film industries of other South American film industries, the Paraguayan industry took a long time to come into being. After twenty years of foreign productions being sporadically filmed in Paraguay, director Hipólito Carrón shot the nation’s first local film, Alma Paraguaya (1925). Co-produced with Argentina, Catrano Catrani’s Codicia (1955) later became the first Paraguayan feature-length film.
Being under a military dictatorship from 1954 to 1989, the Paraguayan film industry remained dormant for most of the 20th century. Things slowly started to change after the regime of Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown in 1989: no less than a year later, the Fundación Cinemateca del Paraguay was founded and new cinemas were built. Miss Ameriguá (1994), a light-hearted film dealing with a general with a dubious military past, was the first Paraguayan film to attract foreign attention.
Through light-hearted films such as María Escobar (2002) and international co-productions such as the drama Paraguayan Hammock (2006), Paraguayan cinema continued to develop. To compete with popular American and Argentinian films, the Paraguayan film industry mainly focuses on low-cost comedy films, among which the comedy-drama Capital Week (2010) and the action-adventure flick The Gold Seekers (2017).
An excellent exercise in creating a commercially viable film, while still maintaining a strong and compelling narrative with international allure was the crime film 7 Boxes (original title: 7 cajas, 2012). 7 Boxes turns what starts out as a slice-of-life drama about a 17-year-old wheelbarrow delivery boy into a suspenseful crime fill. The action of the film takes place on the hectic Market Number 4, a daily market in Asunción.
Victor, a 17-year-old wheelbarrow delivery boy, is offered the chance to deliver seven boxes with unknown contents, he unknowingly becomes involved in a serious crime.
Find 7 Boxes on Amazon.com.
Directed by: Pablo Larraín, 2012.
The wealth of the Potassium nitrate mining industry in the north of Chile allowed early film enthusiasts to start producing documentaries in early 1897. That year, several Chilean shorts were shown in local circuses, but it wouldn’t take long before proper movie venues opened. Film production boomed in the next few decades. The first Chilean feature film, Manuel Rodríguez (1910), told the story of Chilean lawyer and guerrilla leader Manuel Rodríguez Erdoíza, who had fought for Chile’s independence from Spain. The Hussar of the Dead (1925) later recounted the same story, receiving high acclaim for its accurate portrayal of Chilean colonial society.
Despite industry incentives, the Chilean film industry came to a near standstill in the 1940s and 1950s, with only a few films like The Maharaja Diamond (1946) making a profit at the box office. Luckily, the dramas Three Views of the Street (1957) and Let the Dogs Bark (1961) managed to attract the attention of local audiences, and proved the local film industry still had something to say about contemporary society. The so-called New Chilean Cinema led to a wave of experimental films.
Though politics was an important theme in Chilean cinema during the mid-20th century, the 1973 military coup drove many filmmakers and actors out of the country. While in exile, many of them continued to make political films and documentaries criticizing the dictatorship of the country’s new leader, Augusto Pinochet. One film directly addressing the military coup was the political drama Rain over Santiago (1975).
Like in Paraguay, the end of the regime in 1989 meant the start of a new era for the Chilean film industry. To fund local film initiatives, Chile worked together with other nations to produce films. Though some efforts proved successful, Chilean movies still struggled to compete with foreign films. This started to change with the release of Cristián Galaz’s The Sentimental Teaser (1999), a film credited as a truly authentic portrayal of contemporary Chilean society.
Co-produced with Mexico, the political drama No (2012) would later put Chilean cinema firmly on the international map. The film recounts the efforts of the leaders of the opposition to win the 1988 referendum, which would eventually bring democracy to Chile.
After 15 years of oppression, military dictator Augusto Pinochet is pressured by his international allies to hold a referendum on his leadership. No follows the efforts of the general’s opposing parties to win the election and free their country.
Find No on Amazon.com.
Directed by: Alfredo Soderguit, 2013.
Situated right next to Argentina, Uruguayan cinemas received most of its films from its prolific neighboring nation. From the first screening in 1898 until 1919, no domestic films were shown in Uruguay. The nation’s first movie, Pervanche (1919) proved unsuccessful, and in the following decade, only three more films followed. A military coup and the Great Depression further stalled the development of the country’s film industry. Though the social drama Two Destinies (1936) proved to be a moderate success, it took the financial backing of the Argentine film industry to really get started on local productions. Popular films from this era are Julio Saraceni’s version of the adventure film The Three Musketeers (1945) and Adolfo Fabregat’s comedy The Detective Goes the Wrong Way (1949).
Due to budgetary constraints, Uruguay, like most of the South American film industries, remained primarily focused on creating documentaries. The economy of Uruguay only began to recover after the reign of dictator Gregorio Álvarez ended in 1985. At the time, direct-to-video releases proved profitable as low-cost alternatives to big-screen films. The drama The Almost-True Story of Pepita the Gunslinger (1993), which saw a middle-class lady rob a number of Montevideo banks, did well in both Uruguay and overseas in Spain. From the late 1990s onwards, films were able to receive government backing. Combined with financial help from Argentina and Spain, the Uruguayan film industry flourished: films such as 25 Watts (2001), Seawards Journey (2003), and A Twelve-Year Night (2018) moved into the niche of offering viewers a ‘slice of life’ from Uruguayan society and proved relatively successful.
Moving into the territory of animation, Alfredo Soderguit’s family film Anina (2013) is one of South America’s most endearing animated films. Based on a novel by Sergio López Suárez, the film tells the story of Anina Yatay Salas, a girl who is constantly bullied over three palindromes in her name. The film wonderfully captures the life of Montevidean kids during the 1990s and incorporates many elements typical for Uruguayan society. From the school busses, streets, and houses to the then-popular hobby of collecting bus tickets with palindrome numbers, everything in Anina manages to reflect key aspects of life in Uruguay.
After getting into a playground skirmish with a bully, Anina and her arch-enemy Yisel are disciplined with a strange form of punishment: they are both given a sealed black envelope which they are not allowed to open for an entire week.
Find Anina on Amazon.com.
Argentina: Nine Queens
Directed by: Fabián Bielinsky, 2000.
A shot of the Argentine flag waving in the winds, recorded in 1897, is credited as the first film made in Argentine. While like in most Latin American nations it took a while for Argentine filmmakers to move from documentaries to fiction films, Argentina proved to be very successful after doing so. Early highlights are Amalia (1914) and The Apostle (1917), the world’s first animated feature film.
Like in Mexico and Brazil, Argentina’s local film industry flourished. By the 1940s, over 40 films were produced per year. Though the booming film industry was under pressure from a large number of imported films from America, pressure from the Roman Catholic, and government censorship, the industry managed to keep a steady output. After World War II, Argentina created several international hits, among which Story of a Night (1941), Ragged Football (1949), and Thunder Among the Leaves (1958), the latter which starred future sex-symbol Isabel Sarli in her first role. Thunder Among the Leaves was a highly controversial box-office success, as it was the first movie to feature a scene with full-frontal nudity.
Much like in its neighboring countries Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile, political unrest forced many Argentine artists to leave the country. During the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, local films shied away from social and political themes. Still, the moment censorship was loosened in 1980, a flood of films covering the themes of corruption and impunity came out. Once democracy came in 1983, these films started directly addressing the issues they had only hinted at in the years before. The war comedy Funny Little Dirty War (1983) mocked the Dirty War by restaging the events of the war in a small Argentine town, and The Official Story (1985) addresses the many disappearances during the country’s military coup.
Since then, many Argentine films have been addressing both past and present socio-political issues. The film Camila (1984) tells the true story of a young socialite living in the 1840s who fell in love with a Jesuit priest, bringing down the wrath of the Catholic church on them. Military training camps came under fire in Under Flag (1997), poverty and crime were addressed in Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes (1998), Garage Olimpo (1999) shed light on the torture dungeons used during the dictatorship, and Eva Perón (1996) attempted to paint a realistic picture of the fabled Evita.
Proving the Argentine film industry had more to offer than melodramas and political films, Fabián Bielinsky’s crime thriller Nine Queens (original title: Nueve Reinas, 2000) scored big on the international market. The film, which tells the story of two small-time con artists hoping to make it big, is both entertaining and compelling. Up until today, Argentine films are shown everywhere in Latin America, and the local film industry often aids the continents’ poorer nations in producing films of their own. Outside of South America, Argentine cinema has managed to receive both commercial and critical success. Recent successes were the Spanish-Argentine co-productions The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) and Wild Tales (2014), which were met with universal acclaim.
Two con artists take on a once-in-a-lifetime scheme, when a forged set of extremely rare stamps known as the Nine Queens comes into their possession.
Find Nine Queens on Amazon.com.
Looking for something else? Check out our recommendation for the best films from Europe, films from Eastern Europe, films from Africa, films from South Asia, films from West and Central Asia, films from East and Southeast Asia, films from Oceania and the Pacific, films from North America and films from Central America and the Caribbean.
More articles on Movies
- World Cinema: One Film Per Country
- Cinema of South America
- Cinema of Central America and the Caribbean
- Cinema of North America
- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
- Cinema of East and Southeast Asia
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.