Peru has a literary tradition to rival any in Latin America, yet its national cinema has for the most part lagged far behind. The poetry of César Vallejo, Javier Heraud, Carlos Germán Belli, the essays of José Carlos Mariátegui, the novels of Ciro Alegría, José María Arguedas, Mario Vargas Llosa and many more, have offered a myriad reflections on Peru’s vertiginous modernization over the last century. So far only one director can claim a comparable body of work. With fourteen features to his credit, the cinema of Francisco Lombardi offers arresting testimony to the new ‘Peruvian realities’, often informed by the insights of the country’s narrative tradition. Though he has garnered his share of international prizes, this is not just film-festival fare: many of Lombardi’s films have been box-office hits in Peru and have played their part in expanding cinema audiences.

Set in diverse social and geographical environments, they include intimate investigations of the tensions of breakneck urbanization (Lima’s population increased from 400,000 to over 6 million between 1945 and 1970), the role of the military, the corrosive political corruption that followed the return of civilian government in the 1980s and the brutal realities of counter-insurgency operations against Sendero Luminoso. His extraordinary 2003 film What the Eye Doesn’t See focuses on the videotape revelations of collusion and criminality that led to the abrupt departure of President Alberto Fujimori.footnote1 It interweaves fictional scenes with tv news and the notorious video footage shot, for blackmail purposes, by intelligence boss Vladimiro Montesinos, which finally brought both men down.

Within the flux of contemporary Peru, the camera too is characteristically in motion; taking in the endless streets of Lima through the steady frame of a windscreen, or restlessly tracking the characters’ movements. Lombardi’s protagonists are often seen in extreme long-shot, as single figures dwarfed by their surroundings: the steps of Lima Cathedral at dawn, or a deserted Pacific beach. The extreme variations of the national geography—southern desert, coastal cities, altiplano, Andean highlands, Amazonian jungle—are all present in his work. There is invariably a latent tension in Lombardi’s public spaces: classrooms, bars, official buildings, parks, cemeteries, hospitals and prisons are force fields awaiting the next intrusion. Class is always precisely indicated: the bevelled silver-framed mirrors and colonial heirlooms in the homes of fallen oligarchs; the animals, machines and tools that crowd the marginal dwellings of those whose labour fuels the informal economy. The mass media—popular music blaring from the radio, the talking heads of authority on half-watched tv sets—are a constant presence. Lombardi’s first two features were based on tabloid newspaper stories that had transfixed the country: the execution of a convict, the murder of a press magnate. In his mise en scène these are de-hystericized, fitted back into a broader social framework whose real horror lies in unfathomable racial and class inequalities.

The central event in modern Peruvian history has been the massive population shift from the Andes to the towns, above all to the former colonial capital Lima; a social earthquake far outstripping the successive political and economic attempts to contain it. From the 1950s on, the growing crisis of the latifundio system, the weakening grip of the landed oligarchy and increasing social unrest in the highlands helped fuel a vast urbanization, which only accelerated with the dirty wars and hyperinflation of the 1980s. The transformation of the capital has had a decisive impact on the country’s intellectual scene. The indigenous question had been a central theme in the cultural and political renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, above all in the Amerindian radicalism of José Carlos Mariátegui’s classic 1928 work, Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality. But although some 45 per cent of Peruvians would define themselves as Amerindians and another 37 per cent as mestizos, Lima’s pale-skinned intelligentsia was still at a physical remove from the indigenous populations.

In the postwar period, however, the predicament of the displaced indigenous peoples has become a dominant theme of modern Peruvian fiction; it also reflects the biographical reality of many of the nation’s writers. From Ciro Alegría’s premonitory Broad and Alien is the World (1940) to José María Arguedas’s The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below (1970), the Peruvian novel has contributed a rich number of compelling tales of the pressures on indigenous communities from the economic forces that were transforming traditional modes of production and ways of life.footnote2 By the late 1950s, the city itself was becoming the subject of narrative fiction. Enrique Congrains Martín’s 1957 novel, Not One but Many Deaths, exposed the harsh conditions of the shanty towns around Lima. The early works of Mario Vargas Llosa—Time of the Hero, The Green House, Conversation in the Cathedral—portray the compact of corruption and hypocrisy that emerged as Lima became, for the first time in Peruvian history, the focal point of the nation’s contradictions. In the new climate, Sebastián Salazar Bondy wrote Lima the Horrible (1964), an impassioned essay in which he condemned the culture of Lima and its nostalgia for a colonial, aristocratic past. In a different register, the novels of Julio Ramón Ribeyro (1950s and 60s) and Alfredo Bryce Echenique (1970s) record the decline of the landed oligarchy and its replacement by a ruling sector linked to foreign investment and American consumerism.

Cinema was slower to catch up with this turbulent reality. Films had been produced in Peru from the silent era onwards, and the postwar decades had seen such notable works as Luis Figueroa and Eulogio Nishiyama’s Kukuli (1957) and Armando Robles Godoy’s The Green Wall (1970). In the 1950s a talented group of documentary makers, among them Manuel Chambi and Figueroa, had established the ‘Cuzco School’, largely dedicated to recording the lives and legends of the indigenous Andeans and the Inca and pre-Inca remains among which they lived. A university cinémathèque was established in Lima in 1965, and the same year saw the publication of a film journal, Hablemos de cine, edited by Isaac León Frías. Nevertheless, the economic and social conditions of the film industry when Lombardi embarked on his career in the early 70s were such that Ricardo Bedoya, Peru’s most prominent cinema historian, could describe it as ‘a country without a filmic tradition’.footnote3

Lombardi’s family background was middle class, his father an Italian. He was born in Tacna, in the far south of the country near the Chilean border, in 1949, and moved to Lima in 1963. As a teenager, Lombardi’s perception of the capital was that of an outsider, informed by a certain critical distance. The contrast between the barren terrains of the Peruvian coast and crowded Lima are recurrent motifs in his work. The cinema was an early love. While still at school Lombardi produced a mimeographed film magazine, Cine estudio.footnote4 He began a law degree, but abandoned it in 1968 to go to Argentina to study at the Institute of Cinematography founded by Fernando Birri, father of Latin America’s New Wave, at the unl in Santa Fe. Returning to Lima, Lombardi found work as a film critic on El Correo. He was also centrally involved with Hablemos de cine, along with Bedoya. Lombardi was particularly engaged by ‘young American film-makers driven by a critical spirit towards their own society’, writing of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch: ‘Its role within a decadent cinema such as the American one of today makes this film the most compelling reality to have come out of Hollywood in recent years.’footnote5 He admired the work of Fernando Solanas in Argentina and Jorge Sanjinés in Bolivia, and the raw acting in John Cassavetes’s films.