14 Must-Watch Movies About South America

South American Movies You Need to Watch Right Now
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South America is a vast continent full of great tales and even greater storytellers. If you’re nervously planning your first trip to South America, sitting calmly counting down the days before you can return, or suffering from post-travel blues, watching some of the best South American movies will help you kill time, remind you of your travels and help build excitement for your next trip.

Bolivia - One Month Itinerary
If that backpacking trip is but a distant memory or faraway dream – keep calm and watch these movies!

Here at South America Backpacker, we all intimately understand the feelings that come with travelling through one of the worlds most varied continents and the emptiness you feel in the pit of your stomach when it’s time to return home to the “real world”.

To avoid becoming the “real grown-ups” our parents wish we would become, we’ve read books, listened to podcasts and absorbed as much cinematic media as we can without breaking the bank. Instead of just pointing you in the direction of a famous South American film director or telling you to *insert stereotypical backpacker voice here* “Check out Brazilian cinema man, it’s some of the most visually astounding movie making that has ever graced planet earth,” we’ve put together this list of the top 14 South American films. Grab the popcorn!


Best Non-fiction & Fiction Movies Set in South America


Best Documentaries About South America

South America is a fascinating place and one that does not shy away from its dark past. There are plenty of films and documentaries about the continent out there but these are some of the best.

1. The Galapagos Affair

  • Year: 2013
  • Language: English
  • Country: Ecuador
  • Director: Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Described by The New York Times as a “hybrid of a juicy soap opera and Survivor”, this fascinating documentary studies the mysterious events that unfolded on the Galapagos Island of Floreana.

During the late 1920s – early 1930s there was a small influx of European settlers to the remote archipelago. First to arrive were two very serious vegetarians, who had become so disillusioned with society that they decided to live off the land on an inhospitable island was a good idea. Following their arrival, another German family arrived, much to the chagrin of the original couple. Finally, a third group came to the island and brought with them no end of troubles.

The Baroness, Eloise Von Wagner and her two young lovers made up the third group of arrivals, with a plan of setting up a large luxury hotel resort on Floreana. After just a few months, she and her lovers would all end up missing and to this day, the mystery of what happened has never been solved!

 

2. Bus 174

  • Year: 2002
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Country: Brazil
  • Director: José Padilha
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

This documentary covers the hijacking of Bus 174 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Valentine’s Day in the year 2000. The film studies the hijacker, Sandro, a young man from the favelas who survived the Candelaria mass murder, witnessed his mother get murdered and spend most of his life in and out of juvenile correctional facilities.

Intertwined with Sandro’s history, the film goes into the ramifications of the police’s actions during the hijacking. During the standoff and with news crews recording, Sandro agreed to surrender. This is when a police officer took a shot at the hijacker, missing his target but hitting a female hostage. Sandro was caught and thrown into a police car but he was found dead at the police station. Two police officers were charged with his murder but found not guilty.

This was the last straw for the people of Rio. For too long they had felt repressed and controlled by a corrupt, inept and brutal police force. Bus 174 follows the media and public reactions to the events, showcasing the outcry for change.

There is also a fictionalised version of these events shown in Last Stop 174 which was directed by Brazilian director Bruno Baretto.

 


Best True Movies Set in South America

For some of you out there, a heavy documentary is not the way to keep yourself entertained when all you really want to be doing is travelling. I have to admit, I sit firmly in that camp quite often but still find biopics and true movies easy to watch.

I’m no expert on movie making (unless scraping a pass at A Level Film Studies counts? – I thought not) but I do know that when a true movie is made well, it feels like an epic Hollywood blockbuster straight out of the mind of Steven Spielberg.

3. Jungle

  • Year: 2017
  • Language: English
  • Country: Bolivia
  • Director: Greg McLean
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 60%

Jungle is based on the book of the same name, which also made it into our Best Books for Travellers to South America list. It follows the story of Yossi Ghinsberg, as his once in a lifetime adventure turns into a nightmare of gargantuan proportions.

Yossi wanted his South American journey to be an experience he would never forget, which is exactly what he found after bumping into an Austrian man at a Bolivian market. This man tells Yossi that he knows the whereabouts of an almost uncontacted Amazonian tribe and promises to lead him there. Yossi, understandably excited by the prospect of the trip ropes in two other travellers he has befriended.

The first few days of hiking through the jungle go well but after an overnight stay in a small village, things start to deteriorate. One of Yossi’s friends ends up suffering from incredibly sore feet. Bloody pustules stop him from being able to walk far and as a result, the team build a raft to get them back to civilisation. Things continue to go downhill until Yossi finds himself confused and way out of his depth, alone in the jungle for three long weeks.

Whilst it is not the most critically acclaimed film on this list, Jungle is certainly worth a watch for anyone travelling to or even near the Amazon. If you don’t watch it, you’ll have to spend most of your time listening to Bolivian tour guides telling you about it (between protests about their lack of access to the ocean of course), so do yourself a favour and check out what could be Daniel Radcliffe’s best performance to date.

 

4. Frida

  • Year: 2002
  • Language: English
  • Country: Mexico
  • Director: Julie Taymor
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 75%

So let’s just tackle the elephant in the room here… I’m aware Mexico is not in South America. So why is Frida, a film produced in the USA, about the Mexican artist and feminist icon, Frida Kahlo, on this list?

If you’ve already been to South America, you’ll know and if you haven’t you’ll see soon enough. Frida Kahlo is an icon across the entirety of the Americas. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of her until visiting Bolivia where on a street art tour of Cochabamba, I was introduced to her by our tour guide. After this, I started spotting her face on street art all the way across the continent and for good reason. She is revered for not only her artwork but for her spirit, determination and fiery attitude that allowed her to stick two fingers up at “the man”.

The film opens with the terrible bus crash that nearly killed Frida at the age of 18. During the long recovery period, her father brings her canvas and paints so she can distract herself from the pain. This is when the artist is born.

Throughout the film, we see Frida’s love life in great detail, whether it be the dysfunctional relationship she shares with her husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera or the affair she has with famous revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

An amazing insight into one of the most influential female figures in the history of the Americas, this film is not to be missed!

 

5. No

  • Year: 2012
  • Language: Spanish
  • Country: Chile
  • Director: Pablo Larraín
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%

Set during Chile’s 1988 plebiscite (it’s like a referendum but with a few confusing differences), No follows the story of René, who works in for an advertising firm.

For 15 years, Chile had been ruled over by military dictator General Augusto Pinochet but facing ever-increasing international pressure, the government decided to hold a plebiscite. This vote would let the people decide whether they wanted him to stay in power for another 8 years or have open democratic elections. The vote would be simple, tick the Yes box to keep The General in place or the No box to remove him.

Our protagonist René was approached by the No side to work as an advertising consultant. Having a boss who wanted nothing more than to keep Pinochet in power, René had to keep his involvement with the campaign secret. As with all good stories, the secret didn’t last long and René’s boss, Lucho, was soon heading the Yes campaign.

The two advertising giants butted heads over a month of tv political broadcasts, each side being given 15 minutes per night to get the country on side. René took an unorthodox, lighthearted approach to his adverts, displaying abstract concepts like happiness and togetherness, whilst the Yes campaign chose to use dry statistics and numbers.

With the No campaign garnering a lot of public support, René starts getting visits and threats from the government about what he is doing and his boss, Lucho, even offered him a massive promotion if he derailed the campaign. Needless to say, René didn’t stop and instead used the threats against him to gain even more sympathy throughout Chile.

No spoilers but those of you interested in South American history already know how this one turned out!

 

6. Motorcycle Diaries

  • Year: 2004
  • Language: Spanish
  • Country: Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela
  • Director: Walter Salles
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Based on the book of the same name, The Motorcycle Diaries follows Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado in their most formative years. In 1952, what starts as the hedonistic trip of a lifetime slowly changes the way Guevara sees the world. The ideas that would come to guide his later life come to the fore on this trip, nurtured by the constant scenes of poverty and inequality that he witnesses across the continent.

Their route takes them over the Andes, deep into the Amazon Rainforest and through the fearsome Atacama desert. Guevara’s motorcycle, affectionately named La Poderosa, “The Mighty One” does not survive the rigours of the journey and instead of flying along wide open roads with the wind in their hair, Guevara and Granado are forced to take things much slower, often walking or hitchhiking for days on end.

Thanks to being forced to slow down, they meet all manner of people, most of whom are suffering an immense burden because they were unlucky enough to be born into poverty. The two friends witness the horrific working conditions of the copper mines, spend time volunteering in a leper colony and even meet people who have been kicked out of their homes and communities for their communist beliefs.

If you want some basic knowledge about one of the worlds most famous revolutionaries or just want to witness a great piece of modern-day cinema, this film is for you!

 

7. Alive

  • Year: 1993
  • Language: English
  • Country: Argentina
  • Director: Frank Marshall
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 59%

Alive is the lowest-rated film on our list but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Much like Jungle, this film is discussed by South Americans more than you’d expect. At times it can feel painfully dated but it’s a great introduction to the terrible events that took place on October 13, 1972. If you can’t stomach the film itself, you should definitely check out the book!

Flying over the Andes has never been easy for pilots, especially those flying almost half a century ago. Alive is the true story of one Uruguayan rugby team, who were flying to Chile when their pilot made a grave error. He believed them to be much closer to their destination airport than they actually were and started his descent way too early. As the plane dropped below the clouds, he realised his mistake but it was too late. The plane smashed into the side of a mountain and before coming to a proper halt, tore apart, leaving most of the passengers alive but wounded in the fuselage.

Of the 45 passengers in the plane, less than half would survive the 72-day ordeal that awaited them. This story is famous for the bravery, sheer bloody-mindedness and willingness to do whatever it took to survive, which included resorting to cannibalism. The obstacles thrown at the victims of one of the worlds most famous plane crashes are almost so unbelievable that no movie producer would have touched this plot had it not been a real event.

The film has an all-star cast, including John Malkovich as the narrator and a young Ethan Hawke as one of the protagonists.

 


Best Fictional Movies Set in South America

You’ve been stressing out and honestly can’t be bothered with anything except sitting down in front of a nice, easy movie. This list of fictional films set in South America will keep you busy for a few nights.

Whilst they are not all easy watching per se, they are a damn sight easier to sit through than vast swathes of Netflix content currently available (I’m looking at you Gwyneth Paltrow…).

Some of these South American movies are based on true stories whilst others are 100% fiction.

8. 7 boxes

  • Year: 2012
  • Language: Spanish
  • Country: Paraguay
  • Director: Juan Carlos Maneglia & Tana Schembori
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

7 boxes is the story of capitalism and desperation set into a gigantic Paraguayan market. Our protagonist, a teenage boy, works within the market carting goods around using his trusty wheelbarrow.

Like most other people who work in the market, he is broke. This only makes it even harder to keep going day after day, working for scraps. When a stranger approaches the boy offering him $100 to move 7 boxes without the police noticing, it doesn’t take him long to load the boxes into his cart. Throughout the film, the boy is given instructions over the phone and the boxes become more and more sought after by the police as well as more unscrupulous characters.

A work of fiction, 7 boxes beautifully shows off the frenetic energy that abounds in South American markets and gives an unusual insight into the lives of people who work in there.

 

9. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid – Western Classic

  • Year: 1969
  • Language: English
  • Country: Bolivia
  • Director: George Roy Hill
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%

Sure it’s not the first film to jump to mind when you think of South American cinema but a lot of action in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid takes place in early 1900s Bolivia.

After a train robbery goes wrong, our ‘heroes’ Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid flee the elite squad of lawmen that are slowly closing in on them. The chase takes the pair all the way to Bolivia where, with Sundance’s lover, they set up for their new lives.

During their time in South America, the bandits slowly give up their criminal activities and prepare to go straight. It only takes one job to realise than the straight and narrow is not for them and before long, they are planning further bank heists.

The film ends in the hail of gunfire that only a ‘60s western can produce!

 

10. Aguirre, the Wrath Of God

  • Year: 1972
  • Language: German
  • Country: Peru
  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Produced in the 1970s  but set over 400 years earlier, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, is the story of a small band of Conquistadors on the hunt for gold. Whilst the main force is made up of close to 100 Spaniards and hundreds of indigenous slaves, the film focuses on a small group who are sent ahead of the main force.

A series of nightmares sees the 40 strong scout party’s numbers dwindle rapidly. Thanks to a combination of illness, malnutrition, lack of local knowledge and the general hubris that comes along with all European colonisers, just one man is left standing by the end of the film.

The film is old, the sound sucks to the point that most critics prefer to watch the dubbed version and the acting leaves a lot to be desired. However, this is one of the best-rated films ever made.

If you are looking for an accurate portrayal of South American exploration in the 1500s then the brutality shown throughout this film may not be too far off. However, if you want a nice, easy to watch, feel-good film, keep looking.

 

11. Machuca

  • Year: 2004
  • Language: Spanish
  • Country: Chile
  • Director: Andrés Wood
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

Set in the city of Santiago in 1973, Machuca is the South American Kane and Abel story. When our two young protagonists meet at a posh private school it is evident one of them doesn’t belong. The school operates a social inclusion program and helps a small number of disadvantaged children each year.

The wealthier of the two boys is dressed in nice clothes and has a much lighter skin tone, a fact that comes to be very useful to him as the film progresses. The other boy is of native South American descent and lives in the slums of Santiago, selling cigarettes and flags at protest rallies, to get by.

As the two boys hit it off, the country is falling apart. Chile’s democratically elected, socialist government is under threat from General Pinochet and his military coup and the way the two boy’s families react to the situation is telling of how things were in the early ’70s. The wealthy amongst the Chileans are shown to be welcoming of the dictatorship whilst the poorest are subjugated and oppressed even further.

Their friendship is tested to the limits and the film culminates with dramatic scenes of slums being destroyed and people murdered as Pinochet’s troops get a tighter hold on the city.

Machuca is a great introduction to the start of General Pinochet’s 17 years of dictatorship.

 

12. The Year My Parents Went On Vacation

  • Year: 2006
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Country: Brazil
  • Director: Cao Hamburger
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

The Year My Parents Went On Vacation is the story of Mauro, a 12-year-old boy who is sent to live with his grandfather in 1970, whilst his parents, political left-wing activists, are on the run from an oppressive government. This fictional tale is loosely based on the director’s experience of seeing his own politically active parents get arrested.

Mauro’s grandfather lives in a predominantly Jewish area of Sāo Paulo, close to 600 km from the child’s hometown. Within a day of Mauro’s arrival, his grandfather passes away, leaving our protagonist alone in an area he doesn’t know, where everyone communicates in Yiddish, a language he does not speak.

He gets taken in by his grandfather’s good friend and neighbour and told to wait until his parents return. Before leaving, they had promised to be back in time for The World Cup, which was taking place in Mexico later that year. It was to be the first World Cup that was being broadcast live.

During his wait, Mauro, a football fanatic, starts forming bonds with a huge array of the residents, all of whom have incredible stories to tell.

The World Cup starts but there is no sign of Mauro’s parents. The man who took him in begins to get concerned and starts investigating to see what became of the boys family. This investigation gets him arrested for meddling but finally, he discovers what has happened. He manages to free Mauro’s mother from incarceration but his father is never seen again.

The film ends as Mauro gets to watch Brazil win their third World Cup.

 

13. City of God – Fiction based loosely on true events

  • Year: 2002
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Country: Brazil
  • Director: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%

Adapted from the novel of the same name, City of God is a fictionalised interpretation of the true rise of crime in Ciudad de Deus, a “suburb” within Rio’s favelas. The story spans more than 20 years, from the start of the favela in the 1960s up to the final events which take place in the early 1980s.

The earlier scenes show us a group of friends who are stealing in order to support themselves but also sharing their ill-gotten gains with the community. This gave them a level of protection from the police because the residents wanted to look after them. Sadly, one job doesn’t go to plan and they attract a lot of heat from Rio’s police force.

One of the early protagonists is killed by the police whilst trying to escape and another is murdered within the favela.

Throughout the film, we see the ebb and flow of power within the favela, as control shifts from one gangster to another. There are scenes of bloody murder, rape and extreme vigilantism. By the time the dramatic two hours are over, the streets are bathed in blood and as an audience, we get a glimpse at just how hard life in the favelas must be.

The directors of City of God went onto to create the TV series, City of Men. Still based in the favelas and even starring some of the same actors, City of Men is less violent and lighter-hearted, yet it still depicts the challenge of living in a favela. City of Men was also turned into a feature film in 2007.

 

14. Elite Squad – Fictionalised film about BOPE

  • Year: 2007
  • Language: Portuguese
  • Country: Brazil
  • Director: José Padilha
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 53%

Despite its low score from critics, Elite Squad is a firm favourite when it comes to South American films and the sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) still holds the record for the best opening weekend of any Brazilian film.

The film is about BOPE, Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, an elite arm of the Rio military police, similar to SWAT, and their battle with gang lords and drug dealers.

Elite Squad begins with two novice police officers, in way over their heads when one of them accidentally kills a drug trafficker who is meeting with BOPE agents. Following these events, it cuts back to the two officers friendship through their training to become members of BOPE.

This film was shunned by critics outside of Brazil for being overly violent and glorifying police brutality. Throughout, we see police using torture and violence to get what they want from the residents of Rio’s favelas. Locals take umbrage at this criticism, making it clear they want the world to see the mistreatment they often receive from the police.

Regardless of your opinion of violent films, this is one that shouldn’t be missed before travelling to Brazil.


South America is so varied, producing all sorts of incredible media and this is only a small section of the amazing cinema the continent has to offer. If we have missed your favourite South American film, or just an amazing piece of South American cinema, head on over to our Facebook community and let us know!

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  • After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since the incident, he has travelled in South East Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and is currently backpacking around South America. His first book ‘From Paralysis to Santiago’ chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident that changed his life and will be released later this year.

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