Leonardo Favio: Argentina’s most popular artist remains a secret abroad

Born 85 years ago today, the late icon created cult classics and box-office successes — and was one of Latin America’s most renowned ballad singers

The bells of non-Argentine cinephiles certainly ring when they hear the names of people like actor Ricardo Darín, the star of Argentina, 1985, or art-house director Lucrecia Martel, a favorite in top film festivals who was recently mentioned by Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett as the filmmaker she would be most excited to work with today.

Yet Leonardo Favio, who would turn 85 today and was the most popular director in Argentine history —and also happened to be one of the most successful romantic singer-songwriters in Latin America— remains unknown to foreign audiences. 

A rags-to-riches story, Favio’s fabulous artistic career tapped into the heart of massive audiences in Spanish-speaking countries, with his uber-intense, flamboyant love songs and his heartbreaking film portrayals of working-class grit and Peronist spirit. 

“Making Favio an internationally renowned filmmaker is an outstanding debt,” says Los Angeles-based Argentine producer Axel Kuschevatzky, who won an Oscar for The Secret In Their Eyes and co-produced Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985

An essential figure in Argentine popular culture, Leonardo Favio was born Fuad Jorge Jury in 1938 in Luján de Cuyo, in southern Mendoza. The son of a single mom with three kids, Favio was left in the care of his grandmother and aunts in Luján de Cuyo when his mother moved to Buenos Aires with his older brother, trying to make it as a scriptwriter. 

An occasional street urchin who experienced poverty, he joined his mother in Buenos Aires at the age of eight, only to be sent to an evangelical school for underprivileged children — “a cruel orphanage” in Favio’s words. Once the family returned to Mendoza, he attended other boarding schools for kids in need, from which he would escape, often flirting with petty theft and even teenage prison.

The harsh, Italian-neorealism circumstances of his upbringing would later become the essence and inspiration for the topics and stories he would work on in his very diverse films. A loving and tender view of human beings and their weaknesses fueled his rigorous and sentimental, open-hearted style, with which he often showed empathy for flawed characters and an affectionate portrayal of social outcasts and lower-class life.

Once his mother finally established herself in the radio drama business, Favio followed her into an artistic career as a radio voice actor in Mendoza, then moved to Buenos Aires, where he would eventually become a soap opera actor.

“One day, when I was 17 or 18, my mom took a chance and gave me the lead role in a radio soap. At that time, if I didn’t start working in radio, I would have ended up as a criminal, because I didn’t know what else to do,” he said in an interview excerpt published in journalist Florencia Halfon’s recent book Favio Vigente. “And if I got behind the cameras afterward, it was only so I wouldn’t end up behind bars.” 

In 1958, Favio jumped over to film as the lead in El secuestrador (‘The kidnapper’), by renowned director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, a mentor who sparked his interest in the art form he would soon master. Before his directorial debut in 1964, Favio starred in a couple of films per year under established directors such as Fernando Ayala, Daniel Tinayre, and Manuel Antín, and also directed his first short film El amigo (“The Friend”), in 1960.

Favio’s filmmaking career began with a trio of art-house films based on short stories and/or written by one of his two brothers, Zuhair. Crónica de un niño solo (“Chronicle of a Boy Alone”), a tale with autobiographical elements from Favio’s own sad experiences as a kid, while not a success, placed him on the cinephile radar. His follow up, Este es el romance del Aniceto y la Francisca, de cómo quedó trunco, comenzó la tristeza…y unas pocas cosas más (“This is the love story of Aniceto and Francisca, how it failed, sadness began…and a few other things”) won an Argentine film press’ Silver Condor award for Best Film. His third film, the dark and asphyxiating El dependiente (“The Dependent,” 1969), about a hardware store clerk obsessed with taking over the business once his elderly employer dies, is a favorite among film students today for its audacious camera work. 

His fame grew exponentially in the late 1960s thanks to his music career, which began with the release of his first LP Fuiste mía un verano (1968). The record, which also featured still-popular songs like Ella ya me olvidó or O quizás simplemente le regale una rosa, sold thousands of copies and catapulted him to popular stardom as a romantic singer-songwriter, sharing the podium with icons like Palito Ortega and Sandro. 

Football legend Diego Maradona, a Favio fan, once got to meet him after a concert. 

“Your songs give me strength and inspire me to have a greater love for my family and for football,” Maradona said to him, visibly moved.

Favio paused his huge musical success after his second LP to focus on directing what would become landmark box-office hits. First, Juan Moreira, the story of a real-life gaucho outlaw played by Rodolfo Bebán, and Nazareno Cruz y el Lobo (Nazareno Cruz and the Wolf, 1975), an over-the-top werewolf story that is regarded as the biggest Argentine box office success ever —despite the loss of original statistics. 

His follow-up, a story about two wandering characters trying to make it in show business, didn’t match the success of his previous two films, but remained one of the director’s favorites: Soñar soñar (‘To Dream, to Dream’), starring middleweight world champion (and convicted femicide) Carlos Monzón, was released during the dictatorship that would eventually censor him. 

Banned by the military dictatorship, he went into exile in 1976, moving from Chile to Colombia and Mexico, and only returned in 1979 to a quiet life in Mendoza. It was during his exile that his career as a romantic singer–songwriter skyrocketed across Latin America. 

Once democracy was restored, Favio worked for several years on a biopic of boxing champion José María Gatica. Gatica, his return to cinema after 17 years, was released in 1993. The project had been brought to him by the lead actor, Edgardo Nieva, who even went through facial surgery to fulfill Favio’s vision of the character. His following film Perón, Sinfonía de un sentimiento (Perón, Symphony of a Sentiment) was an unorthodox six-hour documentary on the history of Peronism, commissioned by Buenos Aires governor Eduardo Duhalde in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of Peronism’s foundation. Favio ended up releasing a unique masterpiece five years later, in 1999, and for TV broadcast only. 

While he became almost an “official artist” of Peronism in the 60s and 70s, Favio’s fervent political stance was not merely ideological but also aesthetic: the core topics of his cinema were naturally linked to the sentiment of popular Peronist ideals like social justice and solidarity. “I became a Peronist because you cannot be happy without others,” is a phrase famously attributed to him. 

His last film, Aniceto (2008) was another example of the artistically unhinged, more audacious phase that started in the 1990s. A remake of his own Este es el romance del Aniceto y la Francisca…, the film is a musical starred by ballet dancers Hernán Piquín, Natalia Pelayo, and Alejandra Baldoni.

Favio died on November 5, 2012, due to pneumonia. 

“Predestined love, death, suffering, worship. Favio has proven cinema lives inside these things, it doesn’t narrate them using external resources,” Argentine scholar Horacio González once said to describe him. 

“Maybe for the first time in Argentine history, someone matched the art of image-driven storytelling with the intimate, sentimental force behind the heartbreak of people’s lives.”


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