Film Here's guest writer Brendan Connelly on the first ever animated feature film El Apóstol:
Sometimes, marketing is so successful that it impacts our ideas of what is real and what is not for much longer than was expected, or is maybe even desirable.
So people still claim today that Coca Cola invented Santa Claus, that Warner Bros. pursued Ronald Reagan to play Rick in Casablanca, and that the first full-length animated film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of these things are tall tales that can be traced back, one way or another, to marketing misdirection.
The history of early cinema is truly quite patchy and has often often been dramatically revised, but it seems pretty certain right now that anybody looking to name the first animated feature of all time should actually look past Disney's fairytale to Quirino Cristiani's El Apóstol, or The Apostle.
For what it's worth, Cristiani delivered the second animated feature, Sin Dejar Rastros, or Without a Trace, just one year or later.
Both of these films are now listed as officially lost, with their only known prints perishing in a fire*. All we really know of these movies now is what was written about them at the time, what Cristiani has explained himself, and some scraps of archive photography and concept art.
Just a few years back, a documentary was released, built around an interview with Cristiani, that attempted to explain what these films were – what they were about, how they looked, how they were made, and why. It's unfortunately very possible that this is the closest we'll ever get to witnessing Cristiani's pioneering works for ourselves.
The key to understanding anything about The Apostle from such great distance is to know not only its satirical objectives but also the social and political context that gave rise to the film. The Apostle was a then-contemporary political allegory, in which a thinly-veiled fictonalisation of the Argentinian president, Hipolito Yrigoyen, scales a mountain and calls upon the gods to rain destruction down upon corrupt Buenos Aires.
In the climax, the film depicted a scene of the city on fire, accomplished by building a scale model and then burning it on camera. Does this mean the film isn't an animated movie? Well, some Disney disciples will have claimed so, but I think it's more important, overall, to prick the Snow White myth than to argue over technicalities.
I'm neither Argentinian nor anything like old enough to know things about Hipolito Yrigoyen that I haven't been able to dig up online, but it seems clear that his political campaigns made effective use of religious, sometimes apocalyptic imagery. Cristiani's intention was - or at least it seems so, from my very restricted viewing platform - to leverage that same style of rhetoric, but exploding it, making it humorous, and wielding it against the president. The title is a great first sample of this, using a nickname for Yrigoyen that was well known and not always well-intentioned.
The style of the film was set, to a large extent, by political cartoonist Diógenes Taborda, aka El Mono, or The Monkey. Unable, and certainly unwilling, to draw the thousands of frames that would have been necessary to make the film the Disney way, El Mono drew the characters just a few times, which were then broken down into components, printed on card and cut-out.
Cristiani's technique for animating the cut-out pieces would be familiar to anybody who has seen Terry Gilliam's work on Monty Python's Flying Circus.
This technique gives rise to some very strict stylistic limitations, particularly in how shots can be devised or executed. We are very far away from the more naturalistic, live action-like choices in staging or shot composition that hand-drawn cel animation can offer. Nonetheless, a good filmmaker can still make hay here, and the reception of The Apostle suggests very powerfully that, even with his hands tied financially, stylistically and technologically, Cristiani made a relevent, effective film.
Many of us are fully used to dipping back into film history and plucking out all sorts of movies – this blog absolutely proves it. If I know more about 20th Century America than any other set of cultures in world history, and I think I probably do, then I'm sure that the ready availability of their cinema is the real reason why.
I'm relatively uneducated about Argentina, hardly aware of how the country was in the 19-teens, and I know extremely little about Hipolito Yrigoyen. What I do know, I've scraped up reading about The Apostle, first as a general enthusiast about animation, later when this film in particular had caught my imagination.
It's another lingering effect like the Santa and Reagan stories, a tale made in the media that has rolled on for a lot longer than anyone might have predicted. Cristiani was making a film about and for the Argentina of his time, and yet, here I am, interested and, to some minor extent, informed about that world because of a film.
I expect that I would understand the situation much more deeply, if maybe in a way that I'd find even less easy to articulate, had the film have survived.
The Aspotle made animation and cinema history, and that's one reason why it's especially tragic that it was lost. It also captured and commented on history, and that is another.
[*a tragic irony as one climaxes with an inferno, the other is called Without a Trace]