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Professor of Spanish joins actors Spacey, Eastwood on film board

Twelve years ago, Jorge Ruffinelli decided he would try to review a movie from or about Latin America every day.

To date, the Stanford professor of Spanish has written on more than 2,500 films ­ not quite one per day, but enough to boggle the mind of your average cineaste. His vast knowledge of Latin American film recently earned him a place alongside such luminaries as Kevin Spacey, Clint Eastwood and Danny Glover on the advisory board of the San Francisco Film Society, which presents the area's international film festival.

His efforts also have paid off with a book contract from the National Autonomous University of Mexico for the first Encyclopedia of Latin American Cinema. Volume One is set to be published next year. (The University of Texas Press has sent him an advance contract for the rights to publish an English translation.)

Sitting in his second-floor office in Pigott Hall -- a cramped space with books and papers stacked high everywhere -- Ruffinelli explained that the encyclopedia is now more than 7,000 pages long and growing. "I will continue, I believe, until my last day," he said.

A native of Uruguay, Ruffinelli said he has been a film buff since age 4. "What was the first image that seduced me in film? A kiss," he said. "I remember that first image, although there may be many other images I saw before that. Maybe it was from an American film -- I don't remember."

On a wall behind his desk hang several photographs of him sitting with actress Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of the late Charlie Chaplin. They were taken, Ruffinelli explained, while she was on a film shoot in Mexico.

Rufinelli has been a professor at Stanford since 1986. For the most part, he has taught courses on 20th-century Latin American literature and critical thought. But in the early 1990s he began teaching on Latin American film, a move that reflected the drift of his own academic interests. It was at that time he contemplated writing an encyclopedia on the subject. "When I started this, I didn't know what to do," Ruffinelli recalled. "I mean, 'Is this crazy?' I asked myself."

He called an old friend, the author and journalist Gabriel García Márquez, to seek advice. García Márquez recommended getting in touch with Cuba's International School of Cinema and TV, which he had helped to found. Ruffinelli visited the school for a month and watched four to five films every day.

A few years later, he began recommending Latin American films to organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival and since has served on juries for the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba; the International Film Festival in San Sebastian, Spain; and the Latin American Film Festival in Trieste, Italy.

In addition, Ruffinelli has been instrumental in bringing two Argentine filmmakers -- Fernando Birri and Eliseo Subiela -- to Stanford as Tinker Visiting Professors of Latin American Studies. Birri was a fellow during the 2001-02 academic year and returned to teach again here this quarter; Subiela is a fellow this academic year. Two of his films, Dark Side of the Heart 2 and Adventures of God, were screened last month during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

It's no surprise that Ruffinelli also owns the world's largest collection of films of and about Latin America, numbering upward of 7,800. He stores them in his home and keeps track of them using a database.

Asked if he has a favorite, he hesitated for a moment and then replied, "I know many directors who may say, 'Why didn't you choose one of my films?'"


By John Sanford

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