Category: Argentinian Cinema

Wakolda (Argentina/France/Spain/Norway 2013)

'The doctor' (Alex Brendemuhl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

‘The doctor’ (Àlex Brendemühl) and Lilith (Florencia Bado)

It’s not often that I disagree with Jonathan Romney who wrote a fairly negative review of this film in the Observer, but I enjoyed watching Wakolda and I thought that it worked well on many levels. Lucía Puenzo adapted the film from her own novel. I remember the release of her earlier film XXY (Argentina 2007) but I didn’t get to see it. I’ll certainly look out for it now.

‘Wakolda’ is the name that 12 year-old Lilith has given to an unusual doll given to her by her father who repairs and makes dolls for a living – the doll has a chest cavity and the doll-maker is experimenting with a design for a clockwork heart mechanism. It is 1960 and Lilith’s family is moving south to Patagonia where her mother has inherited a hotel in Baliroche, the capital of the beautiful region of mountains and lakes in Argentina’s first National Park. Baliroche has a significant German community and Lilith’s mother attended the German school there. At a stop on the journey, Lilith is spotted by a German doctor who says he has been hired as a veterinary expert in Baliroche. He is intrigued by Lilith’s small stature for a 12 year-old. He invites himself to join the family’s party and on arrival becomes the hotel’s first new guest. When he realises that Lilith’s mother is pregnant again he becomes even more interested in the family and persuades the mother (her husband is too suspicious) to let him help Lilith with ‘growth hormones’. We soon see that the mysterious doctor is known to the Nazis at the German school and we guess that he is really Josef Mengele.

Wakolda is based on historical records. Mengele lived in Argentina from 1949 up to 1960, continuing the genetics research he started at Auschwitz-Berkenau in 1943-5 using selected inmates as his unwilling experimental subjects (and sending the others to be gassed). He may well have been in Bariloche but his precise whereabouts were unknown during the six months or so around the time when Adolf Eichmann was kidnapped in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960. The Spanish actor who plays Mengele, Àlex Brendemühl, bears a remarkable resemblance to photographs of Mengele from the 1940s.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot but I do want to explore some of Romney’s comments. He refers to the “soft gothic tweeness” of one aspect of the plot – the mechanical doll’s hearts. I see what he means and it’s true that as I watched these scenes something made me think of Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos with its mechanical blood-sucking scarab. I guess from there I connected to Pan’s Labyrinth with the young girl caught up with the Fascists and then The Devil’s Backbone etc. But I see this as not just as a form of Gothic but also something about Latin American stories. In any case the tone and the look of the piece also suggests Hitchcock (the Nazis of Notorious) and Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). But, as Romney suggests, the film doesn’t really measure up as a thriller, even though it has its exciting moments. Perhaps that’s because much of the action tends to be seen from Lilith’s perspective (see Lucía Puenzo’s comments in the Press Pack) and she is experiencing her own problems about being bullied at school because of stature. The narrative is largely about how the different family members (apart from Lilith’s older brother) are each in some way seduced by ‘The German Doctor’ (the American title of the film). The dolls provide the doctor’s way of getting the suspicious father on side as well as developing another thread about Mengele’s methods and ideas. Audience expectations about a different kind of thriller might also be based on memories of The Boys From Brazil (US 1978) in which Gregory Peck played Mengele.

I don’t think it requires too much of an effort to get past these generic references and to read the film as an Argentinian story about a 12 year-old girl’s experiences. The film is beautifully shot and presented in CinemaScope. The National Park looks incredible and I was reminded of the other Argentinian film in which it features, Mount Bayo (Argentina 2010). The performances are good (especially given the demands of the roles), the film looks good, the music is good and there is an unusual and interesting narrative. What’s not to like?

Intriguingly the trailers for the film are quite different from country to country. Here is the UK trailer from Peccadillo Pictures – quite good, I think:

¡Viva! 2014 #3: Mar del Plata (Argentina 2012)

Joaquin meets Elena on the beach. She was his girlfriend many years before.

Joaquin meets Elena on the beach. She was his girlfriend many years before.

Viva14Here’s a short (83 mins) and entertaining comedy with some intelligence. It’s written by Ionathan Klajman and directed by the writer with Sebastian Dietsch – both on their feature debuts. You do wonder if the two men have a relationship like the two characters in the film, Joaquin (Pablo G. Pérez) and David (Gabriel Zayat) – two teenagers who grow up to be thirty-somethings with marriage problems. In several ways this is rather like a New York Jewish comedy. Joaquin is revealed to be from what was once a Jewish immigrant family but I didn’t notice if we learned about David’s family. Wikipedia tells me that Argentina has the biggest Jewish population in Latin America so perhaps the possible cultural identity of the comedy isn’t so surprising.

Joaquin has been divorced by his wife after only a couple of years and his parents offer him a ‘mini-break’ won by his father in the lottery. For various reasons he ends up on holiday with David who he hasn’t seen for some time. David is still married but clearly having a difficult time. He and Joaquin bicker and get into silly schoolboy squabbles but everything changes when the pair bump into one of Joaquin’s ex-girlfriends at the beach resort of Mar del Plata. Elena is now married to a successful novelist who immediately sets off David’s critical response mechanisms. (David is presented as a ‘failed writer’ and the rather pompous Lautaro is like a red rag to a bull.) This is the twist moment in the narrative and I found the latter section of the film more amusing than the embarrassing pranks David and Joaquin played on each other earlier.

Overall this film proved to be a pleasant way to spend time and, as a ‘bromance’, generally more fun than contemporary Hollywood comedies. But I suspect that it is not ‘different’ enough to attract a UK distributor.

Vimeo Trailer posted by the DoP (the film uses quite a lot of music tracks):

Films From the South #11: Carancho (Argentine/Chile/France/S. Korea 2010)

Martina Gusmán and Ricardo Darin

Carancho is directed and part-written by Pablo Trapero whose 2002 film El bonaerense achieved a wide international release. It’s a mainstream crime thriller of the kind that Argentinian Cinema does very well and it stars the most recognisable Argentinian actor for international audiences, Ricardo Darin.

In Spanish, ‘carancho’ refers to various birds of prey and the obvious inference here is to vultures. Darin plays Sosa, a lawyer who has been driven to become in US terms an ‘ambulance chaser’ – someone who waits around for a motor vehicle accident and then tries to grab the business of any survivors or relatives who make a claim. According to some of the promo material there are around 8,000 deaths on Argentina’s roads each year. This is a staggering figure. As a comparison, the UK (admittedly one of the safest places in the world to be a road user) has less than 2,000 deaths from a larger number of road users – but the US is nearly as bad as Argentina. I mention this last point only because there is already discussion of a Hollywood remake.

The plot is fairly basic. Sosa seduces a new young doctor on the A&E team of the local hospital, Luján played by Martina Gusmán. She turns out to be not quite as innocent as she first appears. Sosa is in some ways a classic film noir male character – a good man forced to do bad things. He is trapped by the vicious system which allows crooked legal firms to cream off a fat commission on any compensation claim. He needs to find a way to break away from their stranglehold and this means doing some dirty deeds while still keeping Luján on side. I don’t really like medical dramas – especially the soaps set in casualty wards – and the only film I can think of that has some similar elements is Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), a good film but not very enjoyable to watch. I think I enjoyed Carancho more but I still averted my gaze from some of the gory bits.

The real question is why this film attracted investment from three co-production partners and a slot at Cannes in Un certain regard. It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller, with a downbeat ending, that is very well made but not that unusual/distinctive apart from the originality of the basic premise. I was intrigued to discover that Martina Gusmán was a producer before she was an actor and she is exec producer here. Her presence and that of Darin helps to lift the film, but I’d still put it alongside French polars such as the two Fred Cavayé films Pour elle (2008) and À bout portant (2010), the first of which has already been re-made. Such films have an originality in ideas that Hollywood needs to feed on. What will Hollywood need to change about Carancho? Probably it will need to make the ending more upbeat and the characters less seedy. A studio will also have to find an actor/star who can do what Darin does so effortlessly – sleaze plus sex appeal with several beatings to withstand and that little pot belly. He’s a great role model for middle-aged men!

YouTube trailer for the US market:

Films From the South #7: Aballay (Aballay, el hombre sin miedo, Argentina/Spain 2010)

The gauchos in one of several telephoto compositions.

I saw Aballay immediately after the Malaysian film The Year Without a Summer. It’s a very different kind of film. It was also introduced in Norwegian – and in English – by someone I took to be Argentinian, who explained that it was a ‘gaucho film’, a kind of Argentinian Western set in Tucumán province. The introduction suggested that this was a film pitched somewhere between a ‘festival film’ and a commercial genre picture and went on to claim that the gaucho represents a potent Argentinian rebel or outsider figure (so Diego Maradonna could be a kind of gaucho). Finally it was suggested that the film conjured up Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. That last point was quickly confirmed in an opening that could easily have been Leone and indeed the inciting incident that begins the narrative is a raid on a stagecoach with armed escort as it races through the arroyos (or the Argentinian version of these dried up river beds) of a mountain region. This ends with all the troops and the passengers killed save a frightened boy who stares into the eyes of the gang’s leader, Aballay. This is the stare that haunts Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, given substance by Charles Bronson as the boy becomes a man. In Aballay the story moves on ten years and the boy is now a man in his early twenties with, as Variety‘s reviewer points out, a rather ludicrous stuck-on moustache. This is Julián, making his way towards the town of ‘La Malaria’! – a setting that would fit nicely into The Wild Bunch and I was almost surprised that Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine didn’t appear in the cantina.

Aballay looks wonderful. The landscapes are spectacular and cinematographer Claudio Beiza has an eye for arresting framings. But director Fernando Spiner’s narrative is elliptical, driven almost entirely by notions of revenge and family honour. This is where the film departs from the American-Italian conceptions of the ‘West’ as a frontier about to be incorporated into a capitalist state. There is no historical background or contextualising of gaucho culture in Aballay that I could discern. (Of course, this is only relevant for a global audience – the local audience probably doesn’t need such knowledge to be spelt out. I have read that the original story by Antonio Di Benedetto was written when he was a journalist imprisoned under the junta and that it is seen as an intensely ‘Argentinian’ story which no doubt carries symbolic meaning.)  The screening introduction suggested that the setting was “early 20th century” but who were the soldiers, who was Julián’s father, where was the gold heading? None of this seems to matter. Instead, the narrative moves into a more folkloric/mystical mode. A flashback reveals how Aballay (Pablo Cedrón) gave up leadership of the gang after his soulful meeting with Julián as a boy and turned to the teachings of Simon Stylites, the hermetic saint who perched on top of a column for 37 years to expiate his sins. Aballay refuses to get off his horse and retreats to the mountains where he becomes known as the ‘saint of the poor’ – only coming down to La Malaria when his former second in command, El Muerto (‘The Dead One’), terrorises the town, steals the beautiful Juana as his bride and stakes out Julián for the vultures when he attempts to save the girl.

Aballay is the Argentinian entry for foreign language film at the Oscars. I can’t imagine what the Academy voters will make of it. One of the issues will be the brutality of the violence and the treatment of the single female character who is beaten and abused, even branded. The sense of strength in the character comes from the performance by Mariana Anghileri but I think that you could argue that the film is exploitative in the way it uses her body. These aspects certainly troubled me (and I’m a fan of Peckinpah and Leone) but I am interested in these kinds of Latin American ‘Western’ and I suspect that there is a market for this internationally – though it is a long time since the popularity of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Simon Stylites also refers to Buñuel’s Mexican production of Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto, Mexico 1965). The full title of Aballay translates as ‘the man without fear’ and to return to the rebel gaucho, it isn’t difficult to see that opaque though the actions of these men may be to non-Argentinians, they can carry such symbolic weight for local audiences.  This is a film to watch out for if it gets a wider release.

YouTube trailer (no English subs – but they aren’t really needed):