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):