Category: Argentinian Cinema

Ostende (Argentina 2011)

The beach out of season . . .

Ostende is currently part of MUBI’s Library offer, having been part of a New Argentinian cinema strand back in 2017. The development of several film schools in Argentina has meant the production of a large number of films that have been apparent on the festival circuit during the last ten years. I’ve usually found one or more such films popping up at London, Leeds or Glasgow, festivals I visit regularly, as well as at ¡Viva! in Manchester with its coverage of Latin American cinema. There have been a couple of duds over ten years, but most have been well worth my time.

A MUBI article discussing the New Argentine cinema explains that many of these films from younger directors have struggled to get into Argentinian cinemas but have instead found distribution deals in other territories following prizes at international festivals. Ostende appears to be a low budget film that has reached a few international festivals and has been streamed in Argentina, Italy and Germany and, via MUBI, international subscribers. It features a very simple idea that feels familiar but I can’t think where I might have seen something similar. The central character is a woman in her twenties who arrives alone at a seaside resort hotel at the end of the season. She has won (with her boyfriend) a prize in a quiz show of a four day break at the resort, but the boyfriend is still at work and he will join her for the weekend. The hotel is a modern building comprising several two storey blocks, a pool, restaurant-bar and access to a beach.

‘Laura’ and the minimal use of prints in the hotel.

There is very little conventional narrative development in this 82 minute film but the film itself is ‘about’ narrative as a concept. The young woman isn’t named as far as I can see, so I’ll refer to her as ‘Laura’ after the writer-director of the film Laura Citerella and the actor who plays her, Laura Parades. Laura has little to do when she arrives except read, sit by the window or on the windy beach, grab a coffee or a drink in the bar etc. Laura is not especially ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ but she has an interesting face and even if she appears quite serious, she easily opens up to the young waiter who chats her up and tells her a story. She also seems to have decided that she wants to find a story in the mainly empty hotel. She finds it in the shape of the relationship she observes that involves an older man, always wearing a pair of red shorts, and two younger women. Various small details about this relationship add up to scenarios which seem to Laura to place the young women in danger. Added to this, the film’s soundtrack is an odd mixture of the songs and dialogues which Laura receives through her earphones and the melancholy sounds of the wind on the beach and the crashing waves.

The arrival of boyfriend Francisco (who works at INCAA – National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts) doesn’t change things much as Laura continues to worry about the two young women. When she and Francisco leave at the end of their stay, the camera sneaks back to find Mr Red Shorts and the two women. A surprise ending is presented without much ceremony. The story concocted through Laura’s observations and assumptions has led to suggestions of a Hitchcockian narrative. Certainly it bears resemblance to one famous Hitchcock film but the big difference is that Laura does not attempt to intervene in any way. Her spying on these characters doesn’t seem to prompt any obvious self-reflection either.

‘Laura’ thinks the voices from next door are part of the unfolding story of possible abuse.

This is a slight film in some ways but it does have some power. I think this comes from careful pacing, some excellent camerawork and editing (by Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguillansky respectively) and a terrific performance by Laura Paredes. She’s in nearly every scene, often in close-up. We seem to become intimate with her and one reviewer refers to the film being ‘gently sensual’ which seems a good call. In some scenes we switch between close shots of Laura watching and long shots of one or more of the trio of characters under her observation. The other technique that stands out is switch focus with a very shallow depth of field used on occasions. This and the editing of dead ground, doorways, windows etc. adds to the disturbing feel of the mostly empty resort. Much of the final sequence which concludes the narrative of the trio is in long shot. Overall I found this an interesting little film – much achieved, seemingly with few resources.

LFF 2020 #4: A Common Crime (Un crimen común, Argentina-Brazil-Switz 2020)

Cecilia and Juan

I watched this film without much preparation. I knew the title and I had read that it had links to that important and deep-rooted issue of ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. But I did expect that the main focus would be the crime and its investigation in some way. It isn’t. Instead it’s a narrative about someone who almost unknowingly becomes part of the crime scenario and who then suffers the consequences. The film is presented in Academy ratio. The only reason for this as far as I can see is that it represents the increasing sense of entrapment felt by the central character Cecilia.

This is an intelligent and very well-made film with a stunning central performance by Elisa Carricajo, who is well-known in the theatre in Argentina. Much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and the technical credits are very impressive especially sound design, editing and cinematography. The writer-director Francisco Márquez was very clear about his intentions in the Q&A that followed the screening. The ‘common crime’ here refers to both the ‘institutional violence’ of the Argentinian police (which Márquez argues amounts to daily deaths of young men in custody or on the street) and to the ‘blind eye’ of the Argentinian middle class when it comes to action to stop this violence – which perpetuates the history of ‘disappearing’ those deemed as dangerous by the authorities. These disappeared are nearly all young men living in poverty conditions.

Cecilia visits Nebe whose house is approached through a maze of narrow alleyways

It’s very difficult to comment on the narrative without spoiling it for future audiences so I’ll just outline a couple of events and characters without going into too many details. Cecilia is a sociology teacher in a local university (a very low-key institution, but perhaps that just reflects the low budget of the film?). She is in the process of applying for a more senior job at the university which is one of the pressures on her, although everyone expects her to get the job. She lives in a small single-story dwelling with her small son Juan who must be 10 or 11? Her childcare is shared with the boy’s father who seems to have him a couple of days a week. Cecilia doesn’t seem like much of a cook and she also employs a cleaner cum housekeeper Nebe. This gives her a little extra time to prepare her lectures. It’s a while since I’ve been presented with quotes from Althusser and later on a pair of her ex-students ask her advice on preparing an abstract for a paper. They seem to be an encouraging pair of academic rebels who adopt a Gramscian approach – hurrah! Cecilia’s reaction to their request for advice is interesting.

The central incident comes one night when Cecilia is alone in the house, awake during a storm when she hears someone pounding on her door and crying for help. Peering through the blinds, she sees a figure who might be Nebe’s grown-up son Kevin who Cecilia had met briefly a couple of days earlier. But it’s the middle of the night and Cecilia is frightened. She goes back to bed without opening the door. Later it is revealed that Kevin has ‘disappeared’. Cecilia visits Nebe in what is considered as the ‘rough’ part of town, reassuring Nebe that she will pay her while she takes time off and campaigns to find her son, but not mentioning the night-time incident.

From this point on, Cecilia begins a downward spiral as the failure to help her visitor in the night begins to prey on her. The second half of the film depends very much on Elisa Carricajo’s excellent performance and the subtle sound design. I also feel that the costumes she is given to wear seem particularly unflattering and it’s interesting to see her smoking. I don’t know what the smoking levels in Argentina are like now but in a UK context, a teacher smoking is someone who might be considered as ‘under stress’. The script rather conveniently prevents any later scenes of her teaching – which is where I would expect the stress to become more obvious. But I was shocked by Cecilia’s behaviour at a friend’s dinner table.

I think there are a number of films which similarly deal with middle-class angst about ‘not doing the proper thing’, sometimes a question of morality and sometimes an almost criminal act. In that sense this film is generic. In the second half of the film the director also uses some familiar devices from psychological horror stories. Most of these are used in subtle ways through editing and sound effects but some – the shower curtain ripped open to reveal nothing, a toy racetrack with cars still running in an empty house – are perhaps too familiar. Listening to the director and appreciating his approach it is clear he was attempting a more profound statement about the issue in Argentina and the film aims for a level of social realism. He had some success with a previous film also raising questions about ‘disappearances’ and his worked has been bracketed with that of Lucretia Martlel’s The Headless Woman (2008). I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Un crimen común, but I admire its production. However, I think it might be a tough sell to distributors and I think audiences would need some preparation if they are not to be disappointed because of expectations about a crime fiction thriller.

The trailer below (with English subs) reveals a little more of the plot and illustrates Cecilia’s decline.

The Daughters of Fire (Las hijas del fuego, Argentina 2018)

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On the utopian road

This is a startling film for a number of reasons. Most obvious is the nature of the representations of sexual intercourse, which are the most explicit I’ve seen. Compared to In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korîda, Japan, 1976) and The Idiots (Idioterne, Denmark-Spain-Sweden-France-Netherlands-Italy, 1998), for example, both of which feature hardcore sex, this film raises the bar for arthouse explicitness. The film even trumps Gaspar Noé’s provocations (at least the ones I’ve seen such as Love) as this is indisputably a pornographic film. Director Albertina Carri (she also co-wrote with Analía Couceyro) does use the narrative as a frame for moving on to the next sex scene. I can’t remember where I read that pornography is like the musical: in the latter the narrative moves us on to the next ‘song and dance’ number; in the former it is for the ‘moan and grope’ sequences. However the film is also more than porn.

Carri, whose short film Barbie Can also Be Sad (Barbie también puede estar triste, Argentina, 2002) is reputably also worth a watch, has made a meta-porn movie using arthouse techniques to comment on and question what we are seeing. This is primarily through the voiceover of one of the two characters who embark on a road trip (to stop one of their mothers selling a car!) where they pick up other women along the way. Inés Duacastella’s cinematography beautifully captures the austere landscapes of Patagonia; I’m not sure but I think they are headed south toward Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world (continent) which is named after fire. Road movies usually lead characters to learn about themselves, but this bunch are already full of knowledge about their sexuality and apparently need little more. In this sense, the spaces they move through are utopian; there are no psychological impediments to their lasciviousness. They are challenging patriarchy and have little problem dispensing with the two homophobic misogynists they come across: a utopian space indeed!

Carri’s crew was apparently virtually all female and although I found the film intensely erotic I (heterosexual male) am not the target audience. I suspect many will find the graphic sex scenes too much to view but the film is clearly more than porn (listen to the interesting discussion between academics José Arroyo and Deborah Shaw). (I’m trying to avoid ‘protesting too much’ so it seems I’m justifying watching porn).

There are moments of great beauty in the film. The hallucinogenic sequence when the characters take mushrooms, where imagery of sea life is superimposed on the image, is particularly stunning. Whilst not going the whole Godardian hog of alienating the spectator from the film with the voiceover, Carri does enough to get us thinking about what we are seeing. The final, long take, of a woman masturbating reminded of the scene in Godard’s British Sounds (UK 1970) where a naked woman stands on a stairway with a Marxist-Leninist tract on the soundtrack (as I remember it at least). The content of the shot is such that the viewer is interrogated as much as the image.

The film’s showing on MUBI for a while and is available on at least one pornographic website, an interesting platform for an arthouse movie.

¡Viva! 26 #3: Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers, Argentina-Uruguay 2019)

Luisa and Ana

This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.

The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.

The family are called to dinner . . .

There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.

Luisa shows consternation at something Emilio (in the foreground out of focus) is saying

This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.

Memé and Luisa at odds

The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.

¡Viva! 26 #2: El Cuento de las comadrejas (The Weasel’s Tale, Argentina-Spain 2019)

In most years ¡Viva! features comedies and some, like The Weasel’s Tale, are major productions in CinemaScope with a running time of over 2 hours. I’m often wary of comedies since as the convention in the film industry has it, subtitles don’t always do justice to witty dialogue and many gags and comic situations are based around local cultural conventions. For the first 20 or 30 minutes of this film I wasn’t completely sure about it even though I was starting to enjoy it. I turned to look at the brochure blurb and realised that it was co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella, whose big international success was El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, Argentina-Spain 2009) and that encouraged me further. Eventually it kicked into full gear for me.

Mara (Garciela Borges) welcomes any visitor as the grand movie star she still believes herself to be

The film’s English title is a direct translation of the Spanish, so what does it mean? Four now elderly filmmakers live in a large rural mansion in its own extensive grounds. Mara Ordaz (Graciela Borges) was once a leading lady, a star of romantic pictures in the 1960s. She owns the house along with her husband Pedro (Luis Brandoni) a fellow actor, although in smaller parts. Now he is in a wheelchair and spends his time painting. There are two permanent house guests, Norberto (Oscar Martínez) who was once Mara’s director and Martín (Marcos Mundstock) who was the unit’s scriptwriter. Both men have lost their wives, one of whom was Mara’s sister. The film’s title is explained on one level by Norberto’s penchant for firing his shotgun at random moments, claiming to be hunting weasels in the grounds. (The weasel we see looks larger and very different to a British weasel and I can’t find them amongst Argentinian mammals, perhaps they are an imported species.) The quartet of filmmakers appears to live in some sort of phoney war. The three men are friends but Mara mistrusts them.

(from left) Norberto, Pedro and Martín

One day, a young couple appear claiming to be lost and unable to phone Buenos Aires where they have a meeting. They inveigle themselves into the house to use the landline and claim to recognise Mara as a great star of the past. The trio of old men are suspicious but soon the couple have wooed Mara and convinced her that she should sell the house and move back to the city. We immediately suspect that they are crooks (or lawyers! – weasels?) and we look forward to the battle of wits, especially between Norberto and Martín on one side and the young woman, Bárbara (Clara Lago) on the other. Mara and Pedro are involved in some deep retrospection about their marriage.

Francisco (Nicolás Francella) and Bárbara (Clara Lago) – the visitors (the weasels?)

The last section is all out war. There are only two sets of locations in the film, the house and grounds and an upmarket restaurant and the office of the couple in the city. The ‘action’ then depends on the performances and the mise en scène. The film is theatrical and plays around with the house as a location. According to The Hollywood Reporter review, it’s actually a remake of a 1976 Argentinian comedy with the English title Yesterday’s Guys Used No Arsenic. The same review suggests it shares something with Ealing comedies and in a way it does draw on both Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. All six actors are well cast and and give terrific performances. For me the key scenes are the direct conflicts between Clara Lago and Oscar Martínez.

The house is full of the props from Mara’s films and she watches her old films just like the heroines of classic Hollywood. Norberto and Martín play games of pool and chess and plot. The triumph of the script is to construct scenes as if they are being written for a classic movie to be made. It works well and because these filmmakers made mainstream genre films, not art films, the script ideas they create are easily accessible. I suppose one of the issues is the appeal of a film like this to older audiences. The villains are the young, characterised her as being concerned only about ‘winning’ and not the ‘morality’ found in the classic movie scripts. This age divide is also reflected in the choice of popular songs on the soundtrack, all from the 1950s/early 1960s and featuring Brenda Lee, The Platters, Chuck Berry and Perry Como. These are played by Norberto and Martín as a backdrop to their activities. The songs also help to emphasise that presence of American popular music and Hollywood’s impact on Latin American cinema in the 1950s/60s. Otherwise the only political dimension is the revelation that Norberto lost studio support when he made a documentary about the ‘peasantry’ and Martín joined him in a form of exile during the political conflict in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. The film could lose a few minutes but otherwise it works well.

I’m not sure if this is likely to get a UK release but it should be attractive to streaming sites and it’s exactly the kind of diverting entertainment we need right now. Here is the Spanish trailer (no English subs):

GFF20 #16: Initials SG (Argentina-Lebanon-US 2019)

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On the road to nowhere

Writer-directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia have produced an interesting portrait of a self-centred, self-absorbed male, not unlike the character in Cowboy who dreams of Hollywood success. Sergio’s (Diego Peretti) dreams are less ambitious: he wants to move out of porn and into ‘straight’ acting. So far he’s never gone beyond being an extra and although he hustles effectively his volatile temperament is a problem. As is his male ego: in between his hustling for roles he cruises for women, particularly ones much younger than he.

Unsurprisingly there is undoubtedly a Latino bent to the character but the film doesn’t offer him sympathy. He is a man not acting his age and whilst there are times when age should be ignored, so as not to become a burden upon life by restricting opportunity, imagining a fiftysomething can continue to act as if 20 years younger is likely to end badly. American film distributor Jane (Julianne Nicholson, also seen in Monos) is on the rebound from a failing marriage and fancies some ‘Latin lust’ and although she gets some she also is on the receiving end of events everyone would rather avoid. The latter refers to a narrative turn in the last third of the film which isn’t entirely convincing although Sergio’s attempts to seduce the girlfriend of a missing young man are truly excruciating.

The title refers to an album Sergio made trading on the similarity of his looks to Serge Gainsbourg; a poster for the album is prominent in his flat and at first seems to be referring to the film we are watching. Such disorientation would have been interesting if it had been developed because it is hard to make an engaging film where the protagonist is an arsehole. To an extent, and Peretti’s performance is remorseless in its misoygny, it succeeds in being watchable but, unlike Cowboy, I didn’t feel there was much point in seeing an idiot behaving like an idiot.

The backdrop of the film is the World Cup of 2014 when Argentina lost to Germany in the final; the losers element reflects Sergio’s trajectory balefully anchored by the occasional omnipotent narrator (whose tone sounds like that of the one in Y tu mama tambien). Thus there is an attempt to give the film a wider social resonance: is fanatic fandom symptomatic of people who have lost, if not their moral compass, their sense of proportion about what is important? Given the current crisis about Coronavirus, which in the UK seemed only to be taken seriously by the government after league football was postponed, they may have a point.