I couldn’t find any festival coverage of this film (which was screened at several important festivals) – which surprised me as this was perhaps the most affecting of the films over the ¡Viva! weekend. It’s a youth picture and coming of age story crossed with a family melodrama and presented almost as social realism but with fabulous music and an element of ‘performance’ built into the narrative.
The second screening of the film was preceded by a very useful presentation on ‘The Latin American City in Cinema’ by James Scorer of Manchester University. He explained that the barrio (shanty town) where the central character lives is close to Puerto Madero, one of the newly renovated and now upmarket districts of Buenos Aires. An intelligent young woman, María is soon to finish elementary school and will be offered a scholarship to a high school – a potential way out of the barrio. She lives with her grandmother in a small shack which is shared with Garrido, the grandmother’s younger ‘companion’. María gives out junk mail on the subway system, often meeting an older friend who sells biscuits. One day she meets ‘Araña’, an older teenage boy who wears a Spider-Man hoodie and performs juggling and other tricks on the subway trains.
María is played by a non-professional, Florencia Salas, who has a smile to break hearts. Araña (Diego Vejezzi) is a similarly attractive and engaging young character. All seems set for a sweet teen romance, but as the Buenos Aires Herald puts it: ” . . . as the film unfolds, another story comes to the foreground, a story of subjugation and hidden pain”. The narrative develops in ways that are perhaps predictable but the presentation of the story is successful in representing a range of emotions – including a surprising and in some ways quite optimistic ending which is nevertheless underpinned by the knowledge that the lives of the young people in the barrio are still constrained by the failures of adults, both in the barrios and in the wider civil society of the city, to protect and nurture young people.
I was impressed by the subtle ways in which some aspects of the narrative are developed. Maria’s teacher knows something is wrong and expresses it with the slightest of looks askance. There are also some very strong visuals as befits a melodrama. The skill is in bringing these different elements together smoothly. I enjoyed the music in the film very much. It is mostly diegetic performed by bands in the shanty town and buskers on the subway. The music and the cinematography heighten the emotional pull of the film by contrasting the vibrancy of the performances with the restrictions of life in the barrio.
Director María Victoria Menis has made other films that have got some recognition outside Argentina, mainly in France (this is a French co-production) and I think that María y el Araña deserves to be seen more widely as well. The long trailer here which includes some extended scenes gives a good idea of how the film works. Most of what I discovered about the film came from the film’s Facebook page and the Argentinian production company’s ‘official website’.
Long trailer (minimal dialogue, no subtitles):
This was perhaps the most enjoyable film to watch in my festival selection. It’s a solid mainstream investigative thriller with some interesting characters and a twisty plot. It’s the kind of film that would work well in BBC4’s Saturday night European crime fiction slot.
The title refers to the Spanish name for the cartoon character ‘Betty Boop’ and it was affectionately given as a nickname by Jaime Brena (Daniel Fanego), a crime reporter for a Buenos Aires newspaper, to a leading crime novelist Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Morán) some years ago. Brena is now being pushed out of his job and Iscar is reduced to more mundane writing after her last novel failed to please the critics. But when a wealthy man is found with his throat cut in a gated country club community, Brena and Iscar become involved in investigating the murder. Brena’s boss discovers that the newly-appointed young graduate crime desk chief needs guidance and lacks useful contacts and Brena is back on the job. Iscar is hired to write a ‘colour piece’ on the crime scene – but this is also a ruse by which the editor can attempt to rekindle a relationship with her. The subsequent investigation unearths a story which can be traced back to events many years ago involving wealthy families in Buenos Aires and the narrative has a darker ending than might be expected from some of the earlier exchanges.
The Argentinian production company behind the film (the wonderfully-named ‘Haddock Films’) is best known internationally for The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). That was a much more adventurous film and more clearly concerned with the dark political history of Argentina. Betibú suggests that the dark past can be kept dark by ‘The Organisation’, but there are certainly similarities with The Secret in Their Eyes in some of the settings. The film’s director is Miguel Cohan whose first film was the well-received No Return (Argentina 2010). Betibú is an adaptation of a novel by Claudia Piñeiro.
Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán are excellent and I could have taken much more of them. Fanego underplays to great effect and Morán is convincing as a writer-investigator (and quite different to the well-known Angela Lansbury character Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. but I would have to agree with The Hollywood Reporter review which suggests that the two roles taken by Spanish actors, the editor and the young crime desk chief, are both underwritten and not up to the level of the two central characters. This raises the question of co-productions and the extent to which Spain and Argentina/Mexico/Columbia etc. need each other to be involved in a production. Betibú looks great and it looks like a certain level of production funding was required. It may also be that ‘pan-Hispanic’ distribution is helped by co-production. However, many of the other co-productions I’ve seen make much better use of Spanish actors.
Warner Bros. distributed the film in Argentina but I haven’t seen any indications of European or North American distribution as yet. Overall I’ve been impressed with the quality of Argentinian productions in the last few years and I hope this does get a wide distribution. It’s probably for older audiences who, I think, will enjoy it.
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:
Here’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):