Category: Argentinian Cinema

The Official Story (La historia oficial, Argentina 1985)

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Intense reality

Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protestThe Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.

Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.

Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.

In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right-wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.

The Little Match Girl (La vendedora de fósforos, Argentina 2017)

Marie battles bourgeois problems

This is the first film I’ve seen by writer-director Alejo Moguillansky, an Argentinean independent, whose trademark, according to Hollywood Reporter is:

perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection.

As is my wont I watched the film cold (I had no idea what it was about) and was certainly confused by the opening that seemed to be a documentary about the staging of Helmut Lachenmann’s opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern based on Hans Christian Anderson’s story. However, the voiceover by María Villar states she’s playing Marie so there’s an immediate disconnect between the form of documentary and the soundtrack. Lachenmann plays himself, as does pianist and octogenarian Margarita Fernández.

The opera’s director Walter (played by actor Walter Jakob) is clueless on how to stage the avant garde masterwork. He shares a daughter with Marie, who is taking lessons from Fernández but is forced to take the youngster along who’s entertained watching Robert Bresson’s 1966 film, Au Hasard Baltahazar; I guess it’s the donkey that keeps the girl gripped.

‘Playful’ is the watchword; Lachenmann, who admits Ennio Morricone is his favourite composer, is clearly a ‘good sport’ as the piss is taken out of his music throughout. Of course the problem with playful, unless the film is a comedy, is that it can get in the way of actually saying something. The dread hand of postmodernism can reduce a text to facetiousness and although I think The Little Match Girl manages to avoid this (the committed performances gift it some heft) I can’t help feeling there’s a better film struggling to get out. Lachenmann’s anti-capitalist opera, being played in a state opera house during a strike, deserves more than being an ironic backdrop to the bourgeois shenanigans of the couple; a running joke is that Walter keeps ringing Marie for suggestions of how to stage the opera.

The film, however, is entertaining, the music (whether Beethoven, Schubert, Morricone or Lachenmann) is great so it is worth seeing. MUBI.

Cowboy (Vaquero, Argentina 2011)

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Not the role he wanted

I don’t know if the term ‘cowboy’ in Spanish has the connotations of ‘wide boy/untrustworthy’ it has in English, in addition to its American frontier references. I suspect it might because Juan Minujin’s Julián is a self-centred actor seeking the big time with a role in an American movie (as a cowboy). Minujin, who also co-wrote and directed, is a top Argentinean actor and may reach a wider audience in the forthcoming British film The Pope, directed by Fernando Meirelles. He’s quite brilliant on screen and off screen – the direction is great.

Julián is in every scene and is privileged with a voice over as he enviously looks at other actors who he suspects are getting the better roles. We see him shooting a television drama and even then the voice over shows he’s distracted, thinking about working for a famed American director and so going through the motions in the moment. When he does get to audition for the role he covets the sheer anxiety of the experience is brilliantly conveyed.

Julián’s domestic life is as bad as his professional. He lives alone, spends his time thinking about masturbating, and the lurid green light that ‘litters’ his room gives an expressionist tinge to his envy of others. When he visits his family he’s as disconnected as he usually is, though this is understandable as his father repeatedly parrots about how good others are and his brother constantly eulogises how his son is good at imitating characters in television advertising.

There’s real skill in portraying bad acting and Minujin is totally convincing and somehow manages to remain sympathetic until his treatment of a make up artist later in the film. The final audition for the big role is a superb scene that manages to comment on colonialism whilst at the same time be excruciatingly funny. (Netflix)

¡Viva! Festival 2018: Casi leyendas (Legends, Argentina-Spain 2017)

The exuberant director of this film introduced it by telling us that it dealt with two of his most treasured things, friendship and music. Gabriel Nesci told us of his excitement at being in Manchester (he’d been present for the first showing in the UK of his film earlier during ¡Viva!). His previous film had opened the festival in 2014 and in addition his love of music was based on his appreciation of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s. Gabriel seems a nice guy but I always take what directors say with a pinch of salt. His new film is stuffed with music, much of it written by Gabriel himself, but the only ‘Madchester’ references I noted were a Stone Roses poster and a Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ tee-shirt. But then I’m no expert on Manchester music and I enjoyed the film very much.

The director Gabriel Nesci (centre) persuaded his actors to learn how to appear as real musicians. From the left, Diego Peretti as Javier, Diego Torres as Lucas on drums and Santiago Segura as Axel

I saw recently somewhere a definitive statement that “feelgood films are not a genre”. Maybe not, but they comprise a category of films used by audiences round the world. “A great Friday night movie” is a similar concept and in the unlikely event that a movie offering as much fun as this were to get distribution in the UK, I’d recommend it highly. In a more mundane way, IMDb calls this a comedy-drama-music film. It involves three middle-aged guys who were once a youthful rock trio in Buenos Aires with the band name of ‘Auto-Reverse’. Just at the moment they were to release their first album and take the local scene by storm in 1992, their creative musical talent suddenly upped and went back to Spain with no explanation. The other two gave up music and the tapes of their songs were seemingly lost. Twenty-five years later, Axel (Santiago Segura), now an IT systems maintenance man in Madrid, spots that a Buenos Aires radio station is planning a ’25 years ago’ concert and he decides to fly back to Argentina. The other two band members are Javier (Diego Peretti) who is now a biology teacher and Lucas (Diego Torres), a lawyer. When Axel arrives he discovers both his ex-colleagues are having major problems but he worms his way back into Javier’s life and urges them to get back together as a band. When they discover that their one superfan from 1992, Sol (Florencia Bertotti) still has the original cassettes of their songs, everything seems possible – until it goes wrong.

Florencia Bertotti (left) as Sol and Claudia Fontán as Abril – the two women with the means to help Auto-Reverse to perform again

The plot rolls out down some well-travelled lines but it’s all well done. The narrative drive is shared between Axel and Javier. Axel is presented as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his behaviour is mined for many of the laughs. I suspect that Santiago Segura’s star persona is also being used in some ways. He’s an actor known outside Hispanic culture for his work with Guillermo del Toro in cameo parts in most of del Toro’s English language films. But in Spain he is known for his work with Álex de la Iglesia and also as the eponymous central character in the Torrente franchise of five comedy crime films in which he writes, directs and stars. These are some of the most commercially successful films in Spanish cinema. Segura’s Axel has a stuttering walk and a complete lack of social intelligence, going for unwanted hugs and saying all the wrong things to everybody but also having the autistic ‘savant’ capacity to write music and deal with all kinds of music technologies. He’s the ‘computer nerd’ with real talent and the opposite of Lucas the smooth lawyer. Axel’s behaviour is highlighted by his attempts to communicate with the woman he fell for but couldn’t speak to in 1992. Abril (Claudia Fontán) is now in a wheelchair after an accident and the exchanges between these two might raise a few eyebrows given the current concerns about typing characters. However, I don’t think the film is offensive in any way, in fact it’s quite sensitive. Javier’s problems are with his teenage son and his bored students, cue the amazement of digital natives when their teacher is revealed to have been a bass player (who writes and sings the lyrics for Axel’s songs) and appears performing on YouTube. Javier is the main focus for drama – he hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death and he fears he’s losing his son. Axel also carries the potential for drama and the mystery of his disappearance all those years ago waits to be explained. Lucas has just been found out as a suspected fraudster. He plays the drums – ’nuff said.

I won’t spoil all the other elements of the narrative. Overall, I think this is an engaging comedy and the kind of Hispanic film that ¡Viva! has often screened, allowing us to enjoy comedies from another language culture. Gabriel Nesci’s songs are pretty good too.

Here’s the Spanish language trailer (no English subs):

GFF18 #2: Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)

The opening shot of the film with Daniel Giménez Cacho as Diego de Zama

The introduction to this screening by co-director of the festival Allison Gardner suggested that “the film is very beautiful but difficult”. Which is actually quite a good description. It is visually very fine and it sounds good too – with several songs by Los Indios Tabajaras. (This was disconcerting because I recognised the music as being from the same performers who open and close Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1990)). I learned subsequently that the original Zama novel by Antonio di Benedetto, first published in 1956, was only translated into English in 2016 and is considered as one of the great works of Argentinian literature. In Lucrecia Martel, one of Argentina’s most celebrated filmmakers. it has found a new champion for an international audience.

Zama is constantly being forced to move, a deeply disturbing feeling of not being wanted. Here he carries his chair to another shack while watching the local people.

Diego de Zama is a corregidor (a Spanish title for an agent of the King) in the 1790s in a remote part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in present day Paraguay. Zama feels trapped in a backwater and repeatedly asks the local Governor to write to Spain on his behalf to request a transfer. This becomes an endlessly repeated plea to the Governor who finds all kinds of excuses not to deliver. This perhaps is an indication of the ‘difficulty’ of the narrative as the process becomes something like that suffered by one of Kafka’s characters – or perhaps like Yossarian in Catch 22? “Have you written to the King?” becomes Zama’s mantra.

The hypnotically beautiful imagery of the world into which Zama stumbles in the last part of the narrative.

Zama has ‘status’ as a colonial figure (initially he appears to act as a magistrate) but no real discernible power except that conferred on a European by conquest. Martel presents the colonial world in a manner that is both terrifying and hypnotically beautiful. This is a film in which it pays to look and listen without trying too hard to find conventional film narrative cues as to what might happen next. The Kafkaesque world of the settlement in the first half of the narrative becomes the very beautiful but also terrifying world of the ‘unexplored’ territory where Zama finds himself supposedly searching for the possibly imaginary figure of a bandit/pirate. The only way I could make some kind of sense of what was happening in this second half was to draw on other similar films and stories. The closest parallel I could think of was another Argentinian film, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (Argentina 2014) in which a Danish engineer working for the Argentinian colonial forces in the 19th century becomes similarly deranged in the ‘jungles’ of Patagonia while searching for the ‘pirate’ who has kidnapped his daughter.

Daniel Giménez Cacho and Lola Dueñas in ZAMA (2017)

After the screening I found that the best way to get a handle on Zama came via this review-essay on the original novel by J. M. Coetzee. Lucretia Martel has changed some aspects in her adaptation but the essentials remain and Coetzee’s review explains quite a lot of the background. I was pleased to see that my identification of Kafkaesque features is backed up. Some of the promotional material for the film suggests that this an ‘existential drama’ but Coetzee argues for Borges and Kafka as the inspirations for the 1950s novel. The other point from the review that intrigued me is the reference to Zama as a Creole character. From a UK perspective this can sometimes mean a mixed race person, but here it means that although Zama is ‘European’, he was born in the Americas and his status is therefore between the indigenous people and those born in Spain. He has relationships with indigenous women and also seeks out Spanish women, one of whom is played by Lola Dueñas. In British colonial terms he seems to have ‘gone native’. Spanish colonialism was perhaps less rigid – though no less harmful. Also important is the new ‘division’ in the colony between the new metropolitan centre, Buenos Aires and the ‘marginal’ colonial outposts.

I’m not sure how Zama will sell in the UK. It is due for release by New Wave, an excellent independent distributor, on May 25th. This is a film that is backed by many major figures in Hispanic and Latin American cinema. Lola Dueñas and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Spanish and Mexican respectively) have both worked for Pedro Almodóvar’s company El Deseo which is a production partner. Leading actors from Argentina and Brazil are in the cast and executive producers include Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. But yes – it is a difficult film. I hope audiences are willing to grapple with it and experience its splendours as a piece of filmmaking and a genuine attempt to tell us something about the history of Latin America. I look forward to exploring the film later on DVD but please do go and see it in the cinema if you get the chance. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.

GFF16 #9: Parabellum (Argentina-Austria 2015)

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

The recruits learn how to disarm a gunman

This film didn’t really work for me and I was surprised that it was selected for the Audience Award Competition. There were some good ideas behind the development of the project but they weren’t exploited effectively. Parabellum, as the title implies (transl. ‘prepare for war’), is about ways of tackling conflict and its aftermath. The film posits a world undergoing a never identified crisis manifest in random explosions as comets/bombs? fall from the skies and groups of people take advantage of the panic to start looting and rioting. There is only minimal dialogue as a random group of (presumably middle-class) people from the city is taken to a resort in the forest where we see them instructed in various forms of survival. Eventually they are deemed ready and those who have completed the training set off into the bush to ‘survive’. We don’t know what kind of ‘mission’ they might have been given.

The problem with the long training process is that it is so loosely edited with the inclusion of what seem like redundant or overlong shots that there is no tension or suspense, partly because it isn’t clear whether they are all expected to succeed. Is it a competition? We hear the training instructions but virtually nothing in the interactions between the recruits. When the ‘survivors’ finally get out into the river delta (which isn’t that far from Buenos Aires) things get a little weirder but not much. The trailer for the film includes some interesting images but it doesn’t convey the lacklustre appeal of the narrative. A posting on the film festival’s blog suggests all kinds of things about the film. Director Lukas Valenta Rinner and his collaborators Ana Godoy and Esteban Prado (who co-wrote the script) joined genuine Argentinian survival courses at the time of the 2012 ‘end of the world mania’. The lack of dialogue is a deliberate policy related to the experience of this preparation. The director was raised in Austria before moving to Argentina via Spain to study film and it seems that the film is inspired to some extent by the similarities between the Austrian middle-class and the Argentinian ‘upper middle-class’ (the director’s terms). If I’d read the blog before watching the film I might have been more disposed to support it, but at the end of a long day this film just didn’t grab me like the preceding four.

Trailer from International Film Festival Rotterdam:

GFF16 #7: Paulina (La patota, Argentina-Brazil-France 2015)

Paulina (Dolores Fonzi) as the new teacher

Paulina (Dolores Fonzi) as the new teacher

This Cannes prizewinner (FIPRESCI and Critics Week Prizes) from 2015 has attracted critical attention across the festival circuit. I would hope it would get a UK release but I’m not sure it will. It would be a shame if it didn’t get widely seen outside the festival circuit (it is being distributed in the producing countries and Spain). GFF16 featured an Argentinian cinema strand, neatly spotting the growing importance of Argentina’s output (120 features in 2015), and Paulina was one of 10 films, old and new in the strand. Paulina is also the third of the films I saw to feature a teacher/care worker facing up to difficult students/clients.

Based on a significant 1960 film, La patota (‘mob’ or ‘gang’), director Santiago Mitre and his co-writer Mariano Llinás moved the action of the story from Buenos Aires to the border region of North-Eastern Argentina where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil converge. This is an area where the forest has been cleared and re-planted with pine for lumber (see also the film Las acacias (Argentina 2011)). There is an indigenous population some of whom work in the sawmill and this community becomes the focus of the narrative.

Paulina is a highly-promising PhD law student and the film begins with a long argument she has with her father, a judge. He expects her to follow him into the judicial system but she wants to take direct action – giving up her studies and becoming a teacher of politics and civil rights in a school in the indigenous community. Dolores Fonzi as Paulina is an attractive and forceful young woman determined to do what she thinks is right. Her father and her boyfriend can’t dissuade her and she goes ahead. Paulina’s home region isn’t clear but she seems to come from somewhere not that far away from where she goes to teach.

Paulina makes all the mistakes of the untrained teacher, failing to get to know her students before she starts on quite complex classroom discussions/activities. Disaster is signalled very early on and after a night of drinking with another teacher who is trying to help her, Paulina is attacked on her way home by four young men and raped by one of them. The director uses flashbacks to give a different perspective on some of these events. The important outcome of the rape is that Paulina decides not to seek to prosecute the men and also to return to her teaching job when she leaves hospital. She didn’t see her attackers but knows that they are connected to her students in some way. Later she finds she is pregnant. The narrative’s main concern is to locate Paulina’s political views which compel her to do what she feels is best for the indigenous people of the community, including her students. In doing this she will have to fight her father, who claims himself to be progressive and leftist but believes she is making the wrong decisions.

Reviewing the film after its Cannes screening, Variety‘s Ben Kenigsberg suggests that Paulina’s decision turns the film into a “pointed intellectual exercise” and a flawed filmic narrative. He suggests that most audiences will side with the father. This is indeed a pointed political rather than intellectual exercise, made stronger by the flaws in Paulina’s original approach (she is both naïve and arrogant in her liberal ‘mission’) and her father’s seemingly logical argument. However, he oversteps the mark and some audiences will recognise that Paulina is correct in that the authorities will mistreat any suspects that she identifies. But what about Paulina’s emotional state? For the narrative to have any credibility (and therefore to carry through a political discourse) requires that Dolores Fonzi performs to a very high standard – and I think she does. And the film deserves its chance to convince us.

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Recent posts include:

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Stones for the Rampart (Poland 2014)

The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)