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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Just a reminder for subscribers. Reviews of interesting films, mainly from outside the US/UK and Western Europe, are also to be found on our sister site at globalfilmstudies.com
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)
Nominated for the Palme d’or and Argentina’s Oscar entry as well as receiving many other nominations and awards globally, Wild Tales has had an extensive release in the UK. Does it live up to this star billing? Did I laugh? Does the film have anything to say? Well, ‘perhaps’, ‘yes’ and yes, but . . . This is what is sometimes described as an ‘anthology’ or ‘portmanteau’ film. There are several different variations of this form. In this case there are six tales by the same director. I’m not sure that they are all ‘wild’. They do all involve forms of violence, some much bloodier than others. There is also a loose theme of ‘getting even’. It’s inevitable that with six films some will work better than others. I think I’d score this as 4 out of 6 with the first two the weakest.
In some of the stories the ‘getting even’ is directly related to social class distinctions and it’s always good to see the ‘little person’ get one over the bourgeoisie. But here that doesn’t always happen and a couple of the stories are driven by a relentless logic in which individuals are gradually worn down. In the end, the only thing that links all of the films is the sense of Argentinian society as being riven by all kinds of anti-social behaviour or clear injustices. I suspect that there were some nuances I didn’t get and that for Argentinian audiences the tales are more clearly linked together than I realised.
Some of the events depicted have a delicious black humour, others are more tragic. The film does, I think, invite audiences to indulge in assumptions about national characteristics. Male characters are arrogant and macho, some women are beautiful and haughty. And their opposites seem to be there to create the conflict – so the unattractive woman defeats the powerful man etc. The one star I recognised was the almost ubiquitous Ricardo Darin who appears as the ‘little man’ brought low by bureaucracy. But he’s an explosive expert . . . The tale that worked the best for me concerned a hit and run driver. This is in some ways a universal tale of wealth and corruption with a shock ending. I won’t spoil the enjoyment of any of the other tales but the film has been lucky/unlucky that the first tale relates directly to a recent news story and some cinemas have warned customers who might have found the link distasteful.
I think that my reluctance to embrace the film as completely as others have done is down to my general lack of interest in short narratives over longer ones. There are several other portmanteau films discussed on this blog. 7 Days in Havana is a less consistent film than Wild Tales but it does offer short films in different styles by different directors and in the end I personally found that more interesting. On the other hand, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow offers three different stories by the same director which together say something about a particular society. The writer-director of Wild Tales, Damián Szifrón, does a good job in presenting the narratives but I didn’t notice anything particularly different in terms of style between the six separate stories (other than their generic roots). In some ways his film appears more like Hollywood anthology films than the European tradition of portmanteau films.
I did enjoy Wild Tales and I would recommend it as a film from one of the most vibrant film industries. My main concern is why it was so highly promoted where other foreign language films of similar quality are often restricted to a limited distribution. Violence and comedy are deemed to be saleable as a combination I guess – and the film is co-produced by the Almodóvars, Augustín and Pedro. Almodóvar is still a name that means something to UK audiences.
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: