Category Archives: Argentinian Cinema

The Clan (El Clan, Argentina-Spain 2015)

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

The family line up for a promotional photo outside the new sporting goods store funded by the ransom monies from kidnappings

Pablo Trapero is one of the most successful filmmakers working in Argentina today. To underline that status, his latest film to get a UK release was co-produced by the Almodóvars’ company El Deseo. It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2015 and had the biggest ever opening box office take for any film in Argentina, quickly achieving 2 million admissions. What lies behind its success? This a ‘true crime film’ telling the unlikely story of the Puccio family living in an affluent district of Buenos Aires in the early 1980s. Behind the façade of comfortable middle-class life they operated a kidnapping business led by the father Arquímedes (Guillermo Francella) who had been an ‘intelligence’ operative – basically a tool of the military dictatorship – while masquerading as a civil servant before defeat in the Malvinas War helped to cause the downfall of General Galtieri in 1982. Still with contacts in the military, Arquímedes decides to switch from kidnapping and ‘disappearing’ dissidents to kidnapping rich business people and demanding large ransoms. It seems that young Argentinians are only dimly aware of the recent history of their country and the revelations of this story have created a great deal of interest.

(Warning: There are what some might consider SPOILERS in what follows.)

In terms of Latin American Cinema this is perhaps the most potent contemporary genre  – films about the repercussions of the fascism of the 1980s in Argentina and at different times in many other Latin American countries. In some ways El Clan resembles the big popular hit The Secret in Their Eyes (2009) which won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Argentina. But El Clan is in many ways a ‘harder’, less romantic film, probably because of the true life story. The hardness of the film is derived from the family’s involvement and in particular with the relationship between Arquímedes and his son Alejandro (known to his friends as Alex and played by Peter Lanzani). Alex is a successful rugby player. He plays for Casi, one of the powerful Buenos Aires clubs and was the ‘golden boy’ and later captain of the club team. He also played for the ‘Pumas’ – the national team which was beginning to build an international reputation in the 1970s and 1980s.  When his father decides to kidnap the sons of rich men, he drags Alex into the business because several such boys are rugby players at Alex’s club and Alex is useful in identifying potential targets. Later, Arquímedes uses the money from one ‘job’ to transform the small family shop into a swish sporting goods store to be run by Alex. In one of the best scenes we see Alex testing a new sub-aqua set, holding the mouthpiece to his face and breathing in oxygen. On reflection this seems like a metaphor for the terror that Alex feels because of his father’s actions and his own involvement. He compulsively sucks in oxygen, as if he is gasping for air because he is so frightened. The contrast between the domesticity of the Puccio family’s daily routines and the brutality and squalor of the treatment of the kidnap victims is shocking.

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family's criminality

Alex is a popular member of his rugby team – something which helps to mask his family’s criminality

All of the family bar the youngest, Adriana who is still in middle school, are aware of what is going on. Alex’s mother and his sister Sylvia (both teachers) play minor roles. The youngest son, Guillermo decides to abandon the family before he is dragged into the business when he goes abroad and the second son Maguila is brought back from abroad to aid his father. It is a chilling performance by Guillermo Francella as Arquímedes and reminds us of the conviction of the fascists in Argentina that they had a right to do these terrible things. Arquímedes is always calm, even when he is prepared to kill the abductees because they might cause problems if released. At the end of the film we learn what happened to the real Puccio family – and Arquímedes does more or less what we, by then, expect of him.

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

The film noir mise en scène for Arquímedes at work

This is a well-made thriller which has audiences on the edge of their seats. Much has been made of the music in the film and the way it creates an ironic context for the terrible deeds on screen. I’ve seen reviewers refer to ‘contemporary pop songs’ – which is nonsense unless British/American music takes decades to reach Argentina. The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald (1944), the Kinks (1966) and Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969) provide excellent tracks that fit the film narrative, but they are not about the period. I don’t know the other songs – which might be 1980s. It has also been suggested that this is Trapero’s most accessible film. I’m not sure if this is necessarily the case. My memory of Carancho (2010) is of a similar mix of crime genre film and social commentary. Trapero’s approach is to start towards the end of the story (i.e. the arrest of the family) and show snatches of action and then flashback to different periods to discover what happened over three years. Each flashback has a useful title giving the year and some contextual events. Even so, this makes the film narrative more complex and more difficult to follow. If you want to watch the film (and I certainly recommend it) I suggest that you read a timeline of major events in Argentina 1982-85 before you watch it. I’m not sure what Trapero gains from this approach – perhaps it just seems fashionable and that is the basis of its accessibility? You can download the Production Notes for the film from the Curzon website, but these focus mainly on the contemporary coverage of the arrest etc. rather than the aesthetics of the film. It’s worth noting though that Trapero’s cinematographer Julián Apezteguia uses a tracking camera to take us through the government buildings and bureaucracies of Buenos Aires and a distinctive film noir style for the criminal acts themselves and especially the way Arquímedes moves silently, calmly through the night. There is something really creepy about Arquímedes sweeping the pavement in front of the family shop early in the morning with water from a hose being used to clean the walk-way when only yards away in a basement room a kidnap victim suffers. The sound too is very well handled with attention given to the muffled screams of the victims mixed with other more every day sounds.

The 'normalcy' of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The ‘normalcy’ of sweeping the pavement in the morning.

The Clan in cinemas

The Clan opened in the UK on September 16 and the BFI box office for the first weekend shows that it only appeared in 14 cinemas – but achieved a site average of over £3,000, giving it No 29 in the chart and beating all but two of the other films on release. The small number of cinemas is surprising, especially because this is a film from the producers of the previous Argentinian blockbuster Wild Tales which in 2015 became the highest earning ‘non-Bollywood’ foreign language film in the UK. Wild Tales opened on 50 screens for No 9 in the chart and a site average over £3,600. So why the change of policy from the same distributor, Curzon-Artificial Eye? The difference is that this time Curzon made the film available on VOD at the same time as the cinema release. Unfortunately, they do not release stats for VOD sales on a regular basis, so there is so far no chance to compare the releases. What this means though is that there are fewer opportunities to see the film in cinemas. I saw the film on its second week run at HOME in Manchester where it showed in one of the smaller cinemas. It was so popular that the lunchtime screening sold out and I found myself in the middle of the front row with a CinemaScope image a few feet away. This was genuinely ‘immersive’ – so much so that I couldn’t see the whole screen easily and had to switch my gaze from one side of the screen to the other while still managing to read the subtitles. I’m not complaining and I enjoyed the film, but I’m not happy about Curzon’s policy. I shouldn’t have to travel 40 miles to see a film that could be showing closer to home. Either Curzon are reluctant to accept Picturehouses booking the film or the latter are even less interested in the foreign language market than I thought.


Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

The Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has developed a reputation for festival films in the ‘slow cinema’ mode. This means that his films are shown by leading festivals but struggle to get cinema releases in many territories. Jauja (his fifth feature) is a slightly different proposition since it stars the internationally-known Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen (who is also credited as one of the producers and the music composer on the film). Perhaps because of this, Alonso has managed to attract funding and support from many sources including the US, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The film won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Cannes and two other international awards and certainly in the UK it has had a higher profile on release than the director’s earlier films.

Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish military engineer in the late 19th century who is assisting the Argentinian Army in their genocidal campaign to survey and ‘clear’ the ‘jungle’ – the desolate area in Patagonia sparsely populated by indigenous peoples. (The English word ‘jungle’ has connotations of tropical rainforest but its original Sanskrit/Hindi meaning is ‘arid wasteland’ – precisely describing parts of Patagonia.) He has with him his teenage daughter. It isn’t explained why she is there and her presence is disturbing for some of the soldiers. Almost inevitably she starts a relationship with one of them and the couple then run away from the camp. Forced to go looking for them, Mortensen’s character makes his own journey into the unknown.

‘Jauja’ refers to a magical place and at the beginning of the film a title explains this. In colonial ‘Latin America’ it became associated with similar concepts such as ‘El Dorado’. In this instance it seems to me that it refers to what might be termed the fantasy at the heart of the colonial melodrama. In some ways this film reminded me of Tabu, the Portuguese film which so captivated me in 2012. The two films aren’t necessarily the same in style, but there are some parallels about colonialism and both employ a time shift so we see characters in the present with links to the colonial past. In Jauja the link is not really explained but Viilbjørk Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, also plays a young woman in a country house in modern Denmark. Without spoiling the ‘plot’, I’ll simply note here that the Captain’s search for his daughter takes him to some odd places and some strange experiences. There are two linking motifs between the two time periods – a dog and a toy soldier.

The colonial 'other' – the indigenous people who live in the 'jungle'

The colonial ‘other’ – the indigenous people who live in the ‘jungle’

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

The search for a daughter (common I understand to several of Alonso’s stories) in the context of a ‘hostile territory’ in the 19th century brings to mind John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran searching for his niece presumed abducted by Comanche raiders. Alonso selected the Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki) to shoot Jauja and Salminen is quoted as seeking a John Ford look for this quasi-Western. He appears to have come across the idea of an Academy (1.33:1) frame with rounded edges during post production and then imposed it on the 1.85:1 footage. The effect works particularly well because of the deep-focus compositions which stretch the gaze into the far distance – proving that barren spaces can be captured in depth as well as in the breadth of a CinemaScope image (see the article and interview with Mortensen by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight and Sound May 2015 plus the review of the film by Adrian Martin for more detail on this). The Academy framings also act as a reminder of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

I enjoyed Jauja and I found the various aesthetic devices and ideas about the colonial (mis)adventure both interesting and stimulating. I think the Danish connection came about because of the multilingual Mortensen’s interest in the script. Alonso and his co-writer Fabian Casas welcomed a different ‘voice’/language that would be ‘strange’ in an Argentinian film (i.e. not Spanish/French/Italian or English). The colonial past of Denmark is not so widely known as that of other European nations but it is an important element in Danish culture. Besides Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland, Denmark also possessed widely scattered small territories in the Caribbean and India and participated in the slave trade. Dinesen stands in for the European colonial adventurer while the Argentinians themselves are like the ‘settlers’ in North America and Australia who set out to eradicate indigenous peoples. The Argentinian Army officer in the film refers to ‘coconut heads’ – a made up name that Alonso thought would be strange but “not offensive” (see the interview in Sight and Sound). It sounds pretty offensive to me and I suspect to many others. Perhaps as the Luis Suarez racism charge suggests, these issues are rather differently dealt with in the Southern part of South America (i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay)?

So, what does the wider release mean for this ‘slow cinema’ film? I suspect that there has been a fair amount of bewilderment amongst the more mainstream arthouse audience. For my part I enjoyed the chance to gaze on the tableaux set up by Alonso and Salminen and to use the time to think about some of the issues. But I was aware that at the end of a long working day I was prone to losing concentration and potentially falling asleep. On the other hand, a big screen in a darkened cinema auditorium is also far more likely to hold my attention over the whole film than a small screen in my living room – when it is so easy to pause or switch off a DVD. Festival films are meant to be seen in cinemas, even if many critics now watch them on much smaller screens. I also have Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) on disc – I wonder how that will work out?

Films From the South #11: Carancho (Argentine/Chile/France/S. Korea 2010)

Martina Gusmán and Ricardo Darin

Carancho is directed and part-written by Pablo Trapero whose 2002 film El bonaerense achieved a wide international release. It’s a mainstream crime thriller of the kind that Argentinian Cinema does very well and it stars the most recognisable Argentinian actor for international audiences, Ricardo Darin.

In Spanish, ‘carancho’ refers to various birds of prey and the obvious inference here is to vultures. Darin plays Sosa, a lawyer who has been driven to become in US terms an ‘ambulance chaser’ – someone who waits around for a motor vehicle accident and then tries to grab the business of any survivors or relatives who make a claim. According to some of the promo material there are around 8,000 deaths on Argentina’s roads each year. This is a staggering figure. As a comparison, the UK (admittedly one of the safest places in the world to be a road user) has less than 2,000 deaths from a larger number of road users – but the US is nearly as bad as Argentina. I mention this last point only because there is already discussion of a Hollywood remake.

The plot is fairly basic. Sosa seduces a new young doctor on the A&E team of the local hospital, Luján played by Martina Gusmán. She turns out to be not quite as innocent as she first appears. Sosa is in some ways a classic film noir male character – a good man forced to do bad things. He is trapped by the vicious system which allows crooked legal firms to cream off a fat commission on any compensation claim. He needs to find a way to break away from their stranglehold and this means doing some dirty deeds while still keeping Luján on side. I don’t really like medical dramas – especially the soaps set in casualty wards – and the only film I can think of that has some similar elements is Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), a good film but not very enjoyable to watch. I think I enjoyed Carancho more but I still averted my gaze from some of the gory bits.

The real question is why this film attracted investment from three co-production partners and a slot at Cannes in Un certain regard. It’s a perfectly serviceable thriller, with a downbeat ending, that is very well made but not that unusual/distinctive apart from the originality of the basic premise. I was intrigued to discover that Martina Gusmán was a producer before she was an actor and she is exec producer here. Her presence and that of Darin helps to lift the film, but I’d still put it alongside French polars such as the two Fred Cavayé films Pour elle (2008) and À bout portant (2010), the first of which has already been re-made. Such films have an originality in ideas that Hollywood needs to feed on. What will Hollywood need to change about Carancho? Probably it will need to make the ending more upbeat and the characters less seedy. A studio will also have to find an actor/star who can do what Darin does so effortlessly – sleaze plus sex appeal with several beatings to withstand and that little pot belly. He’s a great role model for middle-aged men!

YouTube trailer for the US market:

Films From the South #7: Aballay (Aballay, el hombre sin miedo, Argentina/Spain 2010)

The gauchos in one of several telephoto compositions.

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):

BIFF 2011 #12: Mount Bayo (Cerro Bayo, Argentina 2010)

Inés is consoled by her brother in Cerro Bayo

Cerro Bayo offers a pleasant and diverting way of spending 86 minutes. My initial response was ‘Almodóvar lite’ or ‘telenovela plus’. I hope that isn’t too much of a putdown because I enjoyed the film. Writer-director Victoria Galardi has several things going for her including a good cast and a beautiful setting in Villa La Angostura, in the Andes of Western Patagonia close to the popular ski resort on Cerro Bayo. The script has its comic moments and she’s only really let down by the occasional clunky sequence and a rather weak resolution to the narrative.

The plot hinges on the drastic action of the mother of two middle-aged women. After winning some money at the casino she buries it under the headstone on her husband’s grave and then attempts suicide – but only manages to put herself into a coma. Cue the return of her older daughter Mercedes from Buenos Aires sniffing around for the money while the younger daughter Marta sits by her mother’s bedside. Marta’s husband meanwhile is inveigled into a plan to sell his mother-in-law’s plot of land to some Spaniards. Her son needs money to travel to Europe and her daughter is obsessed with winning the local beauty contest. There are more old memories for Mercedes to turn up and the usual small town relationships to disentangle. I don’t think that there is enough here to warrant a UK distributor picking up the film, but I’m glad I saw it all the same. I’ve not seen this part of Argentina represented before and it made me think about how this country (the 8th largest in the world) has so many varied landscapes and narrative possibilities for filmmakers.

!Viva¡ #2 El asaltante (The Mugger, Argentina 2007)

Arturo Goetz as the man.

This was an enjoyable screening event. As part of the ‘Cine en Construcción’ strand organised by Instituto Cervantes, the director Pablo Fendrik was in attendance and after the screening (again a film of only 70 mins) he conducted a lively and entertaining Q & A in English. He is clearly a talented director and if he ever finds that he can’t sell his films he has potential as a performer in a one-man show.

El asaltante is a slight but very engaging narrative that intrigues the viewer and raises several questions about how people live in Buenos Aires. The film opens with a middle-aged man (see the image above – although the film is in colour) entering a school in the city rather furtively. What follows is the gradual breakdown of what was clearly a carefully planned ‘operation’. The camera follows the central character like a limpet in a series of long takes – a masterpiece of handheld camerawork and careful choreography. At the end of the film we do finally learn the identity of the protagonist – but not why he carries out the operation, although we do get some clues.

In the Q & A, Fendrik revealed that the story was based on a real incident he had read about in a local newspaper. The perpetrator was never caught and Fendrik thought this was an ideal basis for a film that could be shot and edited very quickly on a low budget. He was certainly correct on that score and aided by excellent cinematography and a totally convincing performance by Arturo Goetz as ‘the man’ he has produced an attractive little film. My questions to him after the screening focused on the short length of the film and whether it received a release in Argentina.

Pablo Fendrik at Cannes in 2008.

Fendrik told us that after screening at Cannes in 2007 during International Critics Week he had received a lot of interest. Distributors had urged him to shoot an extra ten minutes but he was adamant that he just wanted to shoot the story as he saw it and that he wasn’t prepared to change. Pressed on how the film was distributed in Argentina he told us that it was screened as the first film to be shown in a new specialised cinema in Buenos Aires but that he had refused an offer to screen at a ‘museum cinema’ because the other films on the programme were too ‘arty’. I admire someone who sticks to his guns but it’s a shame if more people don’t get to see this director’s work. And work he does. He returned to Cannes in 2008 with a second feature, Blood Appears, again with Arturo Goetz in a lead role. This co-production with France and Germany sounds far too violent for me, but Fendrik is clearly a director to look out for. El asaltante is available on a Region 1 DVD in the US.

The film’s trailer is here, but SPOILER warning, it gives away more of what happens than this review. (The music track isn’t in the film.)