Contemporary Argentine Cinema At A Glance – Part One
Putting the word ‘new’ to a national cinema has long since become as common and banal as ‘post-’ing everything, but the output of Argentine filmmakers in the last decade has deservedly gained the attention of film critics, cinephiles and lay audiences alike, especially following the country’s socioeconomic crisis of 2001, to constitute something entirely new yet still grounded in the country’s film and sociocultural/economic histories. For someone like me, whose knowledge of Argentine cinema prior to this first decade of the 21st century was confined to the works of Leopold Torre Nilsson, Third Cinema directors (Fernando Solanas, Octavio Getino) and Carlos Sorín, Argentine cinema has been nothing short of a revelation.
I became cognizant of the vibrant cinematic productions coming out of Argentina only several years ago, through the AFI Film Festival. In 2008, it presented a showcase on Argentina, which consisted of five films. Included in this showcase were the latest films by Pablo Trapero, Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with these filmmakers’ other films, as well as get to know their ‘Argentine New Wave’ colleagues, such as Gustavo Taretto, Mariano Llinás, Martin Rejtman and Alejo Moguillansky. I use the rubric of ‘Argentine New Wave’ very superficially, as I am well aware of the distaste it can bring to the filmmakers themselves, the politics of a movement that it can misleadingly generate, and the limited sociocritical lens it often provokes. At the same time, we are talking about a veritable filmmaking community, whose filmmakers sometimes play a role in each other’s films, as editors, producers, co-directors and co-screenwriters. Such collaborations can only breed further creative and critical filmmaking, as in the case with Philippine and Malaysian (digital) filmmaking. If anything, ‘New Argentine Cinema’ or ‘Argentine New Wave’ can serve as a way to designate and periodise the crop of films that I have seen, although following Joanna Page’s recent book, Crisis And Capitalism In Contemporary Argentine Cinema (2009), ‘Contemporary Argentine Cinema’ works just as well, if not better.
On this note, it is worth mentioning Page’s examination of the resurgence of Argentine cinema, coinciding as it does with the economic crisis and its aftermath. The most compelling aspect of Page’s book is precisely the way she politicises contemporary Argentine cinema and explicitly locates it in Argentina’s actual sociohistorical context. She argues that the significance of contemporary Argentine films is the way they register post-crisis issues, such as Argentina’s globalising aspirations in the face of its ‘third world’ socioeconomic problems; labour migration and class; and the history, memory, and trauma of dictatorships, in diverse ways. By situating contemporary Argentine cinema in a specific historical context, Page goes against the more prevalent argument of the ahistoricity of these contemporary works. I agree with Page on this last point, yet I would caution any exercise that would reduce the filmmakers’ formal and aesthetic concerns to mere reflections of society.
That said, below is a rundown of some of the filmmakers and films that represent the reasons why Argentine cinema is one national cinema on which to keep an eye (over and above the predictable Hollywood remake of El secreto de sus ojos/The Secret In Their Eyes, Denzel Washington or not). Some have only one film under their belts, while others have begun to construct solid filmographies based on several feature films mixed with short films and/or documentaries…
In truth, Trapero bridges the crop of New Argentine Cinema filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s and those who emerged in the 2000s. Trapero belongs to the former group, as he emerged in the mid-1990s with several short films and then his feature film debut, Mundo grúa (Crane World, 1999).
Barring perhaps his black-and-white debut film, Trapero’s films are more classically constructed compared to his contemporaries, insofar as the storylines always take precedence before any formal concerns. But one consistent thread that unites all of his films, and brings them close to those of his contemporaries, is his worlds of marginal figures, socially and economically. I have seen three out of Trapero’s six feature films and, based on this detail, one could superficially divide Trapero’s filmography into two parts in terms of form and content, pre-2008 and post-2008.
Pre-2008 seemingly favours male protagonists, of which Mundo grúa’s unemployed, wandering character in search of a job is a core example. The film’s premise anticipates the 2001 economic crisis, yet, at the same time, Trapero diffuses this premise to such a point that the everyday and the search bleed into each other into one lethargic, depoliticised portrait of the dispossessed.
Post-2008 marks Trapero’s first film with Martina Gusman as a lead actress, Leonera (Lion’s Den). As film history has demonstrated, off-screen romance between a director and actress can make for some tremendous films. Trapero and Gusman continue this tradition. Leonera concerns Julia (Gusman), a young woman who is arrested for having killed her boyfriend and his lover – and who is in the early stages of pregnancy. The film follows her emotional and physical regeneration in a women’s prison, where she gives birth to her son, makes lasting bonds with some of her fellow prisoners, and attempts an escape to keep her son. Absorbing, solidly structured, and anchored by Gusman’s fearless performance. Trapero’s storytelling is stable and straightforward; all in the service of delineating Julia’s character arc and intensifying Gusman’s acting.
Trapero and Gusman’s latest collaboration is an exercise in intense, immersive cinema, Carancho (2010). The film revolves around the budding romance between a rising-in-the-ranks medic (Gusmán) and an older man involved in car insurance schemes and fake car accidents/injuries (Ricardo Darín). In fact, the film’s title is the specific term for this insurance fraud. Due to their respective livelihoods, they often cross each other’s paths at night, when their work is at its most intense, and are drawn to each other in a self-destructive way that befits relationships in neo-noir. Plus, the film takes place mostly at night, corrupt power struggles and betrayals characterise relationships between characters, violence erupts intermittently, but increases as the film progresses, and the core romance of the narrative is marked by a tragic implosion that bubbles up to the surface as the couple attempt to flee the dark universe that they inhabit towards the end. A surreal, belly-of-the-beast portrait of a Buenos Aires heading towards an apocalypse, or struggling to recover from one.
The boldness of Page’s argument for the historicity of contemporary Argentine cinema becomes more palpable with regards to Martel’s cerebral cinema of unease. Martel’s latest feature film is La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2007). I was less than enthusiastic the first time I saw this film. But after my second viewing in the theatre, I found its unsettling, alienating quality getting under my skin. When I attended a retrospective of Martel’s work a couple of years ago, I came to better appreciate her formal rigour and insidious look at the Argentine middle class (often located in Martel’s hometown of Salta), the subtle line between doubt and conviction, imagination and actuality, and the fallibility of vision. La mujer sin cabeza is perhaps the most distilled articulation of these characteristics.
The film follows a middle-aged woman over several days or weeks, but because of the tight framing and arrangement of limited visual information in the shots, one is never exactly sure what she’s doing or why. As she goes from place to place, from one meeting/encounter to the next, an umbrella of eeriness stubbornly hovers over her that makes one doubt the line between imagination and actuality in what she sees and what one sees on the screen. If Trapero diffuses narrative to such a lethargic degree in Mundo grúa, then Martel takes this diffusion even further to transform La mujer sin cabeza into nearly a phenomenological study of vision.
She achieves a similar result with La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), but within the context of coming to terms with adolescence and religious conviction. This film is perhaps more devastating in its effect than La mujer sin cabeza, in the sense that it pits desire, religious belief and vision against each other through the experiences of two teenage girls with their boyfriend and older love interest, respectively, while they stay in a hotel.
What makes Martel’s cinema so interesting is the way she shies away from direct confrontation; her characters and her worlds operate in terms of conjecture, as if challenging the spectator to construct his/her own response film according to what she doesn’t show.
Martel’s ability to inject and project an almost quiet menace in the spaces and movements of characters in her films in the most economical way, especially in the most ordinary, banal of circumstances, was already present in her debut feature film, La ciénaga (The Swamp, 2001). Like La niña santa’s singular, claustrophobic space of the Hotel Termas, La ciénaga takes place entirely in a house populated by a listless family trying to occupy itself on a listless, hot day. ‘Nothing’ happens, but what emerges is an incisive, microcosmic portrait of a certain class in all of its glorious stagnation, which is visually and verbally realised in the actual swamp that fascinates the family and the film’s title.
The narrative economy that runs through some of this current crop of Argentine films can be rather off-putting for some. Alonso is perhaps Martel’s kindred spirit in this regard. But what characterises Alonso’s films, at a formal level, is not tight framing but rather the long shot and the extreme long shot. Moreover, they are uncompromisingly slow-moving. That he instils so many moods in the landscapes and provokes so much from them at the same time may also explain the unconventional running times of his films (his latest feature, 2008’s Liverpool, is by far the longest with a running time of 84 minutes). In this way, he is like a landscape painter. But his subjects are nevertheless very much grounded in the individual.
Across the four feature films that constitute his filmography, which I had the chance to see at a retrospective last year, Alonso intimately constructs a mood and a state of being through landscapes exterior and interior. Time and again, Alonso presents a man who sets out on a journey – from prison in Los muertos (2004), from the sea and the life of a merchant seaman in Liverpool – to reunite with his home.
Alonso’s solitary, world-weary male characters trek through the jungle, the pampas, or Tierra del fuego, like kings bereft of their kingdoms. The weight of the number of years they have been absent from home shows on their faces; as such, they are like landscapes themselves, growing, aging and wordless. I don’t think that Alonso is averse to dialogue per se; he just doesn’t use it as a crutch to construct his worlds, the relationships between the characters and spaces, and the existential journeys on which they embark. His characters keep hidden their emotions, thoughts and feelings, or rather, they keep them to themselves. On the one hand, these nameless, non-speaking characters lend themselves to allegorical readings of the films. On the other hand, Alonso uses non-professional actors to portray their own persons interacting with his fictional frameworks. In Los muertos, actual ex-convict Argentino Vargas portrays an ex-convict newly released from prison, while in La libertad (Freedom, 2001), actual migrant logger Misael Saavedra performs his day-to-day life and labour.
Alonso is at his most playful with Fantasma (2006), whose premise brings Vargas to the actual Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires for the premiere screening of Los muertos in the theatre. With the exception of a scene here and there, Fantasma takes place entirely inside the theatre, and follows the still, solitary and wordless Vargas around the theatre looking for the screening. The actor here, more than in any other film, acts like a glacial body with which to explore cinema spaces, cinephilia, and spectatorship. I like to think that the film’s title posits Vargas as a phantom body in search of his cinema body. In his search for the film’s screening, among other things, his phantom body transforms elevators into strange, time-travel contraptions and makes the cinema theatre a magic castle.
Maybe more off-putting than contemporary Argentine cinema’s narrative economy is the fact that someone from a much older generation, like Rafael Filipelli, can also produce a subtle, curious, visual, and lush aural landscape about a potentially crumbling middle-aged and middle-class couple in Buenos Aires through his 2007 film Música nocturna. Filipelli was born in 1938, but despite such an overwhelming temporal advantage over the current generation of Argentine filmmakers, he has only five feature films under his belt, and a total of thirteen productions under his name (a combination of documentary films, television movies, and short films). Aside from narrative economy, Filippelli also shares with contemporary Argentine filmmakers the fact that his work is hardly visible in any format outside of Argentina (the exceptions would be Trapero and Martel).
In terms of narrative economy, Música nocturna competes with the best of them.
In terms of narrative economy, Música nocturna competes with the best of them. Most of the film takes place in the apartment of Federico and Cecilia, the protagonist-couple. When neither one of them is in the apartment, waiting for the other whilst listening to music, one can find them traipsing through the night-time streets in several combinations: together, alone, or with a companion. Conversations between characters – most of all between Federico and Cecilia – are hard to come by. When they happen, the absolute mundaneness disturbs more than anything, like a far too stretched-out bow playing the most ordinary and uneventful of sounds threatening to break and change the tune. Not for nothing is the film called Música nocturna.
In another interpretation of the title, actors Horacio Acosta and Silvia Arazi, as the two intellectuals (one’s a writer, the other a playwright), map out a dance around each other ever so softly in the apartment. Camera movement is minimal, but Filipelli makes the most out of the apartment’s layout and mirror fixtures to capture a blasé feeling and sense of decaying interest in a marriage, the origins of which the film does not divulge a whit.
What Música nocturna does betray is its debt to Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. The apartment scenes in Música nocturna remind of the opening movement of L’eclisse (1962), during which Vittoria and Riccardo’s relationship quietly implodes in the latter’s apartment. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence of interiors (walls, doorways, windows, lamps, books) and bodies. Filipelli’s film is not as formally rigorous and abstract as this portion of L’eclisse, but it’s a nearly mesmerising film of movement, muteness, and Buenos Aires night scenes that should be given a chance.
The second part of Contemporary Argentine Cinema At A Glance will feature on subtitledonline.com next week.
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