Airplanes and Bowling Pins: New Films From Argentina

in 6th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Scott Foundas

In concept, it sounds like a potential self-indulgent vanity project of Jaglomesque proportions: A docudrama about the fatal 1999 crash of a Boeing 737 plane operated by discount Argentinean airline LAPA — written by, directed by and starring one Enrique Piñeyro, himself a former LAPA pilot and the whistle-blower who brought a hefty house of legal cards tumbling down on the now-defunct carrier. Yet, Whisky Romeo Zulu, which premiered in the official competition of the 6th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award) emerges as a stirring, if obvious piece of agitprop that achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. That is to say it works the audience up into an angry lather, and you emerge from the theater never wanting to set foot on another airplane again — at least, not if you feel you may have paid less than fair market value for the ticket. It’s a movie that gets people talking, and not long after it’s first press screening in Buenos Aires, even the film’s dissenters could be found swapping stories about their own discomforting air-travel experiences.

Set both in the present and the not-too-distant past, this Silkwood of the skies intercuts the advancing inquiry into LAPA’s highly questionable safety and maintenance practices with scenes depicting Piñeyro’s own unsuccessful crusade to draw attention to the crisis before disaster strikes. Of course, we’ve seen this tale before and we know where it’s going. Piñeyro’s cries of “wolf” invariably fall on deaf ears and end up getting him laid off from his job; meanwhile, the attorney leading the post-crash investigation finds himself subject to menacing threats from unseen assailants including, at one point, a note that actually says “You might end up floating in the river”. At such moments, Whisky Romeo Zulu teeters precariously on the brink of self-parody. At others — most notably, a series of gooey, nostalgic flashbacks to Piñeyro’s childhood that play like outtakes from Cinema Paradiso — it does more than just teeter. But the picture’s pulpy, polemical thrust, combined with Piñeyro’s doggedly earnest performance, keeps the whole enterprise aloft, and prevents it from devolving into the fatuous navel-gazing its novice maker’s multihyphenate status might suggest.

Whisky Romeo Zulu arrived in Buenos Aires already rumored to be one of the most expensive films ever produced in Argentina, and it looks it. The widescreen, steadicam-intensive images have the well-lit sheen of mainstream Hollywood cinema. And in some ways, Piñeyro does Hollywood one better: The commercial airliners that fill his movie’s frames are really there — not added in digitally after the fact — and there are many scenes shot from inside the cabins of those real planes, really in flight, with Piñeyro himself at the helm. In fact, part of what’s compelling about Whisky Romeo Zulu is the unique tension that exists between Piñeyro’s interest in making a widely accessible thriller decked out with the requisite big toys and his desire to confront his own private, lingering demons in a highly personal way. It suggests what a Michael Bay production might look like if Bay finally wised up and made a movie that meant something to him.

“In a normal company, we wouldn’t be discussing this,» notes Piñeyro to another concerned colleague mid-way though Whisky Romeo Zulu. At which point, the colleague replies. In a normal country, we wouldn’t be discussing this”. Harsh words for harsh times, in a nation still feeling the aftershocks of its 2002 economic crisis. So, it’s hardly surprising that conversations similar to the one quoted above echoed throughout a whole raft of new Argentinean films premiered at Buenos Aires this year. In particular, there was Alejo Hermán Taube’s Una de dos (One or the Other), which was awarded the top jury prize in the festival’s “Lo nuevo de lo nuevo” competition, and which uses the riots and demonstrations of 2002 as the backdrop for a plaintive study of everyday life in a small provincial town. Here, life somehow manages to go on very much as before, goods and services being transacted on good faith alone, while the television screens in sidewalk cafes and neighborhood bars broadcast images of outraged citizens spilling into Buenos Aires’ streets. Bridging the gap between these two worlds is Martin (sad, blue-eyed Jorge Sesán), a tattooed taxicab driver who strives to get ahead by moonlighting as a drug-runner for a powerful Buenos Aires cartel. Back and forth he goes, from small-town comfort to big-city menace, performing his perilous highwire act. In-between which, he finds time for a romance with local girl Pilar (sultry Jimena Anganuzzi) that is touching, erotic and — perhaps inevitably — doomed. So, in his way, Taube emerges with a highly-charged political film that is all the more affecting for how subtly its politics are interwoven with a fine human drama enacted by a pair of powerfully emotive, physically charged leading actors.

On a completely different note, Ana Poliak’s Parapalos (Pin Boy), is a charming fable that deftly mixes fancy and melancholy as it tells of a young man who comes to work as a pin-setter in a bowling alley that still maintains a number of manually-operated lanes. The youth, Ringo (open-faced Adrián Suárez), is something of a novice, not just at pin-setting, but at life itself. He’s just moved to the city from the countryside, shares a small apartment with his female cousin and is generally suffused with the idea that life is full of possibilities. His colleagues, on the other hand, are a grizzled, eccentric lot — all twice Ringo’s age or more and resigned to the idea that pin-setting is all they’ll ever do. And for Nippur, a Shakespeare-quoting ex-hippie type who’s adorned the back side of the bowling lanes with photos of Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin, that’s not such a bad thing. He’s constructed an entire personal ethos around the ins and outs of pin-setting — “Everything in my life is borrowed, except for freedom”, he notes — and as he initiates Ringo into the routine, you have the sense that he’s being indoctrinated into some rarefied, privileged fellowship.

Over the course of Parapalos’ brief, 90-minute running time, the bowling alley (where almost every scene in the film is set) comes to seem an unlikely nirvana, an oasis of calm in a chaotic world — albeit one in escalating danger of extinction. Already, half of the alley has been converted to automated lanes that require no human touch and, Poliak suggests in a series of precisely balanced, head-on compositions, they may soon stretch from wall to wall. The winner of the top jury prize in the festival’s official competition, Parapalos is something of a gentle haiku on the subject of impermanence, put across by Poliak in an ostensibly minimalist style that conceals a great formal beauty. The potentially constricting/monotonous space of the film’s primary location is, in Poliak’s hands, a constantly evolving geography, so that it is only in the film’s final moments that we feel we really know what the place looks like. And the bowling pins themselves, lovingly photographed in their multitude of balletic motions, come to entrance us with their hypnotic, anthropomorphic grace.

Last but hardly least, Buenos Aires offered the world premiere of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos, which will screen later this month in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. A masterful follow-up to Alonso’s striking 2001 debut feature, La Libertad, Los Muertos offers a similarly beguiling mix of fact and fiction as it follows a recently paroled felon (nonprofessional Argentino Vargas) on the long river journey back to his adult daughter. The movie begins with a sumptuously dreamy opening shot of sunlight flickering through dense jungle brush, until the dream turns into a nightmare, Alonso’s camera coming to rest on the bodies of two dead children as a shadowy figure, perhaps the killer, slithers through the frame. As the film progresses, we gather fragments of the story — enough to know that the man returning home now was the killer of his two younger brothers way back then, but no more than that.

For as in La Libertad, the strength of Los Muertos lies in its lyrical silences and in the strange and terrible beauty Alonso evokes from the synthesis of man and labor and environment. More often than not, what we see on the screen here appears to be nothing more than human behavior, unobtrusively observed, as Vargas carefully removes honeycomb from a beehive or, in the film’s striking set-piece, kills and guts a goat that he will bring to his daughter as a gift. Yet, Los Muertos is no casual ethnographic record, but rather something darker and more unsettling — a movie that, while seeming to do so very little at all, offers us passage into the haunted recesses of a human soul.