Argentinean Movies Keep on Striking

in 16th Toulouse Latin American Film Festival

by Ronald Melzer

The economic and social crisis that has affected Argentineans for the last five years does not seem to have altered their motion pictures. Such a conclusion -as daring and controversial as it may seem – finds an undeniable justification in the titles that represented Argentinean people and their industry at the Festival of Toulouse. What grabs the attention in the first place is the abundance: thirty-one feature films, all of them produced in the last two years, plus around thirty shorts, a retrospective on the work of Martin Rejtman, one of the masters of the new visual trends, the virtual monopoly of the section “Cinema under Construction”, especially conceived to find producers and investors for movies which are not ready to be launched yet, and, of course, the ubiquity of Argentinean filmmakers everywhere. In Toulouse, for example, the Argentinean accent was heard as much as the French.

After seeing some of the movies, the festival-goers were able to detect the visual diversity. There was the case of the graduation tests of the school of Rosario – a provincial city – the “piqueteros” documentaries registering the proletarian resistance to market dictatorship, the uninhibited and successful search for large audiences (El hijo de la novia / Son of the Bride), a wide showcase of intimate comedies and dramas with few characters and a minimalistic attitude towards moviemaking and life (Nadar solo/Swimming Alone; Caja negra/Black Box; Ana y los otros/Ana and the Others), animated features (Mercano el Marciano/Mercano the Martian), a fresh retrospective view on the tango (Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos/I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me), the passage of Víctor Laplace, a famous “mainstream” actor, to the rank of independent directors (La mina/The Broad), another retrospective view, this time on the dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 through the documentary (Condor, les axes du mal), fiction (Cautiva/Prisoner), or a harassing combination of both trends (Los rubios/Blonds), and even the French opening of a film that collected several awards at the last Festival of Berlin, confirming what many people now say: “Argentinean movies are in fashion all over the world” (El Abrazo Partido). This fashion, anyway, comes from a less expected origin.

The origin lies in nothing else but good quality. And good quality is the natural consequence of an unusual mixture of talent and moviemaking tradition that Argentina has managed to protect and maintain even during the least favorable periods. For the last forty years, the country has lived under all kinds of goverments -populist, military, peronist, radical, liberal, neo-liberal, interventionist and indefinite, as well- but none of them had the courage of drastically lowering the state policy of support to the film industry, closing the INCAA (Institute of Filmaking) or fighting against institutional and corporative corruption, applying the old method of “killing the dog to defeat the rabies”. Reality finally showed that it was – and it is – much better to have corrupted film-making than not having film-making at all. That was the way everybody thought, from orthodox peronists to liberals to death, and one of the consequences is that in Argentina today there is a group of three or four thousand people proficient in the various trades that cinema demands, from lighting and sound postproduction to acting and directing. That crafty proficiency, similar to the one that emerges from French and American films, is as evident in Valentín, an international co-production that cost a couple of millions of dollars, as in La quimera de los héroes/The Chimere of the Heros, a semi-documentary whose cost was twenty times smaller.

The basis then exists. And even though the really important point – the sign that international audiences perceive as “different”-concerns what is aesthetically achieved from that basis on, it would not sound adventurous to state that the superiority of Argentinean cinema over the other film-making countries in Latin America comes from the possibility that the directors in Argentina have of daring, innovative attitude, going beyond the limits, starting from a natural and competent handling of the narrative and the corresponding technical support. On the opposite side of the majority of their continental colleagues, Argentinean filmakers never do things from scratch. This last conclusion does not mean that they have better ideas than the others: it is just that they can develop what they think through a set of codes shared by filmakers and audiences as well. They have what one would call “an established savoir faire”.

Some examples follow. El fondo del mar/The Bottom of the Sea, by Damian Szifron, is not the first Hitchcockian thriller that comes out of the mind of a Latin American filmaker, but one of the best because of the liberty that Szifron uses to reinvent the master’s takes and aesthetic obsessions without forcing the natural resemblance. The black humor of Buena vida delivery, by Leonardo DiCesare, has its evident correspondance withthe continental television programs; its handling, however, reminds the spectators much more of the Italian grotesque comedies from the times of Tognazzi, Gassman and Sordi than of its rough and cheap descendants. The cause? Well, even when it takes all the risks looking for a personal sense of the grotesque, the story never loses its connection with certain notions of credibility and verisimilitude, so if it exaggerates, it is always through some facts previously set as true.

Ana y los otros/Ana and the Others, by Celina Murga, with great enthusiasm and emotional attachment, explores the sentimental habits of a middle class often portrayed by the TV, although this exploration actually takes place through another premise: the abolition of every reference to the past, the absolute lineality, and the creation of a new narrative artifice that tends to eliminate other artifices. French master Eric Rohmer has used this last ingredient in his comedies about youth. For Celina Murga it becomes a point of departure, though. It is certainly hard to follow in the steps of such masters as Hitchcock, the Italian comedians of the sixties or Rohmer without looking pretentious or just showy. It is even harder not to feel ashamed by the inevitable comparisons. Only a mature and self-assured filmaking industry can accomplish such an objective.