Sterile Beauty By Jorge Morales

in 9th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Jorge Morales

Undisputibly, the solid status that the BAFICI has as a festival was forged by the support and incentive that the event gave to directors like Pablo Trapero, Adrián Caetano, Martín Rejtman, Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, et al., who broke with the classical bourgeois narrative matrices that suffocated old Argentine cinema, innovating upon character, genres, readings, techniques and structural edifice. This, which as we all know was called the New Argentine Cinema (although some never wanted to acknowledge their affiliation with the group, as often happens in a movement with a shared spirit but diverse sensibilities and styles), had its time of glory, but its death has been heralded for a while now. The reason has as much to do with its authors’ creative consolidation (or apparent early retirements, as in Alonso’s case) as with a practical matter: To one degree or another, the radical nature of any movement comes from its independence, and practically none of those directors could today be considered as marginalized from the system.

That’s why the latest edition of the BAFICI could be seen as the arrival of a sort of refreshment of troops, though not necessarily a generational torch-passing, given that the newcomers are about the same age as the “old” veterans. Neither is this new new wave about completely marginal authors. The production level of these movies is modest, but has nothing to do with the diminished budget of many of the New Argentine Cinema (NAC) filmmakers’ debuts. In fact, the only point these new films have in common with the NAC is their search for a certain experimental tone — and a fruitless search at that. An absolute lack of identity can be found in each of these works, along with a distinct feeling of déjà vu (though with different original sources in each case) and a very limited narrative capacity. Nevertheless, three of these films are ultra-stylized, displaying an aesthetic preciosity that is far superior to their simple narrative proposals.

The Tide (La Marea), by Diego Martínez Vignatti, has grainy cinematography, sometimes exaggeratedly blown up (Vignatti was Carlos Reygadas’ director of photography on Japón and Battle in Heaven), reflecting with plastic neatness the oneiric nature of the story. The main problem is that the story is plagued with clichés: a woman, traumatized by the death of her husband and son in a car accident, isolates herself in a beach house to live her depression in loneliness. Using a minimalist mise-en-scène in which allusions to motherhood co-exist with the ghostly apparitions of the woman’s loved ones, Vignatti shows us that the woman’s emotional breakdown has turned the her into a zombie — a disposition that is disrupted only by her operatic sobbing. The cinematographic references are so obvious that Vignatti himself reveals them by calling his protagonist Azul (spanish for Blue) in a clear allusion to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, which had more or less the same plot .

La León, by Santiago Otheguy, was recorded and screened on high-definition video, and together with Martín Rejtman’s masterpiece, Copacabana (also screened at BAFICI), revealed the benefits of this format. In black-and-white, with shots of great depth-of-field and a wide range of grey tones, the film appears nearly three-dimensional. But Otheguy’s debut has fewer dimensions in its narrative. The movie’s main plot follows a young gay man — a reed harvester in the Tigre Delta (an archipelago near Buenos Aires) — who is harassed by an intolerant boat captain. Racial, sexual and territorial conflicts are all combined. With his foreign gaze, like a tourist, Otheguy plunders other NAC films to put together a flat and totally predictable proposal: The atmospheric similarities between La León and Los muertos is no coincidence at all, nor is the presence of some of the NAC’s most emblematic actors, including Jorge Román (El bonaerense) and Daniel Valenzuela (Mundo Grúa) alongside several amateur performers.

The Black Desert (El Desierto Negro), by Gaspar Scheuer, is also magnificently shot in black-and-white (d.p. Jorge Crespo won the BAFICI’s official prize in that area), and of the films discussed here, it is probably the one with the most interesting mise-en-scène , but also the weakest in terms of its structure. Divided into two parts, the film begins with a succession of confusing episodes that seem to identify the main character, Miguel Irusta, as a wanted and dangerous gaucho-type delinquent in the style of Eastwood’s “man with no name.” The story is so poor and arid that finally the only thing that matters is that we establish that Irusta is murdered. The second, clearer part is the archetypal apparition of the reborn or undead, who in this case doesn’t seem to have any other purpose (revenge, for instance) than to wander about aimlessly, although he apparently has a connection with the family that eventually takes him in. The movie tries to be an abstract and serious western (with an arrhythmic soundtrack, far from the epic-ironic music of a Morricone), but goes from confusion to genre convention and ends up being a paralysed hybrid seemingly from another time. Old cinema in the worst sense of the term.

It is naturally risky to suppose that these three films are representative of what is coming, but in any case they are symptomatic of the state of part of Argentine cinema: outstanding craft and puerile narratives. In Esteban Sapir’s The Antenna (La Antena), which was presented at the festival’s closing ceremony, through splendid photographic work and art direction, the aesthetics of a silent film (or the stereotype that we have of a silent film) are meticulously reproduced. But the movie itself is a film with all the sins of “transcendence”: it is edifying, with a message and a moral, with a fairly naïve and coarse questioning of the influence of the media and, oddly for a movie stuffed with visual resources, so lacking in imagination that a Star of David and a swastika are employed to represent good and evil. What is discouragingly symbolic here is the fact that Sapir was also the director of Picado Fino (1993), a film considered as one of the pioneers of the New Argentine Cinema.