Stories to Meditate On

in 39th Toronto International Film Festival

by Jorge Gutman

Argentine cinema, probably the most important in Latin America, had an excellent representation at the TIFF. Five of the movies screened set themselves apart from an already distinguished group. In The Princess of France (La Princesa de Francia) Matías Piñeiro intelligently continues to take up Shakespearean themes by meshing reality and fiction across time and showing how life imitates art when a theatre company prepares a radio version of The Bard’s comedy Love’s Labour Lost. The Martín Rejtman film Two Shots Fired (Dos Disparos) is an intelligent absurdist comedy focusing on a teenage boy who impulsively tries to commit suicide without succeeding. Anahi Berneri’s Aire Libre is a very well told story about the slow disintegration of a happy marriage, while Juan Martín Hsu’s opera prima La Salada is an accomplished portrait of the immigrant experience including different multiethnic populations living in Buenos Aires. Finally, Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) which was enthusiastically received by critics and public alike in Toronto is the film that we will now turn our attention to.

From the very first frames it may be affirmed that Wild Tales is a vibrant tragicomedy of unusual quality. Every one of its independent six stories overflows with remarkable originality and ingenuity through different situations to which the characters are exposed. Szifron, in his capacity as both writer and director, injects them with a striking creativity by way of a frenetic and lively pace as well as frank humor. Essentially, he manages to express his anger with violence, an apparently inexpugnable evil that lurks within society and this is the common thread between the episodes.

With impeccable narrative ability Szifron shines light and casts a cold eye on human weakness brought about when a sort of impotence prevents an individual from overcoming difficulties randomly imposed by the social environment. This is the fulcrum and crossing point where human misery, contradictions, indifference, and cynicism come together. While these character traits refer mainly to Argentineans, their universal dimension allows any moviegoer to empathize with their fate.

The first segment sets the tone for what comes later. Within the cozy confines of a comfortable and spacious business-class section of a commercial flight, a model (Maria Marull) establishes an unlikely conversation with a music critic (Darío Grandinetti). Then, suddenly, the private nature of the conversation is thrown asunder when mentioning the name of “Pasternak,” a person they both know. The rest of the passengers strangely find themselves linked to the absent character, producing unlikely situations within a context of irresistible hilarity.

The second chapter is defined by an implacable black humor edging around a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) of a rundown restaurant who discovers that her single client (César Bordón) is an unscrupulous shylock who has caused the death of his own father. Taking her cues from the establishment’s Machiavellian cook (Rita Cortese) she seeks revenge in an unusual manner.

A marked tension pervades the next tale. Set on a solitary road in the middle of nowhere, a driver (Leonardo Sbaraglia) enters into conflict with another (Walter Donado) after the latter blocks his right of way, culminating in a frenzied and intense whirlwind of unspeakable violence.

A fresh and overwhelming humor permeates the fourth story despite its dramatic plot. It takes on the theme of an honest engineer (Ricardo Darín) forced into vigilante justice when he is irremediably stunted by the various humiliations and grievances imparted by a cruel and insensible bureaucracy. The ensuing via crucis that is the protagonist’s pent-up anger and frustration gives way to an act of callous vengeance.

The fifth entry — the most and only humorless but also the most disturbing — considers the serious moral implications of what happens when a father (Oscar Martinez) tries to cover up an automobile accident brought about by his adolescent son (Alan Daicz) and follows his lawyer’s (Osmar Núñez) advice to bribe his gardener (Germán de Silva) in order to make him take the fall. Aside from offering harsh and acidic criticism on the power of money, it unveils how corruption can be all-pervasive in a modern society, even within its most revered judicial institutions.

The final part takes place at a Jewish wedding and is an engrossing and comedic grotesque. The plot thickens when the bride (Érica Rivas) discovers during the wedding party that her husband-to-be (Diego Gentile) has been unfaithful to her with a beautiful young woman who just happens to be among the guests. Confronted with his terrible disloyalty and dishonesty, the bride cannot bring herself to repress a feeling of indignation that engulfs and metastasizes within her very being.

With a superb level of interpretation, immaculate staging, a worthy soundtrack, a remarkable montage of impeccable visual beauty, the director provides a disturbing, scathing, wicked and wild work that appeals to all kinds of audiences by making use of a clear, easily accessible language while maintaining a high level of intelligence.

Beyond its legitimate achievements, it is possible that Wild Tales may reopen the debate about the false dichotomy between the so-called “cinema d’auteur” and “commercial cinema”. Undoubtedly this superb and unpredictable film will garner great popular international acclaim and this fact by no means can diminish its authentic and legitimate artistic merits.

Edited by Yael Shuv