The Real Argentina vs. The Imaginary One

in 60th Venice Film Festival

by Diego Lerer

The strangest, most irritating thing about Imagining Argentina, the incomprehensible film made by Christopher Hampton about a country that only can exist inside a very limited imagination, is that it comes exactly at a time when Argentine films are going in a completely opposite direction. Where the Hampton film is broad, full of cheap symbolism, heavy-handed dialogue, surrealistic imagery and completely over the top performances, the Argentine films of today are working heavily towards a cinema that’s more from the inside: realistic, spare, ambiguous, even silent at times.

Actually, it took the young filmmakers a long way to get to this point, and watching Hampton’s film was a confirmation of the enormity of that movement. Still today, in some sections of the Argentine film industry, the sparseness, the quietness and sometimes even the distant approach to the characters and subjects of these new films, are difficult to understand and, also, to support properly.

Watching Hampton’s film – from an Argentine point of view – is like going back in time 20 years. Not because the film excels at capturing that era (it does not), but because it sadly captures some of the worst traits of old-style Argentine filmmaking: the bombastic dialogue, the easy tricks of “realismo mágico”, even the poorly conceived mise-en-scène.

So, after the terrible screening of that film in Venice, the bad feeling was double: not only the memory of the “desaparecidos” is not well served by the film but also because it brings into a major festival a kind of cinema we thought was long forgotten. So, for every Argentinean in the festival it became almost like a mission to tell everybody around that this film was not from Argentina, and point them to the proper direction: the films of Daniel Rosenfeld and Celina Murga.

After going back “in time” with Imagining Argentina, watching these two films – Rosenfeld’s The Chimera of Heroes (La Quimera de los Heroes), and Murga’s Anna and the Others (Ana y los otros) – was then especially satisfying, and an evident proof that Argentine cinema is still going through a very creative phase.

Watching The Chimera and Anna through the prism of Hampton’s film made me realize how badly these two stories could have been told from that perspective. Imagine that, instead of the subtle, very powerful and non-judging way Rosenfeld searches for the soul of a conflicted man, we could have seen the character and the movie undergoing Hampton’s treatment and becoming a repetition of clichés about the military, a sentimental sports film or even a classic tale of a man who loses his soul and then regains it.

Actually, the best thing about The Chimera is trying to understand Eduardo Rossi’s actions without a classic ‘arc’. This is a guy who used to consider himself a Nazi, a Jewish-hater, and now he’s teaching rugby to poor uneducated aborigines in a very desolate northeastern Argentine province. But, still, there’s a lot of “the past” that’s very much alive in the present.

Was he “cured” because now he does not consider himself a Nazi? Is he a different man? Can people really change the basic and fundamental things about them? The film doesn’t have answers for that: Rossi is still militaristic (in his ways, his passions for tanks and the war) and also he’s some kind of “humanitarian”. Is there a contradiction? Is he going through a self-punishment expecting some kind of redemption?

The Hampton’s touch, the “imaginary” touch, would have given us all the answers and not even half of the questions. Sticking to a realism that’s beyond the fact that this is, basically, a documentary (a realism of the soul, we can call it, in the ‘bazinian’ sense), Rosenfeld transcends reality not by cheating it but by giving the film the time and space to delve into it, to explore it as something mysterious and elusive.

Strangely – because Celina Murga comes from a somewhat different school of filmmaking – Anna and the Others has the same qualities as The Chimera of Heroes. Through the story of Anna and her trip back home to search for an old flame whom she has not seen in ten years, Murga works with the same basic idea: let the movie find the character or, we can say, let the character find the movie to be in. I cannot even dare to think what a filmmaker like Hampton would have done with a premise like this…

In Murga’s hands, there’s no rush, no push, no need to make Anna do the obvious things we know she might do. Why don’t see what she does before, or after, or meanwhile? Why don’t go with her for the ride, see what she sees, hear what she hears? Both are “meanwhile” films, in a style that we can compare to Kiarostami’s or even Rohmer’s. These are films about characters who endure some kind of travel, but the destination seems less the point that the little things they pick and leave in the process of moving ahead.

Anna and the Others is a film about stillness in movement, or movement in stillness. The silences are respected, the dialogues are not telling the viewer “important” things about the world, the country, the crisis or even about Anna’s problems. Again, as in The Chimera, the “negative space” is moved to the foreground, leaving the rest for the Hamptons of the world.

Who could have thought ten, fifteen years ago, when I started writing film criticism in Argentina, that our national films would be like this? Than the talkative, boring, pedantic and pedestrian films of that time (with some exceptions, of course, like the older films of Favio, Aristarain and a few others) would be long gone and the Argentine films would aspire to some kind of “eastern” grace?

Hampton’s film was a reminder of all that. And seeing it in the main competition of a big festival like Venice (The Chimera and Anna were in parallel sections) made me think that our cinematic past is not as behind as we like to believe it is. Actually, it is right around the corner, waiting for an opportunity to come back.