The Vitality of Argentinian Cinema

in 31st Mar del Plata International Film Festival

by Roger Koza

The fact I am an Argentinian national has nothing to do with my defense of that country’s cinema. I think — although I can’t prove it— that even if I were born in Chile, Taiwan or Iran, I would say the same thing about films made in the southernmost country of the Southern Cone. Their variety, as well as their quality, is undeniable. Moreover, Argentina is one of the few countries whose cinema is not (completely) aligned to the institutional-representation pact which increasingly shapes movies in the region, via festivals who write the cinematic agenda by promoting a particular style of filmmaking.

A hypothesis: there is a (pre)dominant character present in most Latin American films. This character might be termed the Savage, and he shows two antagonistic faces. On the one hand, there is the Urban Savage, who survives in chaotically organized Latin American cities, having been expelled to the outskirts of the metropolis. This is a disenfranchised person who lives an existence alienated from the status quo; more often than not he is young, believes in nothing, and has ruptured the social contract through acts of cruelty. There are dozens of examples of this type, but the vilest of them all was internationally celebrated by the abject film named City of God. The opposite number of that unscrupulous – often capable of impious killing – identity is the resurrected figure of the Noble Savage. In too many Latin American films, we see a peasant of few or no words who roams the hills or the jungles, conveying an alleged primeval wisdom through his gestures. Argentinian cinema is not completely immune to these clichés, but only a handful of the 200 hundred Argentinian films made each year fall into the above model.

A way to confirm my hypothesis would be to survey the 18 Argentinian films which appeared in the three official competitions — International, Latin American and Argentinian — at this year’s edition of the Mar del Plata International Film Festival. The FIPRESCI jury followed all of the Argentinian films in competition, which offered a cross-section of the country’s cinema: some were excellent, some very good, others good, and a couple could have been left out. Variety is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. However, it can be seen that Argentinian film production is not stagnant and it is willing try everything.

There were both auteur and genre films among the selection. There was a 19 th century Western (Javier Zeballos and Francisco D’Eufemia’s Fuga de la Patagonia) and a contemporary one by José Campusano, El Sacrificio de Nehuen Puyelli; there were B-movies such as the Rotstein brothers’ Terror 5 and Demián Rugna’s No Sabés con Quién estás Hablando. There were also more experimental films such as Albertina Carri’s Cuatreros, Eduardo Williams’ El Auge del Humano, Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú (winner of the FIPRESCI PRIZE at Venice this year) and Maximiliano Schonfeld’s La Siesta del Tigre. There were auteur-driven films such as Federico Godfrid’s Pinamar, Tomás De Leone’s El aprendiz (winner of the Argentinian Official Competition), Matías Piñeiro’s Hermia & Helena, Lukas Valenta Rinner’s Los Decentes, Nele Wohlatz’s El Futuro Perfecto and Mariano González’s Los Globos, to name just a few – and some of these auteur films were truly remarkable.

During the jury’s deliberation, four films were initially considered for the prize — Cuatreros, Pinamar, Los Globos and La Siesta del Tigre — although discussion finally centered on the latter two. In addition, if some of the films – those directed by Williams, Wohlatz, and Piñeiro – had not participated at other festivals or achieved some kind of prior recognition, they would also have been in contention: witness the formal sophistication shown in Hermia & Helena, the complexity disguised as simplicity of El Futuro Perfecto, and El Auge del Humano’s narrative experimentation.

However, the jury chose a different path and decided to award a noteworthy film which was making its premiere at Mar del Plata. Thus, Los Globos was the perfect candidate: a debut feature film premiering at the festival, it was unanimously accepted as the winner even though the three jury members also liked La Siesta del Tigre, a pleasant, sensual work which is one of the year’s greatest films on friendship.

Before receiving the award, Mariano González was practically an unknown. He had previously played a minor role in Santiago Otheguy’s La León and also taken part in several short films, but he was known largely as a theater actor. Who knew that he was a filmmaker? No-one did. Without any prior background as a director, he made a film which is a true achievement — and a welcome surprise — of narrative accuracy, conceptual relevance, and assurance on both sides of the camera. González wrote, directed and played the lead role in Los Globos.

Narrative economy begins right from the start. The significance of the film’s title is evident from the opening shots, which demonstrate the process of making balloons. The nature of this labor and the way that Cesar applies himself to it show an excessive concentration which is dialectically redefined when we see a group of people training fiercely, as if for war, at the small balloon factory where Cesar lives. Their military-like concentration is a form of therapy. Cesar lives in a present where neither the future nor the past are evident, but his present does involve the reconstruction of a life.

Gradually, Cesar’s past begins to takes shape for us. The most significant aspect of this is his son, who has up to this point been living with his maternal grandfather; however, less evident is the reason why Cesar has been absent as a father. It is later revealed, casually, that Cesar was “somewhere” for two years and that, later on, the child’s mother passed away. It is clear from the beginning that Cesar either doesn’t want to be a father or deems himself incapable of being one. He decides to give the kid up for adoption, and this decision forms the dramatic focus of Los Globos. Will Cesar give the child away to a wealthy couple so that they can take care of him? Or will he try to become a father after all?

Los Globos’ greatest virtues are its manner of exposition and its use of ellipsis. Furniture, costumes, locations – all of these elements convey distinct sociological coordinates. Cesar is part of a working middle class struggling to survive, and this is the context of his drama. We will never know the reasons for Cesar’s imprisonment, but each of his gestures show what being in lockup does to a man. His curt way of telling his tale and utter lack of sentimentality are consistent with the spiritual state of a man who, at first, can only respond in terms of trying to recover his place in the world. And it is only in the — extraordinary and emotional — closing of the film that González lavishly offers some sort of kindness, not without humor, which seems completely natural in relation to his characters’ transformations. All of this takes place in just a little over an hour. Remarkable.

A magnificent shot summarizes González’s precision behind the camera: the child’s grandfather introduces himself to his former son-in- law and punches him so hard that he dislocates his jaw.

The shot which displays this action and its consequences lasts only a few seconds. The ellipsis from the punch to the character driving his brand-new motorcycle summarizes González’s extraordinary narrative poetics. And this is just one example among many.

If I had to nominate a film in a similar vein, it would be the Dardenne brothers’ Le Fils – not just because of the fact that it features scenes between a father and son in a car, but because of the way that the distance between these two characters is worked. At the end of Los Globos, there is a scene in a forest which somehow reminds us of the Dardennes’ great film. Emotion is manifested from the physical interaction between bodies. What we see is love, the love of a father for his son and not just compassion; the child waiting for his father without understanding the circumstances; the efforts of an adult to overcome the marks which have determined his life so far. The chrysalis of a hard male and the birth of a new man – this is what materializes on screen from beginning to end.

Edited by Lesley Chow