Argentinian Shadows At The 60th Viennale

in 60th Vienna International Film Festival - Viennale

by Johannes Hagman

Considered by many as the most legendary depiction of Vienna on film is the movie The Third Man (1949), one of the quintessential film noirs ever made. A rubble film of sorts, it takes place among the ruins of a partly destroyed city, in a seedy atmosphere filled with corruption and deceit. While the white facades of Vienna’s imperial buildings are now restored to impeccable glory, it seems fitting that one of this year’s retrospectives harks back to the classical noir era of The Third Man, although in a different geographical context. This ambitious retrospectives at the Viennale constitute a program as important as the selection of new films. Notwithstanding films by directors such as Yoshida Kijū, Elaine May, Ebrahim Golestan and Med Hondo, the 60th edition of the festival offered a rare glimpse into the morally tormented landscape of Argentinian noir.

In one of his impassioned introductions, Roger Koza recounted how he and co-curator Fernando Martín Peña had a long list of thirty films that they wanted to showcase in the festival. A number that was finally condensed to seven titles, encompassing different facets of noir influence. That these films are available to watch at all – and in 35-mm prints no less – is a small miracle considering the lack of a state financed film archive in Argentina, and the dire conditions under which many of these films have been preserved.

Heavily influenced by French films of the era, the Argentinian studio system of the 40s and 50s adopted film noir as one of its popular genres of the day. The films in the Viennale selection display several classical noir tropes and motifs such as cabarets and night club singers, dark back alleys and dingy one-room apartments, also visible are themes of money and moral corruption, and stories which often end with a devastatingly ironic twist of fate. But there are also elements that seem distinctively Argentinian, things that are more pronounced than in their American or French noir counterparts. The setting is an obvious difference. Although a couple of the titles – among them The Black Vampire (El vampiro negro, 1953) and a remake of M (1931) – has a vaguely European setting. Films such as The Bitter Stems (Los tallos amargos, 1956) and Hardly a Criminal (Apenas un delincuente, 1949) display specifically Argentinian locations. Early in the latter film by Hugo Fregonese – its narration and semi-documentary style reminiscent of Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) we get an introduction to the hustle and bustle of everyday life on the streets of Buenos Aires, the images of intense traffic and massive crowds accompanied by a voice-over lamenting the stressful pace of modern city life.

There are also cultural specificities, such as the tango – although a film score by Astor Piazzolla will only rarely be in the tradition of that musical genre. But tango is certainly danced, as when a newcomer from Europe gets a beginner’s lesson at a nightclub in The Bitter Stems, and whistled, a habit that reveals the returning son of Don’t Ever Open That Door (No abras nunca esa puerta, 1952) to be a criminal wanted by the police.

Thematically, the most defining characteristic of this Argentinian brand of noir seems to be the importance of family relations, often connected with a sense of melodrama. While Hollywood has their share of domestic noirs such as The Reckless Moment (1949) or Mildred Pierce (1945), the central emotional relationships in these Argentinian noirs are more often those of husband and wife, or of two lovers. Although the scope of the films at the Viennale range from the Gothic children’s horror in If I Should Die Before I Wake (Si muero antes de despertar, 1952), to the hubris-infused tale of a small-time crook in Hardly a Criminal, family relations are often at the heart of the moral conflicts of these films.

In these films, an unhealthy number of grown men still live with their mothers. When the son has disappeared, as in Don’t Ever Open That Door, the blind mother waits patiently for his return, her unseeing eyes shimmering with hope at the very mention of his name. The mothers want their sons to be hard working and virtuous, but if they are not, they will usually forgive them, since blood is indeed thicker than water in these films. Fathers are generally absent or, as in the case of If I Should Die Before I Wake, too preoccupied with their own worries to notice their children’s desperate cries for help. Among the consequences of crime is the dissolution of the family; the criminal often implicates other family members in his unlawful actions. In fact, the whole future of the Argentinian family seems to be threatened, as no less than two of these titles – If I Should Die Before I Wake and The Black Vampire – deals with child murderers. One wonders if these dark studies of conflicted families – all twisted, dysfunctional, or threatened in some way – are perhaps related to a certain catholic sensibility. The actions of the characters seem to be defined in terms of virtue or sin, but there is not much salvation to be found on either side of the law. The prosecutor trying to find the child murderer in The Black Vampire is brutal, violent, and dishonest, showing himself to be a mirror image the very man he is hunting. Instead, the beggars, cripples and outcasts of society are the ones who in the end bring the sick perpetrator to justice.

These films, as indeed all good noirs, feature a range of extraordinary visual ideas: the chalk marks functioning as a trace of the abducted child in If I Should Die Before I Wake, the elegant panning shots that lead into the flashbacks of The Bitter Stems, or the burning money bills at the end of Hardly a Criminal a perfect closing image to a film about the obsession of money. While the series at the Viennale merely offered a tantalizing glimpse into the richness of an all too unknown studio system, it will likely send more than one festival visitor on a more in-depth quest to further explore classical Argentinian cinema and Argentinian noirs.


Johannes Hagman
Edited by Ron Fogel