One of the big discoveries of the Berlin Film Festival was La Ciénaga (The Swamp), the debut feature of the Argentine director Lucretia Martel. Along with such recent festival favorites as Picado Fino, Hidden River, and Crane World, it suggested a surge of energy in Argentine filmmaking that the Walter Reade’s three-week series further confirms. La Ciénaga is not among the 14 features on view (expect to see it in New York in the fall), but there are at least two films that make nearly as vivid an impression: the aforementioned Hidden River, by another female first-time director, Mercedes García Guevara; and Burnt Money, by the veteran Marcelo Piñeyro.
The smoldering but slightly ersatz Burnt Money crosses Bonnie and Clyde with Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Piñeyro turns a tabloid item about a pair of ’60s bank robbers nicknamed “The Twins” into a gay love story that oscillates between psychoanalytic case history and Wagnerian doomed romance. The Twins were, in fact, not brothers but lovers, and Piñeyro links their symbiotic attachment to their destruction, or if you will, transcendence through death. Finding the complementary strains of pathology in their characters, Eduardo Noriega and Leonardo Sbaraglia (a Tom Cruise look-alike) make an alluring, tragically perverse couple. The movie may lack substance, but there’s no denying its sexual kick, high-adrenaline violence, and shadowy chic.
A more submerged current of eroticism runs through Hidden River, a female-centered noir about a middle-class wife and mother (Paola Krum) who falls in love with her husband’s brother, a convicted killer. If the plot in outline suggests pulp sensationalism, the film is anything but. Guevara’s treatment of the material is notable for its introspection and near Bressonian restraint, not to mention its protagonist, whose investigation of her husband’s suspected infidelity leads her to confront her own compromises and self-betrayals. The film’s title refers both to the small town at the foot of the Andes that holds the family secret and to the repressed desire that drives the heroine’s quest. Beautifully shot by Esteban Sapir (the director of Picado Fino), Hidden River maps a journey of sexual and spiritual discovery onto the landscape of western Argentina, leading the eye from patches of sun-bleached fields and deep wilderness to the line of mountains behind them, so vast they can’t help but impinge on one’s consciousness, so pale and ephemeral in the distance they might well be a mirage.
If Hidden River is the series’ strongest example of the new Argentine low-budget art film, Fabián Bielinsky’s Nine Queens is more of an indie pop job. A box office triumph at home and a favorite in this year’s “New Directors” series, this elaborately plotted grifting saga follows a pair of con artists around Buenos Aires—from posh hotels to crumbling tenements—as they work a swindle that runs into snafus at every turn. Scant on character and ambience, the picture has two audience hooks. Like The Usual Suspects, it will make the susceptible viewer want to see it a second time to double-check if all the pieces fall into place once the surprise ending is known. The other hook is almost extraneous to the story line. Attempting to justify his own criminal activities to his baby-faced partner, the middle-aged con man points out the muggers, pickpockets, and armed robbers just blending in with the crowd on a busy street in broad daylight. The sequence, designed to stop the narrative in its tracks, suggests both the justified fear and the paranoia of a society where the crimes of the military dictatorship have not been entirely accounted for 15 years after its fall. This atmosphere of betrayal, in one way or another, permeates nearly all the films in the series. It gives a bit of heft to Nine Queens‘ otherwise lightweight farce and to the far clumsier Fuckland as well.
Shot in digital video and stamped with the Dogme 95 seal of approval, Fuckland is less interesting for its adherence to the Dogme rules than as a failed attempt at director José Luis Márques’s project of “Real Fiction Filmmaking.” According to his production notebook, Márques was interested in what would happen if an actor tried to draw the real people he encountered into a prearranged fiction. Unfortunately, the fictional premise of Fuckland is so absurd, it doomed the enterprise from the start. (If the double bind was intentional, it doesn’t make the film any less puerile.) Fábian (Fábian Stratas) goes to the Falkland Islands with the intention of reclaiming them for Argentina by impregnating the entire fertile female population. Fábian, however, is an unlikely lothario, and his attempts to chat up the real women he meets come to naught. His only relationship is with the actress who is also part of the film’s fiction. Thus most of what we see on the screen is a lengthy improvisation between two unprepossessing actors that culminates in sex faked for the camera. Structured as a diary, the film is largely shot from Fábian’s point of view, with a half-hidden camera elaborately affixed to the actor’s body. To call the mise-en-scène vertiginous is not a compliment.
Another Argentine commercial success, Felicidades is a comedy of despair set on a soggy, sweltering Christmas Eve; Lucho Bender’s first feature involves a half-dozen stories that move at a frantic pace and eventually connect in a more or less likely manner. It’s flashy filmmaking (Bender started his career making TV commercials) that packs an emotional punch when least expected. Darker still, Sergio Bellotti’s Tesoro Mío is based on a true crime story about a trusted bank clerk turned embezzler. In this savaging of the petite bourgeoisie, Bellotti spares no one, but Gabriel Goity’s performance lends a bit of panache to what would have otherwise been an insufferable character.