If South American cinema is indeed enjoying a renaissance, it may owe everything, ironically, to the continent’s economic convulsions, which supply an evocative milieu, political ire, and a neorealist sense of narrative modesty. The new Argentinean essay on displacement and social unease El Bonaerense tracks the pilgrim’s progress of Zapa (Jorge Román), a nondescript, thirtyish locksmith from the provinces who, for reasons he never makes clear even to himself, cracks a safe for his boss and gets promptly arrested. Destined for a Buenos Aires prison, Zapa gets detoured by his ex-cop uncle, and gets sent instead to a small-town police force as a recruit. Hard-bitten and dour, writer-director Pablo Trapero’s movie can hardly resist a steady saline drip of absurd comedy—as when a training officer orders the newbies, “Kiss my feet!” and the pregnant moment when a worried sergeant attempts to dissuade two flak-jacketed officers from leaving the safety of the tiny, three-room station house. But El Bonaerense (a smushed pun-name for Buenos Aires police as well as the region’s civilian inhabitants) doggedly restrains itself from using its premise satirically or dramatically, idling instead in Zapa’s sweaty socks as he’s dismally prepped for a career in law enforcement.
Trapero nails down a crepuscular, inky-shadow look—the film, shot by Guillermo Nieto, beats out Japón as a study in the delicate art of underexposure. (Some scenes, like those set in jail, have the moody gorgeousness of mid-career Jarman.) But despite a detective portentously asking Zapa early on, “Do you know what you’re getting into?,” the life of a Bonaerense seems notable for its downtime. The story is a series of unexploited propositions: Zapa gets trained, begins a torrid romance with a shapely instructor (Mimi Arduh), and becomes indoctrinated into the precinct’s system of graft-taking without much of the action landing punches or building momentum. (He’s a maddeningly opaque character, hitting the same level of inexpressiveness whether he’s humping his girlfriend or watching his bipolar boss gun down escaping punks right on the station’s doorstep.) When Zapa and his lady do romantic shopping, they try on bulletproof vests, but Trapero cuts the scene short and kills the gag. The movie never bangs out a full measure, a strategy that might serve to reflect Zapa’s disconnectedness if that is in fact what he’s feeling.
Trapero starts off with an amazingly confident tableau sequence, viewed with deadpan stillness from two angles, and generally El Bonaerense is visually deft and dense with texture. It’s easy to appreciate, for instance, the frank sex scenes in which Arduh’s aging voluptuary non-apologetically exercises a passive-aggressive, stop/don’t-stop kink. Still, the vapor traces of farce and policier that waft from this terribly earnest film never coalesce—perhaps our own cultural remove allows what plays straight at home to be experienced as slightly daffy. In his promo statements, Trapero doesn’t much suggest a sardonic viewpoint. He also maintains that this tight-lipped movie’s “the story of a man desperate for a way out.” Desperate? Unless he’s kidding, I’ve seen a different film.
“Law Disorder: A Young Argentine Director’s ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ Routine” by David Ng
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