Where to Aim, When to Shoot

Film as a weapon in a time of war: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival coverage.

Mohammad Atebbai is a freelance film critic based in Tehran and the international distributor of Iranian Spread and Women's Prison.


All Through Their Wild Days

Argentine indies capture restless characters on the upswing

By Quintín

Argentina produces roughly 40 to 50 films each year. These may be divided into two groups: mainstream and independent. The mainstream films may be further divided into three categories: cheap vehicles for local TV stars; critical and commercial losers made by pretentious, middle-aged directors with some experience and too little talent; and better, more astute and professional films that are partially funded with Spanish money and all but guaranteed for inclusion in the San Sebastian or Montreal film festivals.

A perfect example of a mainstream Argentine film in the third category is Juan José Campanella's Son of the Bride--which, like most high-caliber mainstream Argentine films, is sentimental and serious with just a touch of humor. And patriotic: The Spanish like it when Argentineans act patriotic--which helps explain why Son of the Bride made more money in Spain in 2002 than any Spanish film did. (The movie was also nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars.) Like other sentimental and serious and patriotic films (with just a touch of humor), Campanella's farcical melodrama about a recovering workaholic in Buenos Aires tries to be both artistic and popular. But because it disrespects truth, takes few risks, and manipulates the audience, it only succeeds in the latter goal.

Then there are the independent films of Argentina: low-budget and highly personal efforts by young directors. Some landmark Argentine indies since 1999: Martín Rejtman's Silvia Prieto, a comedic portrait of a twentysomething Buenos Aires café worker; Pablo Trapero's Crane World, an existentialist study of a former bass player-turned-crane operator; Lucrecia Martel's La ciénaga, about middle-class families feuding their way through a hot summer; and Lisandro Alonso's La libertad, a documentary-style film that follows a day in the life of a rural woodcutter. Alas, only 30 independent films have been made in Argentina in the past eight years. Still, taken collectively, they represent the most significant development in Argentine cinema since the "1960 generation" and Cine Liberación movements of the '60s, or the post-censorship wave of critical films that surfaced in the mid-'80s. They're also, to put it bluntly, the only reason contemporary Argentinean cinema deserves to be taken seriously.

What do these 30-odd films have in common? you ask. Not much, in fact--except that they portray the world as an unfamiliar place. And no wonder: For the past ten years, Argentina has been suffering the worst crisis in its history--an accepted fact among the nation's citizens. At the end of 2001, there were riots in the streets, the fall of two presidents in a single week, and unimaginable levels of hunger and unemployment. (At the moment, the situation is somewhat calmer, if not exactly better.) In one way or another, the independent films anticipated the Argentine crisis--not by being overtly political, or trying to convey a social message, but by depicting new kinds of pain, unease, solitude, and tenderness. Without stating it directly, the independent films made clear that Argentina--at least as it had been known--no longer existed. While mainstream movies smothered themselves in a phony plenitude, the indies dared to burrow into the void.

Interestingly, all three Argentine films in the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival--all of them independent productions--deal with orphans (either literal or symbolic) who are captured in transit from one unstable phase in life to another. The most mysterious of the films' lead characters is the protagonist of Extraño (screening at the Walker on Friday, April 18 at 8:00 p.m.; and at Oak Street on Saturday, April 19 at 3:00 p.m.). We don't know what has happened to this lonely and isolated middle-aged doctor, only that he is starting from scratch and going nowhere. The world around him--seen in empty streets and abandoned railroads--is similarly devoid of life. Though director Santiago Loza is not a documentarian in the strict definition, he uses cinema as a tool to capture the essence of a culture that is at risk of becoming invisible.

Diego Lerman, on the other hand, uses cinema to convey a kind of healing in Tan de repente (Oak Street, Thursday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m.). The film follows Marcia, a young lingerie salesgirl whose life is radically changed by two lesbian women named, if you can believe it, Mao and Lenin. This collective trio heads from the city to the sea, while Lerman directs the movie to begin fast and end slow--like life. The film's optimism comes from showing young people whose camaraderie cures them of all conventional behavior.

The third film in the festival, El bonaerense (Walker, Sunday, April 13 at 8:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Monday, April 14 at 9:30 p.m.), has neither the hopefulness of Tan de repente nor the pessimism of Extraño; it's neither philosophical nor psychological in nature. In fact, among Argentine films, this Buenos Aires-set Training Day is unique: Though police brutality runs rampant in Argentina, movies about police officers tend to play it safe in terms of portraying corruption, violence, and fear. El bonaerense is about a young police trainee's search for a father, but the search ends up in the knowledge of evil as a natural, ordinary force, inseparable from everyday routines and procedures and affections. What's most extraordinary about this second feature by the 31-year-old Pablo Trapero is that there's no moral judgment in it--and no easy cynicism, either.

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