Banks, thievery and diminished expectations in four recent films from Argentina

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed May 16 11:14:10 MDT 2001

In the opening scene of Fabian Bielinski's "Nine Queens," Juan (Gaston
Pauls), a young conman, has been caught in the act at a Buenos Aires
convenience store. Just as the proprietor is about to call the cops, a
shopper announces that there is no need to call the cops since he, a
plainclothesman, has been tracking the conman for some time and will now
deliver him to the police station personally.

As soon as the two leave the store, we discover that the "cop" is really a
fellow conman named Marcos (Ricardo Darin), who, when happening on the
encounter, decides to rescue a comrade. As the two stroll down the streets
of Buenos Aires, we soon discover that Marcos intends to take the greenhorn
under his wings and train him in the finer arts of swindling. With some
reluctance, Juan decides to apprentice himself. Mostly, what bothers him is
the utter amorality of the teacher who is not above conning members of his
own family, including his beautiful sister who works at a downtown luxury
hotel and who despises him.

It is at this hotel where the house-of-mirrors plot of "Nine Queens"
unfolds. There, a wealthy guest becomes the target of an elaborate "sting"
concocted by the two. It involves the sale of very rare postage stamps--the
nine queens--and the high-stakes measures necessary to convince the buyer
that they are real.

Ultimately, "Nine Queens" is less about plot than it is about character.
The fresh-faced Juan is relatively guileless in comparison to the
demonic-looking Marcos. As they sit down to plan out their various scams,
the apprentice keeps threatening to break things off and return to his less
ambitious--but more innocent--ways.

Suffice it to say that the audience is being "stung" as the film progresses
toward its unexpected climax. As in Herman Melville's "Confidence Man,"
none of the characters is really as they appear, especially the apprentice.
Nor are the various events that move the plot along, including a bank
failure. Whether or not, Argentineans regarded this witty film as a
commentary on their own society is difficult to say. In a country in which
theft is sanctioned at the highest level of government, we must allow for
that possibility.

"Waiting for the Messiah" shares with "Nine Queens" a Jewish director
(Daniel Burman) and glimpses into the Jewish subculture of Argentina. In
"Nine Queens," one of the conmen who has run afoul of Marcos is Jewish. In
"Waiting for the Messiah", it is an entire neighborhood, the Jewish
community known as "El Once," that has been swindled by the international
banking system.

Like the butterfly's wings in chaos theory, the failure of Asian banks in
1997 touches off a chain of events that ultimately reaches the characters
in "Waiting for the Messiah." Ariel (Daniel Hendler) is living with his
father who runs a combination restaurant and Jewish community center in "El
Once." When the meltdown eventually ripples down to Argentina, his father
loses his life savings.

Santamaria (Enrique Pineyro) is another victim of the worldwide financial
crisis. Formerly employed as a teller by the bank in which Daniel's father
kept his savings, he now wanders the streets of Buenos Aires living by his
wits. He scavenges through dumpsters trying to find lost property that he
will return to the owner for a small fee, including the pocketbook of
Ariel's recently deceased mother lost during a mugging. In returning the
pocketbook to Ariel, a thin bond develops between the two men but
ultimately the film tracks their fate as two separate narratives.

Santamaria, like most Argentinians devastated by the recent economic
collapse, is struggling to maintain a sense of dignity. Without any shame,
he ventures into a woman's restroom in a train station late at night to do
his laundry. There he meets the matron Elsa (Sttefania Sandrelli), who
after overcoming her initial shock, allows him not only to do his laundry
there on a regular basis, but take showers. Eventually the two fall in love.

"Waiting for the Messiah" works best as a series of vignettes in which the
characters are shown trying to adjust to demeaning circumstances. Less
concerned with indicting the social and economic system that can produce
such circumstances than it is with the efforts of common people to survive
within them, it is deeply compassionate in its own modest way.

Directed by Sergio Belloti, "Tesoro Mío" is based on an actual crime, an
embezzlement by a middle-level treasurer (tesoro) at the Banco de Argentina.

The treasurer in the film is named Carlos Dietrich (Gabriel Goity in an
unforgettable performance), whose branch is in a provincial seaside town,
where the main pastime seems to be getting drunk. Carlos, who is turning
forty, not only hates his job, but is trapped in a loveless marriage. His
only pleasure is screwing a younger woman who works in the next teller's
cage at the bank. When she demands that he leave his wife, he complains
that he can not afford to.

Although not immediately touched by financial crisis, the middle-class
characters in "Tesoro Mío" seem to have nothing to live for except screwing
each other's wives or figuring out ways to cheat each other. An old friend
suckers Carlos into vetting a falsified financial report for a local
country club. This friend is also cuckolding him. In the aftermath of a
drunken, vindictive birthday party, in which Carlos finally confronts his
wife, he decides to take matters into his own hands and rip off the bank.

"Tesoro Mío" is very much in the tradition of film noir but does not take
itself so seriously. The main pleasure of the film is not watching
characters betray each other, but rather in off-kilter, sardonic exchanges
as they socialize on or off the job. Belloti is a master of irony. For
example, when Dietrich is out with some friends late at night in a bog
hunting frogs while boozing--a typical moment--two of them get into an
altercation. When one removes his shirt to begin fighting, he reveals--most
improbably--a Che Guevara t-shirt. This comic detail is one among many in a
wickedly delightful film.

"76 89 03," co-directed by Flavio Nardini and Cristian Bernard, refers to
three key years in the lives of its three main characters and in the
devolution of the country they live in.

In 1976 we meet Dino, Paco and Salvador as schoolboys. They share an
obsession with Wanda Manera, an actress and model. Dino is expelled from
Catholic school when a teacher finds him masturbating in the boy's room, a
magazine photo of Wanda taped to the inside door of the stall. This teacher
has just delivered a lecture on the Red Stain that is sweeping across
Argentina, a combination of Marxism and masturbation.

After spying Wanda walking down a sidewalk, a distracted Paco rides his
bicycle into a car and suffers permanent disability to his leg. 1976, a
year of fierce repression against the left, does not reward every
Argentinean alike. Salvador, whose father is an auto mechanic, has taken
possession of a car that belonged to a "desparacido," or disappeared one.
When he makes a gift of the car to his son, he warns him to stay away from
politics which is nothing but trouble. It is better to focus on getting women.

In 1989 we find the three friends sitting in a bar getting drunk, while
watching a pornographic video of Wanda on television that has scandalized
all of Argentina. She is shown having sex with three teenaged boys. These
lurid images set in motion a series of events taking place that night in
pursuit of their own sexual conquest of Wanda. Despite the 13 years
separating them from the opening episode, the three men have not really
grown up.

In this black-and-white film, the nighttime odyssey in search of funds to
buy Wanda's services take on the quality of a 'walpurgisnacht'. This Buenos
Aires of vacant streets and empty parking garages becomes the visual
analogue of the men's own barren hopes.

When they stumble across a satchel full of cocaine, they proceed to a
discothèque which they hope to sell to the demented proprietor who keeps a
14 year old coke-addicted schoolgirl in a swinging cage in his private
quarters. The old man is as obsessed with sex as they are and delivers a
long, scabrous monologue about his own unsuccessful conquest of Wanda. Not
sensing the trajectory of the film, the Walter Reade audience began
guffawing at the crude display. As the monologue grew more ugly, the
laughter became more subdued and nervous. Eventually, silence prevailed.

After the sale is consummated, the three men track down Wanda's pimp to
arrange a threesome with her. They are disappointed to discover that Wanda
will only take dollars since the value of 'australes' diminishes by the
hour in a year of Argentina's most febrile inflation.

The pimp suggests that they go to a plaza where black market exchanges of
currency takes place 24 hours a day. There they meet a mulatto
flower-seller, a front for his black market business, who takes them to a
secluded place to make the exchange. When they arrive, he draws out a gun
and steals their money. Before he leaves, Dino asks his permission to say
something that will take no longer than a minute. Out comes a torrent of
racial epithets, but none worse than "Peronista," Dino's most hate-filled

The final episode representing 2003 leaves little changed. Once again the
three men are sitting at a bar fantasizing about Wanda. The film-makers
leave no doubt about their intention, which is to show a desperate nation
lusting after unattainable goals. Although Wanda is a sex-object, she
symbolizes the entire cash nexus and commodity fetishism that Argentina's
faltering economy can not satisfy.

("Nine Queens" was shown at the Lincoln Center/MOMA New Directors series.
The other films were shown as part of an Argentine film festival at Lincoln

Louis Proyect
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