Global Cinema, Argentina: The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

Orione (2017)

Moving to a rather more obscure Argentine film, a first feature by a young director, which is a documentary but a rather experimental one in form, dealing with the idea of a life and interrogating some of the ways that this person’s life is framed by different voices and authorities.


A strange open-ended documentary about a young man who was shot by the police in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, this marshals an array of footage — interviews with the mother, police dashboard cameras, dead bodies in a morgue, TV, home video — to present the sense of a place and the idea of a life. The dead young man was a criminal, but he was also his mother’s son, the father to his own child, and a person who had dreams and an upbringing, and part of what the documentary does is just to expand the range of the usual crime procedural documentary to be more about the victim’s entire life, about his surroundings and how he came to be. The interview with the mother is in voiceover as she makes an elaborate birthday cake, again framing the sound of witnesses with the ongoing events of lived experience, and that’s what I take from this film.

Orione film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Toia Bonino; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 25 November 2018.

Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Continue reading “Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)”

Criterion Sunday 315: Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player aka Shoot the Pianist, 1960)

People who love this film really go to bat for it, and there’s a lot to like here. Truffaut was following up his debut The 400 Blows and made a far more self-consciously American-inspired picture, a sort of mash-up of noirish mood, crime film thriller and a bit of comedy (the most ‘French’ element, as far as I can tell). Being based on a hardboiled pulp novel, there’s a lot of plot, and it’s not always clear what’s happening to whom for what reason, but basically washed-up piano prodigy Charlie (Aznavour), who’s hiding from a former life as Edouard after the suicide of his wife (which he drove her towards), gets tangled up in his putz brothers’ problems (and they certainly have a Marx Brothers energy to them). You could say that it’s critically examining his relationships with women, indeed about a certain type of masculine performance, and it’s just a shame that women have to die to deepen his character. That said, this is 1960 and this is probably quite different from what was being made at the time in terms of protagonists (Godard’s heroes seem a lot more unexamined in some respects). I liked it and admired it, but have never yet fallen in love with this film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (based on the novel Down There by David Goodis); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at home (YouTube streaming), London, Saturday 9 May 2020 (and originally on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1999).

Criterion Sunday 314: Pickpocket (1959)

This film certainly trades in all of Bresson’s hallmarks — the austere settings, frontal framing of his protagonists, their solid, even slightly wooden, acting style, casting their eyes to the ground as they deliver their laconic lines — and so anyone who gets on with his work will find plenty to like here, in what Bresson is very clear to point out is not a policier/thriller in the opening titles. That said, it has a grim determination to the way it unfolds, as our antihero Michel (Martin LaSalle) takes up a life of pickpocketing in lieu of honest work. If Bresson casts judgement on Michel, it’s not necessarily about his choice of lifestyle, as about the lack of attention he shows his relatives (like his dying mother, from whom he steals) of friends, and about how this seems to be rooted in a deep-seated rejection of Christian values. He’s a young man, clearly well-read, who fancies himself as smarter than those around him, and can thus be seen in a lineage with plenty of other filmic anti-heroes. Still, like all his protagonists, Bresson sees in him a path of redemption, and that’s what the plot of the film is, really, as he moves through criminality towards his redemption, embodied in the figure of Jeanne (Marika Green). This isn’t my favourite of Bresson’s works but it’s certainly interesting when looked at in the context of the other (more youthful) filmmaking taking place in Paris in 1959.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is probably filmmaker and famous cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s 52-minute documentary Les Modèles de ‘Pickpocket’ (2004). From doing a cursory search on the internet (specifically, on Babette Mangolte’s own website) it appears there is an 89-minute version of this film, although the 52-minute one attached as an extra to this Criterion edition doesn’t appear to be in need of any extra footage. Unlike most of these kinds of documentaries, it takes the form of a personal essay film, in which Mangolte encounters by chance at a party Pierre Leymarie, now a scientist on the verge of retiring, but known to her as one of the supporting actors in Bresson’s 1959 film, made 45 years earlier. She speaks to him, then tracks down Marika Green (who was only 16 when she made the film) in Austria, and the film’s star Martin LaSalle who’s living in Uruguay and barely ever even speaks French anymore (we hear him chatting in Spanish to Mangolte’s assistant). Each of them offer their own ideas about Bresson’s art, and of course all are quite different from how they were in the film — just their smiles and warmth make it clear to what extent they were in fact acting in Bresson’s film. It becomes clear that everyone glance and affect seen on screen was down to Bresson’s fastidious manipulation, and they put across various ideas as to what he was trying to achieve. Green reflects on how none of Bresson’s “models” really know one another, each monastically clinging to their own version of the master, and perhaps the love of Bresson is a deeply individual one after all.
  • There’s a six-minute clip of a French TV interview with Bresson from 1960, in which he discusses the film and his vision for it, how the idea came to him and some of what he was trying to put across in film, stuttered out under the glare of the two interviewers.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Pierre Leymarie; Length 76 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Monday 18 June 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 8 May 2020).

तलवार Talvar (aka Guilty, 2015)

Today we sadly learned of the passing of the great Irrfan Khan, so I’m taking a break from this week’s theme on my blog to watch one of his performances; while this review below is unlikely to be of his best film, it’s still a decent crime investigation thriller in which he capably plays a slightly ambiguous character. Others have seen some of his higher profile films — of those, most in English, I’ve only seen Slumdog Millionaire (as well as smaller parts in Jurassic World and The Darjeeling Limited) — but I have enjoyed him in romcoms like Piku and the recent Qarib Qarib Singlle, and his career stretches back to a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988). He’s an actor that seemed able to play both complex less than heroic characters (as in this film), as easily as likeable easygoing charmers. In any case, he’s usually the moral centre of the films he’s in, all too often playing authority figures we can trust (even if that reputation is played with at times, as with this film).


One of the difficulties Talvar has to get over, in presenting its true-crime torn-from-the-headlines case of a young girl found murdered in her family home near their similarly-slain servant, is that it was never really solved. And so we get, in the now-cliched Rashomon-like way, flashback recreations of multiple different viewpoints on what happened, with all kinds of ridiculous suggestions being put forth (some of them reported gleefully in public) by first the police investigators and then the “CDI” (Central Dept of Investigation) of whom Irrfan Khan’s Ashwin is leading the case. Even more than the criminal investigation, the film is keen to show how messy and disorganised India’s justice system can be, with incompetent cops and bosses who seem (it is implied) more interested in ensuring their old classmates are exculpated of any wrongdoing than in getting a satisfactory conclusion to the case. There’s a hint of Touch of Evil too in the way that Ashwin’s methods can be little better than torture at times — if he’s the hero of the film, he’s an antihero at best — but he’s still more impassioned than most of the guys milling around him, who are mostly looking out for their own careers or their friends. I think it works well, and it’s all very well put together, even if the film itself has a bit of a TV true-crime thriller feel at times; it nevertheless maintains a consistent tone, anchored by Khan’s empathetic performance.

Talvar film posterCREDITS
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writer Vishal Bhardwaj विशाल भारद्वाज; Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar पंकज कुमार; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Konkona Sen Sharma কঙ্কনা সেন শর্মা, Neeraj Kabi नीरज काबी; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 306: Le Samouraï (1967)

That this film is now a world cinema classic is of course indisputable and I shan’t pretend to post a deep analysis of it. However, living in the times that we do, there’s something strangely comforting in the laconic rituals of this far-off culture — though to be fair, three weeks ago feels like an impossibly distant past right now. The film sets itself up with a fake Bushido quote, and Jarmusch would do likewise with his own pseudo-samurai film (Ghost Dog) many decades later, though unlike some recent Criterion films it’s set in 1960s Paris rather than feudal Japan. Our antihero Jef (Alain Delon, never more expressively inexpressive) moves through the motions of his job, from its start (or very near to it, as he lies on his bed contemplating things to come) to its rather final end. Every frame is a masterclass, every composition a blank slate waiting to be filled in with the ever-present threat of violence (albeit rarely actually witnessed). Melville understands space and time better than most filmmakers, and in the sequence of gangster films he made (many with Delon) he really finds something special in all those otherwise unpreposessing 60s Parisian interiors and street scenes. There’s something about the lighting, the performance, the frame and the movement that all come together perfectly, with a little Gallic shrug as everything softly trails off. What makes it a classic is the balance Melville attains, something that is very suggestive of its Japanese roots perhaps, something almost Zen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 March 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Shooting the Mafia (2019)

A new documentary called Be Natural about Alice Guy-Blaché, a pioneering woman filmmaker of the silent era, is released to (presumably limited) UK cinemas this Friday. Therefore for my themed week on the blog this week I’ll be covering films (documentaries mostly, I imagine) about women filmmakers and photographers.


This new film by veteran documentarian Kim Longinotto is, ostensibly, about Letizia Battaglia, a now elderly woman who made a career in photography, capturing the spirit of her home (the island of Sicily), and particularly in documenting the atrocities committed by the Mafia there. However, Letizia is in fact just a guide into this world of organised crime, and the film spends more of its time — including archival video footage, TV news and interviews, quite aside from Letizia’s photography — tracking the way in which the Mafia controlled society, and were progressively brought down by prosecutors, many of whom met their own unfortunate ends thanks to this violence. It’s a film about the legacy of violence on a people, and it also happens to be about one woman who played her own small part in documenting that and helping to shed light on the injustice.

Shooting the Mafia film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Kim Longinotto; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 21 December 2019.

Hustlers (2019)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the best films of the year, possible awards contenders for performances, and the like. I don’t quite think Hustlers ranks as the best film of the year, but it’ll probably be somewhere in the mix. However, it did make for a bracing change from a lot of the multiplex fodder, and it’s good to see more women directors getting work. Her earlier films The Meddler (2015) and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) showed plenty of promise, which I think Hustlers has started to deliver.


I don’t think that at a filmmaking level this is quite as great as it could be, at least visually, though it makes great use of period costuming (it’s largely set in the late-2000s), and it’s all very nicely lit. If with its strip club setting and on-stage sequences it seems at times like a music video, then it’s also willing to poke some fun at itself in this regard, as when it has Usher playing himself raining money on all the women while his own hit plays on the soundtrack. Indeed, generally, the film has some really effective (and distinctive) uses of musical cues — I always like to see Scott Walker getting some love (via “Next”, one of his 1960s Jacques Brel covers in this film’s case). But this is a film primarily built in the script and performances, as Jennifer Lopez (who is, in case it has been missed anywhere, 50), playing veteran Ramona, takes Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy under her wing, and together they unlock their potential in making money off the sleazy guys who come to see them. That said, it’s not interested in demonising the profession from either end: it’s made clear that there’s no shame in stripping, it’s a dependable job in an economy like that of the States, and the guys they’re fleecing are the filthy rich (Ramona breaks down the various categories of clientele), who ultimately don’t deserve our pity. If anything, the filmmakers are only too happy to make that clear by having Julia Stiles’ reporter (and audience surrogate) basically exculpate them. No, this is a film that is about — what else — the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the paths it drives people down when they’re desperate, and it makes those points pretty clear and pretty effectively. Also, it has an effortlessly diverse and interesting cast, who each get their moments.

Hustlers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lorene Scafaria (based on the article “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole from (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves” by Jessica Pressler); Cinematographer Todd Banhazl; Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 15 September 2019.