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.

XXY (2007)

Several other Argentinian films deal with gender identity issues, whether The Last Summer of La Boyita (2009) or Puenzo’s other work like The Fish Child (2009). The review here is of her earlier film, also dealing with an intersex person, and I think it’s pretty subtle and interesting, though undoubtedly it’s worth making a content note that there is a fair amount of prejudice the lead character has to overcome, as so often in this genre.


I like this coming of age story about Alex (Inés Efron), a young intersex woman — or at least that’s the identity she has chosen. It has a lyrical and gentle quality to it, although clearly not all the events in the film are in any way gentle — indeed, there are some really flagrantly nasty encounters, but on the whole they don’t define the character’s story or the way the film presents itself. But aside from Alex herself, it’s also about the family and people around her, primarily her relationship with her father (Ricardo Darín), and it puts the focus on Alex’s choice of identity, and the difficulty she has in doing that at what is already a trying time of life. I’d say it takes the genetic matter that its title alludes to, and makes it into a rounded, human story.

XXY film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Inés Efron, Ricardo Darín, Valeria Bertuccelli; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 March 2018.

El último verano de La Boyita (The Last Summer of La Boyita, 2009)

A number of the Argentinian films I’ll be covering this week deal with gender issues, in what I feel (albeit from my particular viewpoint) as being fairly sensitively-handled. Still, it’s interesting to see this country’s cinema deal with sexuality in these ways, but it’s a large and disparate country whose culture pulls in many directions.


Sparse as coming-of-age films (or indeed any films?) about intersex people are, I already feel like Argentinian filmmakers have form on this, given there’s XXY as well a couple of years before this one. This story takes the viewpoint of the young girl Jorgelina (or Georgie, played by Guadalupe Alonso), who may be cisgendered but feels excluded from the world of grown-up women, as her sister is a few years older and starting to show interest in boys. This is how the first half of the film goes, really, as Georgie, having been a close playmate to her sister, is more and more sidelined during an annual family trip to the rural area of the title, and we see her just kicking around the countryside and the local farms, where she has another friend, Mario (Nicolás Treise), who seems to be going through his own coming-of-age. And that’s where the story takes a turn towards the gender issues, which I think are handled fairly sensitively: there’s a sense we get of Mario also being slightly set apart from his older peers, but there’s never any heavy-handedness around how he identifies, just these discreet scenes with Georgie’s doctor father, and when he tries to explain Mario’s physiological differences, she (and the soundtrack) just puts her fingers in her ears to drown him out. It’s all very gentle and shows a great sense of place, the camera never too insistently prying into young people or their growing bodies — and this may be where having a woman director makes a real difference.

The Last Summer of La Boyita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Solomonoff; Cinematographer Lucio Bonelli; Starring Guadalupe Alonso, Nicolás Treise, Mirella Pascual; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 March 2019.

Chavela (aka Chavela Vargas, 2017)

Plenty of documentaries, especially recently, have explored all kinds of facets of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer identities, in various areas of life. Documentaries can often bring wider recognition to people and causes which aren’t very familiar to a mainstream audience. One recent film that shines a light on a Latin American performer is Chavela, which screened at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest.


There are documentaries that break moulds and innovate the form, and then there are ones which may take a venerable approach (talking head interviews, archival footage, historical research) but do so in the service of presenting a fascinating and little told story. This is surely one of the latter, and for someone not brought up in the hispanophone world I was entirely unaware of Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer who achieved great fame in both Mexico and Spain for her heartfelt and passionate singing, not to mention her outspoken lesbian identity at a time when (and in a place where) that was much frowned upon. It’s wonderful to both hear from those who knew her, loved her or worked with her, and to see the footage of her performing in the final act of her career which ran from the early-90s to her death in 2012, as she took to the stage again in her seventies and kept performing, unable ever to fully retire.

Chavela film posterCREDITS
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi; Cinematographers Natalia Cuevas, Gund and Paula Gutiérrez Orio; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 26 July 2018.

El silencio de otros (The Silence of Others, 2018)

This past week has seen the launch of an online platform for streaming films from the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has obviously been unable to go ahead in physical form. It’s one of Britain’s premier film festivals, dedicated to documentary cinema and a key launching pad for films in that genre for a number of years now, and only growing in international significance. In fact, last year I put the 2020 dates in my diary, intending to try and visit in person, which I hope to do again in future. It’s also fair to say that a large number of the films premiered there have fed into local cinema releases, and notably films that are shown at the Bertha DocHouse screen of the Curzon Bloomsbury, one of the only screens (if not the only one) dedicated solely to documentary films, and one of the venues I have most missed these past few months.

So this week I will focus on documentary films, specifically ones which screened at Sheffield or received a premiere at that festival. In 2018, for example, one of the big award winners was the excellent documentary about inner city life (and skateboarding), Minding the Gap, and there were screenings of films I’ve already covered like Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Black Mother. The winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize was the Spanish film The Silence of Others, which confronts the way that people misremember even recent history, which has been a topic of some news coverage recently, what with our (British) government doubling down on honouring and supporting the statues of slave traders and famous colonialist and racists; there’s a sequence in this documentary in which a city council is frustrated repeatedly in its attempts to try and address its (relatively recent) fascist past, and that is very much a theme running through this entire work. We must not be silent about our history, wherever we live.


Some stories are important to try and remember, and that’s especially the case with Spain under the government of Francisco Franco from the 1930s to his death in 1975, given that the Spanish Parliament’s response to his regime was passing a ‘Pact of Forgetting’ in 1977 that gave amnesty to Franco’s victims but also, importantly, to his allies (many of whom were still in powerful positions in the parliament that passed it). The subsequent calls for justice have been slow to build, and largely blocked by the Spanish judiciary and government due to that Pact, hence this story of a group of people uniting to bring a case in Argentina. The film hears the testimonies of some of the people involved in the case, all of whom were either tortured themselves or had family members assassinated by the Franco regime, as well as presenting contemporary footage (such as exists) and contextualising the long legal battle with a gathering of public support. We also clearly see that there’s still a strong contingent of Franco supporters in power even now, as plenty still show up for his birthday, while people in the street talk about leaving the past untouched, and we see a hatchet-faced cadre of supporters amongst the Madrid city councillors, opposed to renaming streets which honoured him and his generals. There’s clearly still a long way for Spain to go in facing its past, but this documentary shows some of the ways this policy of silence is being challenged.

The Silence of Others film posterCREDITS
Directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo; Writers Ricardo Acosta, Bahar, Carracedo and Kim Roberts; Cinematographer Carracedo; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 19 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 322: “The Complete Mr. Arkadin”: Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report, 1955)

This Criterion release features three versions of the title film: the European release as Confidential Report which is the one I’ve reviewed below, the “Corinth” cut with some different footage, and a reconstructed cut especially for the Criterion release, which purports to be the fullest and truest to Welles’s original intentions. As I do not (yet) have the Criterion edition of the film, I have not been able to review this cut, but I shall revisit it at such time as I am able to, and add to the review below.


Like any Welles film, or at least like all too many of them, this exists in multiple versions. I watched the European edit which was released under the title Confidential Report and it is, as you might expect, splendidly bonkers, careening around its mystery thriller plot with wild abandon. Welles, of course, plays the larger-than-life title character (well, the title character in the original title of the film), a large bearded fellow with a past that he claims not to know, or is trying actively to cover up, in murderous ways… except that chisel-jawed Robert Arden (as small-time crook Guy van Stratten) is onto him. There’s no shortage of stylish shooting, with all kinds of Dutch angles and scattershot dialogue propelling the drama forward. Perhaps this isn’t the finest version of the film that exists, and I hope at least to watch some of the others eventually, but even a badly recut Welles film is still a fine experience; there’s only so much that an editor can do to his idiosyncratic use of space.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Orson Welles (based on radio scripts for The Lives of Harry Lime by Ernest Bornemann and Welles); Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff; Length 98 minutes [as Confidential Report].

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 3 June 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, October 1999).

Global Cinema, Andorra: Nick (2016)

There aren’t a great deal of films from the small Pyrenees-set country of Andorra, as you might not be surprised to hear, and indeed there was only one I could find on streaming services, hence why I’m covering a rather low-budget thriller called Nick today. It’s all in English and it’s not very good, but perhaps along the way you might see a little of the natural beauty of the country.


Andorran flagPrincipality of Andorra
population 77,500 | capital Andorra la Vella (22k) | largest cities Andorra la Vella, Escaldes-Engordany (14.4k), Encamp (13.5k), Sant Julià de Lòria (7.5k), La Massana (5k) | area 468 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism | official language Catalan (català) | major ethnicities Andorrans (49%), Spanish (25%) | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .ad

A tiny landlocked state in the eastern part of the Pyrenees mountain range, between France and Spain. Its name’s origin is unknown, but may relate to a pre-Roman tribe (the Andosins, mentioned in Polybius), or to the old word Anorra containing Basque word ur (“water”), or the Arabic al-darra (for “thickly-wooded place”), amongst others. The earliest settlement dates to 9500 BCE, and the Iberian tribe of the Andosins dates to the 2nd century BCE, though Charlemagne is traditionally credited as having granted the Andorrans a charter, after which it was ruled by the Count and later Diocese of Urgell. The political history is complicated but eventually it came to be under the French Empire, until independence in 1814. It accepted refugees from both sides in the Spanish Civil War and was neutral during World War II, though resistance causes organised there. Modernisation, including entry into the Council of Europe and the UN, took place in 1993, with currency union in 2006. It is governed by co-princes (one of whom is the President of France, the other the Bishop of Urgell), with a Prime Minister as head of government.

While it appears as if filming in Andorra is encouraged, there is very little indigenous cinematic production, perhaps unsurprising given the country’s size.


Nick (aka Outlier, 2016)

As I watched this because it’s a film made by and filmed in the tiny European country of Andorra, I suppose I was hoping for something that would give me an idea of the place. The filming locations appear to be around a small northern town called Ordino, and from what we see of it, it does look rather pretty, with winding little streets in the centre, and lots of people living in large houses with great views. The problem with the film, then, is the rest of it, and looming largest perhaps is the decision to make it in English, which, from my meagre research, does not appear to be a major language in the country (where, as you’ll see above, Catalan is the official language, while Spanish, French and Portuguese are the more usual second languages). In fact, just about everyone (aside from the moody Catalan-speaking work colleague of our lead character Margret, a police officer whose stepson has just arrived in town) seems to be transplanted from England, which gives it the feeling of a rather unloved drama pilot buried somewhere deep down in the programming of ITV. This perhaps would be fine were it not for the fact that most nuance seems to be lost in the script, perhaps gone astray somewhere in translation, as characters introduce each other clunkily (“I can’t believe you’re doing that, given your recent, troubling history of alcoholism” is something that isn’t quite said, but almost is, things along those lines) and bad decisions are met with worse reactions — which makes up the entire character of Margret (Molly Malcolm) for most of the last third of the film (she’s honestly just not very likeable or sympathetic). Even all that might even be passable were it not for the fact that the acting is unable to find any emotional truth in these characters, perhaps because there’s very little there to work with, though of course I shouldn’t expect too much from the younger actor (the titular Nick is just called upon to pout, which he does well, and also shout a lot at his stepsister, which isn’t convincing). Somewhere in here is a murder mystery with supernatural elements, set up quite compellingly, but it’s all rather messy and the impetus quickly gets rather lost. Andorra probably deserves better.

Nick film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer José Pozo; Cinematographer Juan González Guerrero; Starring Molly Malcolm, Cooper Crafar, Melina Matthews; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon), London, Tuesday 2 June 2020.

再见南屏晚钟 Zaijian nan ping wan zhong (A Dog Barking at the Moon, 2019)

For my final film of the BFI Player week, I’m focusing on this one which was initially due to be presented at the BFI Flare Film Festival. Because that fell through, a limited number of the films were able to screened online and this is one of those (it expires on 5 April, along with a handful of other titles). I signed up for a two-week free trial in order to see it, which I can certainly recommend. I might even continue paying after this trial period, but let’s see how things go; I’m already signed up to a few other services.


I can see from what’s written online that there are people who weren’t thrilled by this film, but it’s a gorgeous debut, which channels the feeling of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film — long shot long takes dealing with the dynamics within a family — with its own little surreal touches, such as car trips filmed on a soundstage. It’s about a woman whose husband is revealed to be having a gay affair, and who has another relation (a cousin I think) who is herself hiding being lesbian, but (perhaps understandably, given Chinese filming restrictions) these storylines are pushed to the side, in favour of focusing on the relationship between the mother (Naren Hua) and her oldest daughter (Nan Ji), whose transgression was marrying an American. I didn’t notice until I researched the film that the two lead roles are played by actors of Mongolian ethnicity, but I can’t imagine a Chinese viewer would miss that, and perhaps in that sense it should ultimately be seen as a film about being an outsider — in whatever way that might manifest. It all unfolds at a deliberate pace, beautifully filmed by a Spanish cinematographer (it’s a Chinese-Spanish co-production, it seems), and I look forward to further films from this debut director.

A Dog Barking at the Moon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Xiang Zi [aka Lisa Zi Xiang] 相梓; Cinematographer Jose Val Bal; Starring Naren Hua 娜仁花, Nan Ji [aka Siqin Gaowa] 斯琴高娃·南吉; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 30 March 2020.

El despertar de las hormigas (The Awakening of the Ants, 2019)

As you’ll see from my recent posts about films available on Mubi, a recurring theme is new films by new filmmakers. This one comes from the Berlin film festival, and is the debut by a Costa Rican woman filmmaker, dealing with one woman’s domestic life. It was only recently up on Mubi, and may have gone by now, but every month there are others not unlike this one.


Like a lot of recent Latin American cinema I’ve seen (and I’m thinking of Los tiburones, or Hogar, or the works of Lucrecia Martel, Dominga Sotomayor or Lina Rodriguez), there’s a very quiet and watchful tone being struck in this film. It’s about Isabel (Daniela Valenciano), a mother of two daughters, whose life seems to be largely about keeping control of the kids, alongside cooking for her husband (Leynar Gomez). It’s the kind of dull, depressing life that makes one’s mind drift towards Jeanne Dielman, but there’s nothing quite so dramatic developing here, although the ants of the title (along with other household insects) have a habit of appearing in Isa’s waking nightmares, little hallucinatory breaks from her mundane daily reality. She’s in a state of anxiety because her husband wants another child (a boy, of course), but she really doesn’t want that, and so sets her mind to little ways of sabotaging this plan. It’s a film that expresses this disquiet in subtle ways as it goes on; for example, the husband could easily be a monster, but apart from being oblivious to the work Isa is doing, he’s largely a pretty decent guy. And so it’s a slow film in the way it develops, but focused always on Isa and the ways in which she feels trapped by domesticity.

The Awakening of the Ants film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Antonella Sudasassi; Cinematographer Andrés Campos; Starring Daniela Valenciano, Leynar Gomez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 24 March 2020.