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Argentina: First World Aspirations, Third World Finances

Movies*:Fellow directors Juan Jose Campanella and Fabian Bielinsky look at their country in 'Son of the Bride,' 'Nine Queens.'

April 20, 2002|JOHN CLARK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Money is much on the minds of Argentines these days because of the government's default on its loans and the collapse of its currency. So it's not surprising that money factors heavily into two new films from Argentina, the caper film "Nine Queens," which opened on Friday, and the Oscar-nominated "Son of the Bride," which opened last month in Los Angeles.

Obliquely and not so obliquely, both films dramatize the situation in Argentina, a country with First World economic, social, and cultural aspirations and a Third World wallet.

"We were caught in that illusion," says "Nine Queens" director Fabian Bielinsky. "We are Third World. Sometimes in our history we thought we were not. Yeah, we don't look like them--our cities our different, our middle class is larger--but at the end we discovered we are Third World."

To "Son of the Bride" director Juan Jose Campanella, fiscal problems are a routine part of life in Argentina. "When wasn't there a crisis here?" asks Campanella, who divides his time between Buenos Aires and New York, where he directs episodes of "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

"This one is harder and graver, but it's still one of the crises. We went through hyperinflation, hyper-recession, the dollar was cheaper, the dollar was expensive. We went through everything economically in my lifetime."

One of the ironies of the current crisis, which actually began several years ago, is that it has given a boost to Argentine filmmakers by providing them with dramatic themes, although it hasn't given birth to a peculiarly Argentine style of filmmaking.

"Even if it's not your intention, if you show your context in a realistic manner, the more dramatic the context, the more interesting the movie," Campanella says.

"Look at the Italians. Their one gift to the history of film was Italian neo-realism, which came out of World War II. Of course, I would rather have a great country with no film industry. You can always make a film. Let's put it in perspective."

As the films of Bielinsky and Campanella demonstrate, some of the things they are talking about may be audible only to Argentines. For example, "Son of the Bride" is about a restaurateur (Ricardo Darin) who inherited the business from his immigrant father and has a midlife crisis prompted by nasty vendors, a heart attack, his mother's Alzheimer's, the demands of his girlfriend, the needs of his daughter, and the hostility of his ex-wife.

Ultimately, he bails out, dreaming of a sunny retirement in Mexico. Certainly there is enough here for any viewer, but for Argentines there is something more.

"Obviously, the whole thing with the restaurant was a metaphor for the country, but it was always down there, as the second layer, this rich country that we inherited from our parents and that we sold, and now we have to start over in a broken-down cafe across the street," Campanella says.

Likewise, "Nine Queens," about a pair of con men (Darin again and Gaston Pauls) who try to sell a forged set of rare stamps, is a genre film, not a sociopolitical statement, but that didn't stop Argentine audiences from reading between the lines.

In fact, the degree to which they did so surprised Bielinsky and contributed to the film's popularity in Argentina. (It was released there in August 2000 and took in $7 million at the box office.)

"It was not my intention to [say,] 'Hey, I'm going make this a reflection of our society, blah blah blah,'" says Bielinsky, who has an extensive career as a commercial director in Argentina. "My priority was to tell this swindlers' story as good as I could. And then, of course, I knew that in my country, to talk about lying, cheating, deceiving, etc., in some way is talking about us or a part of our society."

So, like Campanella, Bielinsky was well aware of the film's subtext. He describes it, somewhat graphically, as a "smell--the smell of pervasive corruption." Argentines, he said, are acutely sensitive to it, having their noses rubbed in it every day.

"The film as a whole could be described as a picture of a feeling that, once in a while, every Argentine goes through, which is: Everything is a lie, everybody is lying, nobody is honest, nobody is going to tell me the truth," Bielinsky says. "It is not exactly reality. We have a lot of honest people here, so it wouldn't be fair to say that everybody lies, everybody cheats, everybody is thinking of himself, there are no honest working people in my country."

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