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Lifetime of high risks garners a high reward for Argentine actor

Federico Luppi escaped government pursuit. He's being honored at the Latino Film Festival.

July 23, 2003|Judy Stone | Special to The Times

BUENOS AIRES — Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing Peronistas used a controversial Argentine film to blacklist Federico Luppi for eight years, but it didn't prevent the actor from eventually becoming Latin America's most famous star. He is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award Saturday for his work in about 40 productions at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, which runs through Aug. 2.

There will also be a retrospective showing of his most famous films, including "Rebellion in Patagonia," the one that got him into so much trouble. "Rebellion" screened July 19. He discussed in an interview at last year's Buenos Aires Film Festival, and in continuing e-mail correspondence, the perilous days in the 1970s when he stayed on the run to avoid capture by the military, which was killing many actors, writers and trade unionists.

In person and on film, Luppi embodies a quality of gracious authority whether playing a doctor in John Sayles' "Men With Guns," a beleaguered physician-administrator in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War in Guillermo del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone" or a Uruguayan hijacker determined to derail Hollywood's acquisition of a treasured locomotive in Diego Arsuaga's "The Last Train."

And masculine charm, enhanced rather than diminished by his 67 years, makes him an object of seduction in George Sluizer's "The Stone Raft." Two women!" he exclaimed with a chuckle. He also can't resist a philosophical chuckle when recounting the cinematic deaths he's endured. "That's the story of my life," he says.

But this lifetime achievement award comes at an auspicious turn in his career: He is directing his first film,"Steps," in Madrid, where he has lived for the last few years. It is about friendship among three couples that changes after the attempted Spanish coup d'etat by Lt. Col Antonio Tejero Molina on Feb. 23, 1981, when he marched 50 rebel civil guards into Parliament to stage a military uprising. Based on an original script by Susana Fernandez Abascal, the story revolves around how the coup and subsequent affirmation of democracy affects their personal lives. In a recent e-mail, Luppi noted his eagerness to direct the film and the accompanying fear he felt in that new role. "Sometimes I wake up bathed in sweat, and to go back to sleep, I cross my fingers real hard until they hurt."

As for the honor in L.A., Luppi says, "It is more than I deserve, but it makes me happy because it places me in the ranks of previous recipients and makes me feel solidarity with the Latin world."

Directing was not something he contemplated when he was encountered last year at the Buenos Aires Film Festival.

"My dream from my childhood was to be great at drawing," he said in a mixture of lightly accented English and Spanish, while recalling his early love for comic books like Flash Gordon and Tarzan. Later he fell in love with American literature: "Dos Passos, Hemingway, Faulkner, Caldwell, Kerouac and many others."

He was born in a village in northern Argentina, and his father, a farmer and a butcher, wanted him to be an architect.

"At one moment, I thought I would be an architect because from time immemorial, architecture and drawing are very related. Great sculptors are often wonderful draftsmen. There's an old saying that if someone cannot draw very well, he cannot paint. All the great painters were also very good draftsmen. In the literary world if a writer cannot understand the magical charge of the word, he cannot make literature. All this is to explain why I adored drawing."

However, he was sidetracked into law school. "I didn't love it, but I was influenced by American TV and fascinated by the idea that one could convince juries by acting, not by the law, but by the magic movement of the word."

But he became disenchanted and dropped out. A chance visit to a theater rehearsal soon led him to study acting.

Before long he had his first theater job as a Nazi colonel in a play about Janusz Korczak, a Polish educator who dedicated his life to protecting Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II and went to the concentration camps with them. (That true story was made into a controversial film by Andrzej Wajda.) Luppi loved the part because the colonel was not a one-dimensional character. "He had deep and painful issues of conscience."

Issues of conscience were very much on the minds of Argentine artists and writers who lived through the turbulent days of Juan Peron and the successive military coups that followed his ouster in 1955. For a few years, Luppi was able to work in the theater and on TV.

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