Fabian Bielinsky, “Nine Queens / Nuevas Reinas” (2000)
Talented Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky made just two films before his untimely death in 2006 and his first, “Nine Queens”, is now considered a classic in his native country. A naive young wannabe grifter, Juan (Gaston Pauls), attaches himself to the older and more experienced con artist Marcos (Ricardo Dario) for 24 hours to learn the tricks of the trade after a botched scam at a convenience store. Marcos shows him how to improvise and create scenes at newsagents and restaurants in order to get what he wants while paying as little as possible.
Next thing you know, an old associate of Marcos, Sandler, calls Marcos to say he needs help in selling counterfeit copies of a stamp collection known as the Nine Queens. Sandler, Marcos and Juan target a rich Spanish businessman, Gandolfo, who is being deported to Venezuela and needs to smuggle his wealth out of Argentina. They take the fake stamps to Gandolfo at the hotel where he is staying – coincidentally the same hotel where Marcos’ sister Valeria and younger brother Federico work – and after Gandolfo’s hired expert has checked them and declared them authentic, the parties agree to the 450,000 peso exchange. As luck would have it though, the hired expert later demands a cut of the money (he knew the stamps were fakes) and a motorcycle gang steals the briefcase with the fake stamps and throws it into the river.
Marcos and Juan return to the owner of the stamps and persuade her to sell them for 250,000 pesos. The two men find the money to buy the stamps off her and return to Gandolfo, who then insists that he will only buy the stamps at the agreed price on condition that he gets to sleep with Valeria. Valeria for her part agrees to sleep with Gandolfo on condition that Marcos must confess to Federico that he, Marcos, scammed his siblings out of the family’s Italian property inheritance. Amazingly, everyone adheres to the various conditions of the deal and Marcos and Juan get paid – in a bank cheque. Marcos tries to cash the cheque but as luck would have it, the bank suffers a crash, all its customers try to pull their money out and the cheque is worthless.
The film is blessed with well-drawn character roles and fine acting along with a plot that’s just barely plausible. All attention is focused on dialogue and plot, and the actors (especially Dario) play their parts tersely and well. The pace is fast with brisk conversations, a minimal style of presentation and single-minded focus. By the film’s climax, viewers will feel everyone in the film is out to deceive and con someone out of money: Gandolfo’s hired expert is on the take and even Valeria, who despises Marcos for his character and seedy ways, seems prepared to prostitute herself for money. Soon it becomes apparent that the entire society in which Marcos and Juan live is full of con artists, as even banks – incidentally the film is set in Argentina at a time when the country was defaulting on its debts due to past corrupt governance and asset-stripping of the country’s resources under the façade of privatisation – go belly-up and leave their customers in the lurch while their executives are marched off to prison on charges of stealing and operating pyramid schemes.
Viewers who enjoy guessing how the plot unfolds may be surprised (pleasantly!) at the film’s denouement, in which supreme con-man Marcos is revealed to be the victim of an even bigger con carried out by all the people he has met during the course of the film. There is the suggestion that the giant con had been planned and executed to restore the moral fabric of the cosmos, put out of order and harmony by Marcos’ past scams and double-dealing. Marcos ends up thoroughly alone with not even the prospect of jail-time to add some meaning and purpose to his future. There is no outlet for him to do penance and perhaps turn over a new leaf, and that way gain some forgiveness and another chance at being a better person.
There is another lesson that the film conveys and that is a society built on self-interest, mutual mistrust of others and the belief that morality is only for suckers is a shaky one and when hard times come, that society will collapse and its future will be very bleak.