Nine Queens: clever film about two con artists with a message about how societies built on greed and mutual distrust crash

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.

El Aura: a complicated heist noir film of spooky mystery, escape and reinvention

Fabián Bielinsky, “El Aura / The Aura” (2005)

While promoting this film, Fabián Bielinsky died from a heart attack so “El Aura” and “Nueve Reinas / Nine Queens”, a clever heist classic, are all the full-length movies he has left to Argentine cinema. And a very excellent legacy Bielinsky has left behind too: cleverly made with complicated if not entirely serious plots and featuring considerable suspense and tension. “El Aura” is notable for its sweeping Patagonian desert and forest landscapes and the eerie atmosphere they possess, promising spooky mystery and potential for change and renewal. Spooky mystery and change leading to renewal are a-plenty in this suspenseful, almost existential psychological noir piece about the role fantasy and memory play in forging a new identity and changing people’s lives.

The action takes place over a week and the beginning and the ending of the film are almost much the same. Taxidermist Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) has a fantasy about committing the perfect crime and relates his fantasy to a friend who invites him on a hunting trip. Since Espinosa’s wife has just walked out on him, Espinosa agrees to accompany his friend. They drive to a remote bed-n-breakfast place run by Diana Dietrich (Dolores Fonzi) and her teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The two men go hunting and have a disagreement so they separate. Espinosa has one of his epileptic attacks in which his past, present and future all meld together; just after this attack, he sees what he thinks is a deer and ends up shooting … Diana’s husband (Manuel Rodal). This unfortunate incident leads Espinosa to investigate Dietrich’s affairs and uncover the man’s secret: Dietrich is a career criminal specialising in holding up armoured vehicles and stealing all their money. Suddenly Espinosa has the opportunity to take over Dietrich’s work and carry out another heist with Dietrich’s partners and Julio.

The film is leisurely paced, allowing viewers the time to admire and immerse themselves in the wide desert vistas, the quiet green forests, the rundown factory town Cerro Verde and above all the plot. Darin plays the loner Espinosa to perfection: this taxidermist is very much an outsider, ill at ease in the world around him, who lives in the world of his mind which turns out to be quite vivid and which saves his skin on several occasions in the film despite the epilepsy. The plot and Espinosa’s character develop steadily with room for laughs as well as suspense and sudden violence. The cinematography is beautiful and never more so when Espinosa suffers a fit: the turning camera captures vividly the visions that Espinosa has, his feeling of being apart from everything yet of it and the final black-out he experiences – this might be the closest cinema has come to delineating what an epileptic fit might be like to experience vicariously.

While astute viewers can almost predict how the plot turns out – I got the feeling early on that Espinosa will release Diana from the mental and physical prison her father and Dietrich placed around her and that Dietrich’s two partners will come to a grisly end – the gradual and confident unfolding is a pleasure to follow and keeps the viewer spellbound all the way to the end. If you subsist on a diet of Hollywood cinematic and TV thriller fare though, you may find “El Aura” slow and low-key as thrillers go.

Escape and reinvention are constant themes throughout the film: all characters desire or achieve escape of one sort or another though it may not be the kind of escape they desire. Even Espinosa, for all his wishful thinking, finds that escape through fantasy does not quite translate well into real life; priding himself on his ability to remember detail, there is one detail he fails to remember which becomes relevant to the heist that Dietrich and his friends were planning together and which he, Espinosa, stumbles upon and takes over. He eventually retreats from escape and is left with Dietrich’s sinister wolf-like pet dog. Perhaps the only person who achieves a successful escape and who may be able to achieve a new identity is Diana. Chance plays a major part too: it is by chance that Espinosa kills Dietrich and by chance several times during the film that Espinosa manages to escape death himself. This brings an aura (ha!) of dread and apprehension over the film itself. Espinosa’s alienation from the world and his laconic hang-dog expression add to the morose, insular and paranoiac atmosphere.

The conclusion may or may not come as a surprise though on reflection it should not really be a surprise: Espinosa finds he has bitten off more than he can chew, the world does not conform to his perceptions and expectations and even the experiences he has just before and during his epileptic fits and the visions he sees in those brief unsettling moments when he steps outside temporal reality are of limited help to him. The character may or may not have been changed by his experiences – viewers must decide for themselves if he has. Even when everything seems all wrapped up and no loose ends have been left behind, an uneasy mystery remains. “El Aura” is well-named.

 

Everybody has a Plan: slow-burn character study burdened by hokey plot twists and themes of identity, choice and responsibility

Ana Piterbarg, “Todos tenemos un Plan / Everybody has a Plan” (2012)

Ah, don’t we love films about identical twin brothers turning on themes of identity, choice and responsibility and giving actors a one-in-a-lifetime chance of giving two character studies for the price of one! And certainly Viggo Mortensen does a fine job of portraying two such fellows: one, Agustin, a squeaky-clean paediatrician on call in Buenos Aires, a man who scrupulously obeys the law and does as he’s told; and his identical twin Pedro, the polar opposite in every way – ostensibly a beekeeper but also running a kidnapping / ransoming racket with his childhood buddy Adriano (Daniel Fanego). The film also boasts some beautiful nature scenes from northern Argentina, courtesy of fine cinematography work by Lucio Bonelli, and promises an investigation into the nature of identity, the choices people make in life, reinventing oneself and accepting responsibility for those choices. What’s not to like?

Agustin lives a comfortable and secure life as a paediatrician with his wife Claudia (Soledad Villamil) in the Big Smoke but feels something lacking in his existence and yearns to escape his stress-filled life of the demands of administering to middle class parents’ brats and of his own high-maintenance spouse. Initially the couple had thought that children would help to fill the void in their lives and are in the process of adopting a baby but Agustin quickly realises that being childless isn’t the problem and backs out of the adoption process. This creates a rift between him and Claudia, and Agustin falls into a depression. Claudia leaves their apartment and while she’s gone, Pedro visits him. Pedro reveals he is dying of lung cancer and asks Agustin to help kill him. Pedro’s arrival gives Agustin an escape route and in no time at all, Agustin has fled BA and assumed Pedro’s identity and life-style as beekeeper in the Tigre river delta region in north-central Argentina. Life in a relaxed, down-at-heel rural area would seem to be idyllic but unfortunately Pedro’s past actions have unpleasant consequences for Agustin: local people treat him with suspicion and ostracise him, the police harass him and throw him into jail, and Pedro’s partner Adriano turns up to force his co-operation in a kidnap attempt that Pedro had earlier planned.

The film’s premise is ingenious if not executed very smoothly: there are a few loose ends and director Piterbarg would probably prefer that we not ask too many detailed questions about how well Agustin blends into the local Delta culture or that local girl Rosa (Sofia Gala Castaglione) doesn’t seem to notice the personality changes. The film’s rather glacial and cold pace gives audiences plenty of opportunity to ponder the stereotype of the city as a crime-ridden hell-hole of murders, arson and predatory gangs and the country as a paradise of simplicity and honest, decent folk. Everything we had assumed in popular culture about the city / country divide and the kinds of people produced on either side is turned on its head. Agustin is the naive bumpkin and Pedro is up to his neck in murder plots and robbery schemes. As he descends deeper into trouble, Agustin would appear to have opportunities to reconsider his decision to flee his old life but for reasons that have their roots in his and Pedro’s early upbringing, he passes them all up.

Mortensen’s acting is excellent while the support cast ranges from average to good. Fanego’s villain never seems quite convincing and merely comes across as creepy instead of menacing. Villamil is quite good in the few scenes she has and Castaglione is touching as the innocent Rosa caught among three men, all of them old enough to be her father. The countryside plays a significant role as a peaceful, placid setting for the dark activities the men conduct in secret that spread fear throughout the poor community.

The film could have been very good but in its later half falls into hokey plot twists: there’s an unnecessary romance involving Rosa that sat ill with me and that sub-plot comes with a soured aspect of Rosa’s complicated love-life as well; and Agustin finds himself torn between running farther north and resolving the mess that Pedro helped to create and left in a mess. That old Hollywood chestnut of facing your fears and not being a coward rears its ugly head here; there’s also a lesson about being decent, doing good for people and minimising evil actions. Perhaps the film took on too much in its own planning: the plot and even the setting of Buenos Aires / Tigre delta with their urban / rural opposition, the stereotypes and values associated with both sides of that opposition, and how those opposites play out against one another and come to a compromise (or not), might be too much for a 2-hour film to cope with.

The film’s conclusion in which Agustin is taken up-river in a boat is redolent with cultural associations of the river as a metaphor for the passage of time or the legend of King Arthur being taken away to Avalon to be healed of his mortal wounds; not everything has been resolved here and one fears for the future of some characters but at least Agustin has supposedly found some purpose in life and done, uh, some “good” for the community that he has come home to.

The bee-related theme that appears in the film is a metaphor for the notion of humans as essentially fixed in their natures, unable to change easily, and on this metaphor the film’s themes turn.

 

The Motorcycle Diaries: road trip through South America is a hard slog

Walter Salles, “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004)

A film about two guys in their 20s riding on a motorcycle through South America in the 1950s should have been easy to make entertaining, especially when the travellers in question come from comfortable middle-class families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the people in the places they visit are not only poor farmers, miners and labourers, these folks are also indigenous or part-indigenous people who might never have heard of Argentina or know it only as a country full of rich snobs. Add to that scenario the fact that one of the Argentine travellers is one Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or “Fuser” as he was known at the time by his pals: yes, that Ernesto Guevara aka Che Guevara the diplomat, writer, politician and revolutionary. Throw in side-trips to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, sites of the once-mighty Incan civilisation, with the added attraction of magnificent Andean mountain settings for the latter place; journeys across the Argentine pampa and over the snowy Argentine-Chilean Andes down to Valparaiso in Chile; an ill-advised hike by foot and hitch-hiking through the Atacama desert towards Peru; and a 3-week sojourn at a leper colony in Peru’s Amazonian territory near the end. How can you not make of this mixture a colourful and invigorating road trip spiced with questions about how some parts of South America became rich and other parts poor, how the aboriginal peoples were brought down so low by European colonisation, and what can the travellers do in their small ways to make amends for this situation?

Amazingly “The Motorcycle Diaries”, directed by Brazilian director Walther Salles using Guevara’s memoirs of the same name, and featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Fuser with Rodrigo de la Serna (in real life related to Guevara) as travelling companion Alberto Granado, turns out to be a hard and earnest slog starved for energy and vitality through an itinerary of touristy spots without the rip-off souvenir shops. The miners, farmers and other labourers Fuser and Granado meet add some substance and flavour to the places ticked off on their list but viewers get no sense of connection, of brotherly feeling between the Argentines and the people they meet. Part of the problem here is the blank-slate soporific acting style adopted by Garcia Bernal in playing Fuser: viewers have no idea of what Fuser’s early background was like apart from his being a medical student. Even in voice-over narrations when writing to his parents in letters and diary entries, Fuser never refers to past memories of family life which might hint at his relatively privileged childhood and the education he received. He comes over as a geeky and socially awkward young man with bland pretty-boy looks more likely to accept his doctor slot in the capitalist slave wage society, patching up people who get hurt in the course of being ground down by the system and fixing their problems so they can get back to being ground down, than as an independent-minded rebel in the making. The real-life Che Guevara must have been a much more intelligent, inquisitive and engaging man than the enervated and watery being viewers see in the film.

The other part of the problem is the narrative structure and the filming approach used to support it: “The Motorcycle Diaries” plays out in traditional story-telling mode about two travellers who want to go sight-seeing, pick up girls and have a good time; and the film crew use a mix of tracking, close-ups and occasional fixed shots to follow the duo. Very much a conventional way of recording Guevara’s memoirs in visual form but limited and alienating the audience as well: we go from A to B all the way to Z in a way that loses its zip as one picturesque scene after another ends up blending into a string of picturesque scenes all very much the same. There is no sense of a structure to the film other than a loosely knit series of both comedy and serious drama sketches in which Fuser and Granado suffer mishaps with the wheezing motorbike, get into scraps with men in small towns after flirting with their wives and girlfriends, lose their tent and beg for food, money and shelter from strangers; this could be any road-trip story with a couple of bumbling characters playing straight man and comic.

The film might have worked better if it had employed a more journalistic approach with occasional handheld camera shots of Fuser and Granado conversing with the people they meet, learning of their problems with their employers, landlords and the police, and put cameras on the motorbike itself in scenes where the men travel in the countryside and crash into cows or fall into ditches to convey a sense of movement, the thrill and dangers of travelling in unknown places where anything could happen, and the joy of being free and knowing that the people you will meet know nothing about you and have no expectations of you. A mix of different points of view or even using first-person viewpoints (Fuser or Granado) might have helped, particularly in scenes set in the leper colony so viewers get a sense of the ostracism and other indignities suffered by leprosy patients from the nuns, along with voice-over narration from Garcia Bernal as Fuser to put the scenes in both a historical and personal context that gives viewers some idea of what might have gone on in Fuser’s head and how he arrived at the conclusion that being a revolutionary would do more for the downtrodden and exploited than being a doctor.

At least the stunning landscapes, the towns visited and the indigenous people who share their problems with Fuser and Granado, as identified by Fuser/Guevara in 1952 when he took his trip, provide the film’s saving grace and make it worth seeing.