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Argentinean Films at the London Film Festival

The Latest New Wave: Argentinean Films at the London Film Festival

The notion of 'new wave' is probably one of the most meaningless concepts used in film criticism. Since the French nouvelle vague of the sixties, each time a nation produces two or three talented directors, the critics start to talk about a new wave. If this term had existed in the twenties, German expressionism and French impressionism would surely have been described as such.
In the last four decades, however, there are few new waves that either have some kind of stylistic unity or that show some continuity with the French nouvelle vague. Probably the only advantage of this term is that it gives some practical point of orientation for the film-snobs, the festival-goers and film distributors.
The last new wave was the Iranian one. In the late nineties, one could take it for granted that at least one of the major prizes at major film festivals would be awarded to an Iranian film. The renaissance of Iranian cinema, however, seems to be fading. The real film-snobs today look out for Argentinean films.
In the last two or three years, Argentina produced a new generation of film directors who - like the young Iranian directors of the nineties - tend to win important prizes at major film festivals. Just a couple of names: Lucrecia Martel, Diego Lerman, Pablo Trapero, Adrian Caetano, Celina Murga, Gabriela David, Luis Ortega, Santiago Loza, Carlos Sorín.
Most of these directors are very young. This is a real connection with the French nouvelle vague of the sixties: both movements were dominated by directors in their twenties. As Truffaut provocatively put it: "Filmmaking is not for the elderly; it's for young people. At least that's how it should be".
The young Argentinean cinema has been talked about at festivals for a couple of years, but mainly informally. At the London Film Festival, however, a panel with the title 'Against all Odds: the Argentinean New Wave' was dedicated to young Argentinean cinema.

The London Film Festival may seem to be an unlikely place for the official recognition of the fact that something very interesting is happening in Argentinean cinema. Most of the films that make up the grandly named 'Argentinean new wave' have never been distributed in London (as a matter of fact, outside of Argentina, most of these films have only been distributed in Paris). Also, the English are not known for their unequivocal enthusiasm for anything Argentinean.

On the other hand, one of the most interesting film festivals in London, the Discovering Latin America Film Festival brings South American and mainly Argentinean films to London for the third year in a row. The London Film Festival itself also presents a handful of Argentinean movies each year.

If one had to judge the state of Argentinean cinema on the basis of the films that were shown at the London Film Festival, it would be difficult to spot anything akin to a new wave. We got a fairly conventional political thriller (Cautiva - Captive), a youthful and highly entertaining crowd-pleaser identity drama (El Abrazo Partido - The Lost Embrace), two sociological films on the borderline between documentary and feature film (El Tren Blanco - The White Train and Parapalos - Pin Boy). None of these films are representative of the young Argentinean cinema - in either style, or in quality.

In contrast, La Niña Santa (The Holy Girl), the fifth Argentinean film shown at the festival is certainly not to be dismissed. The debut of the director, Lucrecia Martel, La Ciénaga, was one of the first films that heralded the advent of the Argentinean new wave. Surprisingly, however, this film is also quite atypical for a new Argentinean film. If there is a stylistic feature that characterises the films that are lumped together under the label of Argentinean new wave, it is some kind of detachment of the characters. The characters are observing the world and the people around them, but they very rarely get involved with them. The best examples for this are probably Caja Negra by Luis Ortega, Ana y los otros by Celina Mugra and especially Extraño by Santiago Loza. These films are about disappointed, aimless, but above all inactive people: they sit in cafés observing the world, doing nothing. They are calm, melancholic films with very little emotions expressed.

In contrast, the characters of La Niña Santa are the opposite of detached. The main character is a doctor who cannot help rubbing his body to young women in the crowd. One of these women is the daughter of the owner of the hotel where the doctor stays, who finds this nauseating and exciting at the same time. Things are getting worse when we learn that the girl's mother is attracted to the doctor and that he has a charming family. This dense and emotionally loaded drama unfolds against the backdrop of a hotel that must have been very classy a couple of decades ago, but all that remained of it is a ghastly crumbling rundown building, that obviously elicits some associations of Argentina in general.

The ending of the film is especially remarkable. Having given every indication that a public revelation of the doctor's behaviour is about to occur in the hotel lobby, the film ends with the image of two girls who are partly responsible for this scandal floating in the hotel's swimming pool peacefully and innocently. We never learn what happens to the doctor. This last scene brings a moment of peace and calm as a counterpoint at the end of a film that is disturbing and stressful to watch, the opposite of the calm and melancholic films that are typical of young Argentinean cinema.

I need to mention an Argentinean-Uruguayan film that, in spite of being directed by two Uruguayan filmmakers, shows more continuity with the Argentinean new wave than any Argentinean film shown at the festival. Whisky is the new film of Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stroll, whose debut feature, 25 Watts, won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam - the festival that was among the first ones to discovered Argentina.

Whisky is about a man who lives alone, going through the same routines every day in his small business. When his brother visits him from abroad, he asks one of his employees to pretend that she is his wife - it is not clear why. As a matter of fact, very few things are clear in this film - another typical feature of young Argentinean cinema. The motivations and emotions of the characters are almost entirely opaque. So are the actual events. There is a growing attraction between the brother and the fake wife, but we never know whether anything happens - the films leaves this possibility beautifully ambiguous. One could think that we see very little drama in this film, but in fact there are tons of it, all happening under the surface, hardly visibly, like in a Chekhov-play. This characterisation would fit most of the new Argentinean films. The young Argentinean cinema is very Chekhovian in spirit.
The recent rise of Argentinean cinema raises an obvious question. Why is it that Argentinean cinema started to prosper exactly when the country is going through terrible times and when the Argentinean middle class is about to disappear without a trace?
It is almost a commonplace that countries that live in prosperity and freedom are not very good at producing interesting films. The Eastern European cinema of the sixties or the Iranian cinema of the nineties show that a touch of dictatorship can do wonders with the cinema of a country. A more important similarity is that as the most interesting and artistically valuable Iranian and Eastern European films, the best examples of the new Argentinean cinema do not address the political and social situation directly. The best films are not political or sociological works. The strained situation of Argentina appears in the films only indirectly - mostly in the lost illusions of the characters.

Bence Nanay


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