"Why are they fighting?" I asked.
"Because it's the 1970s," he whispered, shushing me.
It may seem foolish to travel several thousand miles just to dash to a movie theater. But what the early 1970s were to film in the United States (Nicholas Ray aside), the past decade has been to film in Argentina: a period of renaissance and excitement, thanks to a host of striking films that are usually grouped under the rubric "New Argentine Cinema." Buenos Aires has become a hot stop on the festival circuit, while Argentine movies—films like Lucrecia Martel's Holy Girl, Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens, and Pablo Trapero's Mundo Grúa—have gained increasing attention abroad, winning coveted prizes at Cannes, Sundance, and Rotterdam, and distribution in the United States and Europe. After seeing a few—and hearing about the city's cheap, cosmopolitan pleasures—we'd decided to take a cinematic tour of Buenos Aires. We'd visit during the week of the film festival, try to see some interesting new Argentine films, and talk to people in the film community about the New Argentine Cinema, all while getting a feel for the city itself.
Buenos Aires is the closest thing Americans have to a Paris of the 1920s or a Prague of the 1990s. On a recent night out in New York, I heard four writers mention they were heading to Buenos Aires for a prolonged visit. The reasons are largely economic: In 2001, the Argentine economy collapsed, and the value of the peso went with it. The city is now very cheap for Americans, especially in contrast to Western Europe. A cup of coffee costs about 60 cents. A good bottle of wine at a nice restaurant is about $8. The atmosphere is cosmopolitan: Many of the city's residents are descended from Italian and Spanish immigrants who came here in the late 19th century during the nation's first economic boom, at a moment when the government was especially welcoming to European migrants. Today's residents—known as porteños—are talkative and good-looking (if also enhanced with the aid of a surgeon's knife).
As cheap as it is, Buenos Aires is, relatively speaking, safe—unlike, say, Mexico City—and it looks, in a word, cinematic. This is due, no doubt, to its confluence of vastly different strains of architecture: an Italianate grand plaza, a colonial town hall, the beautiful Palermo parks, the fabulous Teatro Colón, and the Art Nouveau mansions and cafes of Recoleta. In Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together, about a gay couple who come to Buenos Aires from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the city looks nearly as stunning as Anna Karina in a Jean-Luc Godard film.
Our own stay began auspiciously, with a man cheering, "Welcome to Buenos Aires!" as the plane touched down, an enthusiastic spirit that proved characteristic of the city itself, at least on its surface. And we spent much of the next couple of days enjoying some of the city's more traditional pleasures. After the Ray film, we tried to get tickets to see Boca Juniors, one of Argentina's best soccer teams, play. No one from our hotel wanted us to go alone. Boca, the working-class neighborhood that's home to La Bombonera (the Boca Juniors' stadium), is famous for houses painted in resplendently bright colors, but it's also known for being a place tourists would be better off not getting lost in. So, we signed up with a tour group and ended up piled into a bus with a dozen or so European and U.S. soccer fans. A full hour before the game started, we arrived at the stadium along with the other tourists in our group and were herded into what looked like a glorified holding cell, modeled on an Old West town, where we were encouraged to buy beer, T-shirts, and other shabby-looking memorabilia. This, apparently, was a boondoggle of sorts exclusively for foreigners. The tour group was less about keeping us safe from hooligans, it seemed, than getting us to buy tchotchkes.
Eventually, we were snuck through the back hall of an eating establishment (at least, it smelled of food, and chickens roamed loose) toward the turnstiles. Along the way, confusing, menacing shouts broke out. I looked up to see a slew of Argentine policemen with billy clubs chasing us. It turned out that our tour guides had taken too short a cut, and the police were not happy; we'd skipped security. When we finally got in, we were seated on a concrete bleacher on the visiting team's side, where a high metal fence, topped by a generous helping of razor wire, separated us from the Boca fans. As it happened, though, the visiting team, Arsenal, wasn't one of Boca's big rivals, so there were no beer bottles tossed over the fence, and the game turned out to be a surprisingly good one: closer than expected, with lots of the action happening near the goal at our end. La Bombonera during a match is an intense sight: Its exceptionally steep stands filled to the brim, with one large section occupied entirely by hard-core Boca fans whose cheers and songs never stop and whose swaying shakes the entire stadium.
Even more than soccer, of course, Buenos Aires is known for tango, which has experienced a dramatic revival over the past decade. On Saturday night, we met up with my brother Liam and his friend Dave who—another sign that Buenos Aires is the Prague of the 2000s—just happened to be visiting at the same time. After dinner in the Microcentro, a bustling business district flanked with both skyscrapers and aging European buildings, we met up with friends of Liam's who work at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro and whowere also in town. We all went to a famous tango club, Confiteria Ideal. After some confusion with the cabdriver, who insisted he knew where he was going, then promptly got lost (this was beginning to seem characteristic), we found the place and paid a cover charge to enter a large room. Here, a live tango band played.
A few couples in their mid-40s and 50s tangoed on the dance floor, around which cafe tables were arranged in an impromptu fashion. A man who bore an eerie resemblance to Ariel Sharon danced with a very short-skirted older woman dressed in a slinky black halter top, slim-fitting pants, and high heels, under which red socks flashed, matching a perfectly placed barette. Their intricate steps were entrancing, a series of highly choreographed pauses that combined to dazzle the eye. Tango wasn't something that showed up in any of the Argentine films we'd seen so far—as if it were too self-consciously Argentine, too much part of a romanticized past these filmmakers were trying to get beyond—but it certainly made me feel that we were part of an epic film, cameras sweeping around us in the darkened, low-lit room.