Scenes From Buenos Aires

What's Next for the New Argentine Cinema?
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
June 14 2006 11:51 AM

Scenes From Buenos Aires

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During the Buenos Aires film festival, movies run all day long, from roughly 11 in the morning until 2 a.m. The range of films on offer is extraordinary, including not only new films from all over the world but also an exceptional collection of classic movies. This year, there's a focus on older American independent movies—many of which are rarely screened in the States—and a retrospective of the great British film provocateur Peter Watkins.

The movies are shown at theaters scattered around the city, including a beautiful old art center with low-slung white leather seats; the MALBA (a museum of Latin American art); and the Hoyts multiplex in the Abasto mall, the headquarters of the festival (where we—OK, I—have ended up spending a lot of time playing video games while Meghan window-shops). It's a film lover's dream. Best of all, the tickets cost the equivalent of $1.70, which means you can spend the day at the movies and then go out to an exceptional dinner with a great bottle of wine, all for a total of $40 or so—about what you spend in New York just walking around. If you're still in a movie-watching mood when you get back to the hotel (as we often are), you can choose from a host of surprisingly good U.S. and European movies on cable, frequently broadcast in their original languages.

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Unfortunately, for the other 51 weeks in the year, it's not that easy to see Argentine movies in Buenos Aires. The Abasto Hoyts, for instance, has a reputation for being one of the few theaters that will give Argentine films a chance. Even so, it is devoting most of its non-festival screens to The Wild and V for Vendetta. Billboards across the city plug Hollywood movies, and the box-office top 10 routinely features seven or eight U.S. films. The week we're in town, the only Argentine film on the list is Daniel Burman's Derecho de Familia; its take is eclipsed even by a small-scale U.S. film like Woody Allen's Match Point. Even on television, our admittedly cursory survey suggests that it's far easier to find a classy French film or a mediocre U.S. movie like What Women Want than to see something like Mundo Grúa.

This isn't shocking; Hollywood's global dominance is well-known. But it's striking in Buenos Aires, because in other respects, the city seems decidedly its own—globalized, to be sure (Nike and Adidas stores are ubiquitous), but in no sense Americanized. Many porteños don't speak English, and the city is not exactly a bastion of contemporary U.S. pop culture. We saw no iPods, for instance. On the contrary, everywhere we went, stores played Argentine music or crooning, Latino versions of 1980s pop classics like "Purple Rain." In Palermo Viejo—an older, rundown section of the city that's now the hippest district—the men wore their hair in mullets (or, according to one porteño,chapas), which apparently appeal to the discerning porteño eye. Even so, at the cineplex, Hollywood rules. This may be because Argentine filmmakers are suspicious of commercial cinema. But it may also be a legacy of the complete mediocrity of Argentine cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. As  Pablo Suarez told us, "Before the mid-1990s, I'd say 80 percent of the people here said, 'I will not go see an Argentine movie.' The difference between any foreign film and one that was made here was just too vast."

Nine Queens DVD cover

What this means is that the vast majority of Argentine movies have almost no hope of making money in their own country. There are exceptions: Marcelo Piñeyro has had success with a couple of big, glossy films (his movie Burnt Money was also an art-house hit in the United States), and an animated film called Manuelita made millions in the late 1990s. More important, a few directors—like Daniel Burman (whom we'll sit down with tomorrow)—have been able to make the transition from boutique projects to movies that hold their own in the theaters, while Fabián Bielinsky had a massive hit—both critically and commercially—with his brilliant con-man film Nine Queens in 2000. But these are very much exceptions. When we talked with Sergio Wolf, the curator of this year's festival, about Argentine films, he put it simply: "There is no domestic market for most of these movies." The films survive in large part because of government subsidies and grants from outside foundations and festivals, and in some cases foreign sales help, too. In 1997, the government passed a law that dramatically increased the subsidies and played a key role in the cinematic renaissance that followed. As Andres di Tella, who curated the first Buenos Aires festival put it, "Argentine cinema would not exist without subsidies."

Paradoxically, then, even as Argentine movies become increasingly sought after outside the country, they remain relatively unpopular inside. Even more curious, just as the rest of the world has started to pay serious attention to the New Argentine Cinema, critics and filmmakers in Buenos Aires have decided that it's dead—or at least sick. Over the course of the week, in fact, the festival ran panel discussions asking, in different ways, "What's happening with the New Argentine Cinema?" and more than a few people have suggested that the answer is, "Not much."

In one sense, this is natural. It's been almost a decade since Pizza, Birra, Faso came out. Movements, even ones as vague and inchoate as the New Argentine Cinema, have limited life spans, and backlashes are inevitable, especially in a community as small and insular as this one. As Suarez put it, "It's a bit like love. At first, it's spontaneous, unplanned, and it's great. But that initial passion wears down, and it becomes tempting to say the love story's dead." Young directors are caught in something of a trap: On the one hand, if they just make Pizza, Birra, Faso II, it's going to seem too familiar. On the other hand, if a director strays too far from the formula that made him famous, he risks being attacked for abandoning his roots. As directors have started to make their second and third films, critics here have been (perhaps predictably) dissatisfied with them.

So, there's lots of pressure on directors. And one of the nice things about Buenos Aires is that the directors are willing to be honest about that. In a packed panel discussion, Ariel Rotter, who made a wonderful first movie about young slackers called Sólo por Hoy, talked about what it was like to make his second. "It felt very different this time, maybe just because I was so much more aware of what it takes to make a movie. It took me five years to return to filmmaking—it took me two years just to raise the money I needed—and I think I lost a little of the ingenuousness I had making that first movie." Another panelist who had just finished his second movie echoed that thought: "If I'd been more relaxed and calm, I think I could have made a better movie. I really felt the lack on this movie of that feeling of 'the future is bright.' "

There is something refreshing about this kind of relentless self-criticism—at least people are thinking hard about what kinds of movies should be made in Argentina—but from the outside, the death proclamations look remarkably premature. Many of the directors who spearheaded the first wave of new cinema—including Pablo Trapero and Adrián Caetano—have only gotten better as they've gotten older. And the rise of filmmakers like Lucrecia Martel (whose interrogations of bourgeois life are masterpieces) and Bielinsky (who is as artful yet accessible as Steven Soderbergh) bodes well. In the end, it may be that the anxiety that pervades the business is less about the specifics of filmmaking and more about a society that's still trying to figure out how stable its foundations really are.

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.

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