Argentine waves

Children of the slammed: The Almodóvarian comedy Kept and Dreamless, top, and the scathing documentary A Social Genocide look at Argentina's current economic crisis from different angles.
ONE COULD EASILY argue that Argentina is home to the most exciting filmmaking in the world at the moment – and certainly, with the possible exception of South Korea, it is the core site of fresh work by women directors – if the country itself and the new voices emerging from it weren't so disparate, drawing from European and American influences as well as the history of a Latin American country second only to Brazil in terms of film production. This achievement is amazing, considering the country's new wave has risen from – and crashed against – economic ruin.

In December 2001, Argentina's then-president, Fernando de la Rúa, declared a state of siege. People banging pots and pans had taken to the streets across the country, and at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, confrontations between police and protesters resulted in 26 deaths. Following a credit sequence that juxtaposes close-ups of starving children with travels through the ornate halls of the privileged elite, Fernando E. Solanas's A Social Genocide captures this volatile moment in recent history. While Solanas doesn't spend much time on what's happened since de la Rúa was removed from office, his documentary is angrily precise about how Argentina reached a stage of widespread desperation.

A leader of Argentina's militant Third Cinema of the 1960s, Solanas bears the scars of someone who has publicly confronted the country's corrupt mafiocracy – he was shot six times in the legs when he spoke out against neo-Peronist former president Carlos Menem's dismantling of Argentina's then nationally owned oil company, YPF. That incident is just a passing instant in A Social Genocide's sustained blistering assault on Menem's government, which Solanas holds responsible for numerous cynical acts of treason. Shots of Menem playing tennis and shaking hands with Mick Jagger accompany Solanas's investigations into Menem's role in the illegal financial operations of Citibank, narco-trafficking, and the privatization of public wealth. By the end of A Social Genocide, the director has built a strong case that Menem should be indefinitely jailed, which makes the postscript's revelation that Menem contested Nestór Kirchner in a 2003 presidential runoff all the more sobering.

In "Letter from Buenos Aires," published last year in the New Left Review, exiled writer and director Edgardo Cozarinsky – who fled Argentina in the mid-'70s for France – records his perceptions of the city during the early stages of Kirchner's presidency, an "obligatory honeymoon period." Cozarinsky's first feature shot in Buenos Aires in decades, Ronda nocturna captures a city where, as his "Letter" notes, hints of economic recovery and shantytowns are side by side, and where entire suburban families have now joined the ranks of the cartoneros. Our guide is handsome Victor (Gonzalo Heredeia, a Gael García Bernal look-alike shot up with Teorema-era Terence Stamp hormones), a hustler out to kill the final hours before All Souls' Day as lucratively as he can – if they don't kill him first.

A sex-scented atmospheric nocturnal romp, Cozarinsky's film improves on both João Pedro Rodrigues's recent Lisbon-set O Fantasma and Veronica Chen's similarly Buenos Aires-set hustler drama Smokers Only. Chen's film is an obvious influence, but Ronda nocturna travels the same streets with more experience. According to Borges (whom Cozarinsky has authored a book about), tango music suggests both a real and an imagined past, and Ronda nocturna effectively exploits this quality, while also evoking American cinema of the '70s, specifically Warhol's Flesh and Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45. Tonally speaking, Cozarinsky's movie couldn't be further from Solanas's, yet in one passage, the camera follows drug-dealing Victor on a trip to his suppliers, who turn out to be high-ranking dignitaries.

The French cinema that Cozarinsky has taken as a second home is evident in Celina Murga's Rohmer-like 2004 Ana and the Others, which played last year's fest. Continuing the festival's commitment to female directors and Latin American cinema, this year brings Ana Poliak's debut feature, Pin Boy, a meditative character study with ties to Pasolini, and Vera Fogwill and Martin Desalvo's Kept and Dreamless, which has the spirit of Pedro Almodóvar's pre-gloss early comedies.

Poliak's quiet drama is defined by painterly composition, while Fogwill and Desalvo's comedy is mouthy and messy, yet Argentina's economic crisis looms to the fore of both. Pin Boy's memorable credit sequence takes a long look at nude Adrián (Adrián Suárez), a Vincent Gallo look-alike with a drum-tight stomach, as he expectantly waits on the examination table at a doctor's office. When the physician berates Adrián about his chosen profession – a pin boy at one of the last manually operated bowling alleys in Buenos Aires, if not the world – Poliak's camera scrutinizes him with similar intensity and detachment, closing with a look at his tonsils. Pin Boy occupies a different type of dark cavern, the enclosed space at the end of the bowling alley where pin boys reside, for much of its running time.

If Poliak (who studied under Solanas) pledges allegiance to the working classes, Fogwill and Desalvo express a dedication to women that cuts across strata, from unemployed drug-addict mom Florencia (Fogwill, as pale, skinny, and severe as a young Patti Smith) to her rich best friend and psychoanalyst mother. Kept and Dreamless begins with nine-year-old Eugenia mistaking her mother's nose candy for sweetener. The pair's grandmotherly neighbor Olga prefers prescribed medications, but a sad-funny scene in which she catalogs the pill bottles in her bathroom cabinet shows she's no less hooked. The film's men are peripheral, either fat, immature dealers or absentee parents fond of taking vacations from their vacations. Fogwill casts her lot with society's dropouts; at one point Olga goes to a government office to declare herself dead so she can collect a larger pension.

Occupying a space somewhere between Cozarinsky's urban travelogue and the welcome-to-the-jungle tension of Lisandro Alonso's brilliant Los muertos (reviewed by Chuck Stephens in this issue) is the potent, unsettling vision of Lucrecia Martel. Specifically, Martel's movies are set 1,200 miles north of Buenos Aires, in the Salta province. Her 2001 debut, La cienéga, began with a memorably ugly scene of saggy-bodied suburbanites drinking around a dirty pool, going on to render the crumbling of the middle classes through bad dye jobs, trips that fail to materialize, nonstop drinking, and crooked teeth. A sighting of the Virgin -- above a water tower! -- generates considerable TV coverage as the film's families flirt and bicker. Martel's new film, The Holy Girl, which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, juggles the same themes of religious and adolescent passion -- from a slightly quieter remove -- in a different Salta setting: a decaying hotel. There, 16-year-old Amalia (María Alche) becomes convinced her vocation is to save the soul of a balding doctor (Carlos Belloso) who sneaks a grope at her during a theremin demonstration.

Martel might be the strongest Argentine presence on the international scene, but in the past five years, talents such as Albertina Carri (The Blondes), Carlos Sorin (Minimal Stories), Diego Lerman (Suddenly), Enrique Piñeyro, and María Victoria Menis have also emerged, or reemerged. (Features by the latter two, Whisky Romeo Zulu and Little Sky, are reviewed by Cheryl Eddy and Dennis Harvey elsewhere in this issue.) The figurehead of this new Argentine cinema might be Pablo Trapero, who mentored the critically acclaimed Alonso, and whose 1999 Crane World is often cited as the first film of the movement to achieve international recognition, signaling a rejection of '80s-era commercial artifice and a dedication to depicting real lives. (Trapero's latest, Rolling Family, plays during week two of this year's fest.)

The more traditional genre-bound cinema of Argentina's past hasn't exactly withered and died, as Marcelo Piñeyro's Burnt Money and Fabián Bielinsky's Nine Queens have proved, but there's no denying that Argentina's new wave utilizes a different set of guidelines, often following Trapero's example by placing a light dramatic overlay on essentially doclike material. At a time when (according to A Social Genocide) 55 Argentine children die every day of malnourishment, the fluorishing of the country's cinema – thanks in part to a proliferation of film schools – would seem like an example of misplaced priorities, if the movies themselves weren't such vivid reflections of and commentaries about contemporary life in the country. What is the current state of Argentina? The country itself may be in economic dire straits, but take a look at its movies and you'll find a wealth of answers.

Johnny Ray Huston

'The Holy Girl' (2004) plays Fri/22, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki; Sun/24, 6 p.m., PFA.

'Little Sky' (2004) plays 3:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/26, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki.

'Los muertos' (2004) plays Sat/23, 9:45 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/26, 2:15 p.m., Kabuki; Sat/30, 7:15 p.m., PFA.

'Pin Boy' (2004) plays Sat/23, 7 p.m., PFA; Sun/24, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki; Tues/26, 3 p.m., Kabuki.

'Rolling Family' (2004) plays April 30, 2:30 p.m., Castro; May 2, 9 p.m., Kabuki.

'Ronda nocturna' (2005) plays Sat/23, 7 p.m., Kabuki; Mon/25, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki.

'A Social Genocide' (2004) plays April 28, 8:45 p.m., Kabuki; May 1, 3:40 p.m., PFA.

'Whisky Romeo Zulu' (2004) plays Sat/23, 4:10 p.m., PFA; May 1, 6 p.m., Kabuki; May 4, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki.