Digital Channel > Talk Notes – One Hour Intro to Contemporary Argentine Cinema

Talk Notes – One Hour Intro to Contemporary Argentine Cinema

Over the years, Argentinian cinema has been an important presence at ¡Viva! and the 2019 edition is no exception, with six new films from Argentina. The consistency in terms of levels of production and international recognition of Argentinian cinema in the past twenty years, and the constant emergence of new cinematic voices, indicate the vitality and health of a national film industry that continues to be among the most exciting film scenes in the world. Argentina is among the top fifteen countries ranked by the number of feature films produced. Moreover, it is, after Spain, the Spanish-speaking country with the largest number of releases per year.

Thus, it might surprise some to learn that in the mid-90s Argentinian cinema was in a near-terminal state. In 1994, for example, only five films were released. In 2002, only six years later, the number was sixty-nine. Therefore, to understand contemporary Argentinian cinema we need to go back to the period from the mid to late 90s, when the Argentinian film industry went from facing extinction to a resurgence that would soon position it firmly back in the international film circuit.

There are many reasons that explain the rebirth of the Argentinian film industry at the turn of the 21st century, but there is general agreement that the central factor was state intervention. In 1994, a law was promoted by sectors of the industry concerned with the alarming fall in film production. This law imposed screening quotas for domestic films, and, more importantly, introduced a series of taxes on cinema tickets, video rentals and sales, as well as the broadcasting of films on television. Thanks to these taxes, the National Film Institute increased its funding significantly, and part of this money was used to provide small grants opportunities for young filmmakers.

The term ‘Nuevo cine argentino’ (New Argentinian Cinema) was used to describe the works of these young filmmakers who, thanks to the availability of state funding, were now in the position to make their first films. Many of Argentina’s most celebrated contemporary directors – including Lucrecia Martel, Adrián Caetano and Pablo Trapero – were members of this group. The directors of the New Argentinian Cinema achieved critical success domestically and abroad, especially in the festival circuit and with art-house audiences. At the turn of the 21st century, New Argentinian Cinema had achieved an excellent international reputation amongst film critics as one of the most innovative cinemas in the world. Key films:

  • Historia breves [Short Stories] (1995): a collection of short films funded by the National Film Institute, featuring most key directors of Nuevo cine argentino.
  • Breakthrough: Pizza, birra, faso [Pizza, Beer, Smokes] (Israel Adrián Caetano & Bruno Stagnaro, 1998): won the jury’s prize at the Mar del Plata Film Festival and cast visibility on the renovation in cinematic language of these young filmmakers.
  • Maturity: Mundo grúa [Crane World] (Pablo Trapero, 1999) and La Ciénaga [The Swamp] (Lucrecia Martel, 2001). In these, many of the ideas ventured in previous films were presented in a more sophisticated and developed way.

New Argentinian Cinema was never a proper organic movement, yet it can still be seen as a common project for directors – but also actors, technicians, scriptwriters and producers – who shared similar aesthetic and narrative parameters and production strategies. I’ll focus on two key elements that brought most filmmakers together. The first one is New Argentinian Cinema’s rejection of the language and aesthetics of the previous generation, which had produced much of its work in a context marked by a transition to democracy after a brutal dictatorship 1976-1983 (known as el Proceso) which included the disappearance of 30,000 people. When the country returned to democracy, cinema became a key tool to create social consensus around democracy and human rights (Aguilar, 2006; Andermann, 2012). The main style of cinema favoured at that time was a highbrow or middlebrow melodrama that often dealt with the recent dictatorial past. These films presented, nonetheless, a rather simplistic account of el Proceso and left little room for the spectators to come up with their own critical interpretations of things. They favoured a very pedagogical and patronising language, which was supposed to create a common memory of the dictatorship, as democracy was being re-established and consolidated.

An example of this is La Historia oficial [The Official Story] (Luis Puenzo, 1985), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film – the first Latin American film to do so. The film tells the story, during the last months of el Proceso, of an upper-middle-class woman who, with her husband, has adopted a child in dodgy circumstances. A series of events lead the protagonist to slowly start realising the extent of state terrorism and, more crucially, that her adopted child is actually the daughter of a disappeared person. The dictatorship is thus presented as a mystery that is slowly being revealed by and to the protagonist, as the character eventually contacts the biological grandmother of her adopted daughter and confronts her husband, who does not want to return the child to her real family. Through these actions, the film redeems the protagonist from any responsibility with the regime. Furthermore, it also symbolically absolves Argentinian society – and, particularly, the middle class – in line with the official ‘Two Demons’ discourse favoured by the democratic government of Raúl Alfonsín at the time (this interpretation of the 1970s stated that Argentinian society had been caught in a conflict between two extremist factions, the left-wing guerrilla and the right-wing military, and minimised or ignored the complicity of sectors of civil society with the dictatorship).

This type of cinema, although initially successful in critical and commercial terms, both in Argentina and abroad, was in crisis by the mid-90s. New Argentinian Cinema rejected this way of representing this past and, particularly, the melodramatic and pedagogical overtones. When the experiences and legacies of the dictatorship are explored, this is done in a subtler and complex way, as it is the case with Albertina Carri’s 2003 documentary Los Rubios [The Blonds]. Nonetheless, more importantly, many of these directors seemed relatively unconcerned with the recent national history and much more interested in exploring their present. The late 90s and early 2000s was a time in which Argentina was in a state of financial meltdown and social emergency. The crisis became a stimulus for filmmaking. In this sense, New Argentinian Cinema can be considered a series of snapshots that capture the country’s rapid decline. This is the second crucial issue that I consider allows looking at the language and aesthetics of New Argentinian Cinema as an expression of a movement, even if not a fully-fledged programmatic one.

Many directors shifted their attention to the social margins: criminals, undocumented immigrants, the disenfranchised youth, the unemployed. And they did so with ethnographic curiosity, playing with the borders between reality and fiction, using amateur actors, shooting on location, using certain techniques to connote roughness, and incorporating oral language and slang (Page, 2009). Many films were also marked by a certain urgency to capture this time of financial collapse. At least at the beginning, many films were shot with extremely low budgets, proudly displaying the rough and precarious nature of their conditions of production as an aesthetic insignia. Pizza, birra, faso provides a compelling example of the rupture brought about by this new cinematic grammar.

New Argentinian Cinema did not only explore life in the margins with neo-realist potency. It also experimented with a narrative language that challenged the idea of totalising discourses and certainties. The films of the late 90s and early 2000s are characterised by open endings, an absence of climaxes, inconsistent narrative, and ambiguous characters, and a common rejection to read everything politically (Aguilar, 2006; Andermann, 2012). There is usually a lot of room for interpretation, forcing the spectator to assume a more active role. These films reproduced the sense of disorientation and desperation of society of the time, deliberately frustrating the audience by refusing to provide it with the comfort of any certainty on screen (Aguilar, 2006; Page, 2009).

If New Argentinian Cinema was extremely successful in critical terms, it never fully managed to replicate this success in the box office. Nonetheless, it put Argentina again in the map of world cinema as a highly exciting film industry. In the mid to late 2000s, new voices appeared, some of them – like the filmmakers organised around El Pampero Cine – favouring a renovation of the language of New Argentinian Cinema via more experimental approaches. However, other young directors emerging in the mid to late 2000s opted for a renovation sustained on more conventional narrative and aesthetic approaches. In fact, many experienced filmmakers from New Argentinian Cinema also transitioned towards these more traditional cinematic languages.

In general, we can see in Argentinian film production in the past ten years an increasing move towards genre cinema. Rather than challenging the spectator, as many early New Argentinian Cinema films did, films now seem to be more willing to play with the conventions of specific genres: thriller, noir film, action, black comedy, etc. This is also exemplified by the presence of many actors from the local star system who, at the turn of the 21st century, had been deliberately side-lined by New Argentinian Cinema. The archetypical example of this is Ricardo Darín. The Argentinian films in this year’s ¡Viva! include Guillermo Francella (in the 90s, an extremely popular TV comedian), Darío Grandinetti (a well-known face from 80s and 90s mainstream cinema and TV), and Cecilia Roth (known for her work with Pedro Almodóvar, among others).

There has beens a shift towards a different relationship with the past as well. Partly thanks to the parricidal work of New Argentinian Cinema during the late 90s, directors now seem free from the shadow of 80s cinema and its allegorical and moralistic approaches. Thus, many are turning again to the 70s – though mainly as a resource for genre cinema. Trapero’s 2015 film El Clan [The Clan], part of ¡Viva! 2016, and starring Francella, exemplifies that. The film tells the real story of a criminal family who was active in Buenos Aires during the last years of the dictatorship, and which included members of the so-called grupos de tareas, the infamous tasks forces of el Proceso. However, the film does not seek to produce a moral or political discourse about the past, but actually uses the past as a convenient setting for what is in practice a crime fiction. The films do not feel the need to interpellate the spectator in order to produce a collective interpretation of the dictatorship, as Argentinian cinema did in the 80s.

¡Viva! 2019 includes two interesting examples of a similar strategy: Benjamín Naishtat’s Rojo [2018]) and Luis Ortega’s El Ángel [The Angel, 2018]. The noir film Rojo focuses on the months immediately before the 1976 coup. As Jens Andermann (2018) points out, the somewhat faded colour of the image, the costumes and the settings, the sound, and the presence of Grandinetti, all give a particular vintage touch to this film. Rather than watching a film about the past, the sensation that one has is that of watching a film from the past. And although here there is an attempt to articulate a political message, this is subsumed under the 70s American mystery thriller tradition that Rojo is citing – films like Friedkin’s The French Connection and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, or the television detective series Columbo.

El Ángel, like El Clan, looks at one of the most well-known cases in the country’s criminal history: Carlos Robledo Puch, Argentina’s worst serial killer who, between 1971 and 1972, killed eleven people. His young age (he was 20 when captured), his angelic childlike face, and his middle-class background, all shocked Argentinian society at the time. El Ángel relies on a pop aesthetics that constantly cites the turn of the 70s and, at times – like Rojo – transforms from a film about 1971-2 into a film from that period. An example of this is a scene in which Robledo Puch watches his accomplice sing in a television talent show. The black-and-white footage we see in the television set in the mise-en-scene eventually expands to occupy the totality of the screen space, which are fully taken over by 1971.

Another interesting aspect of more recent developments in Argentinian cinema is a renewed interest in the middle class. Many directors in the late 90s, like Lucrecia Martel and Martin Rejtman, turned their attention to the bourgeoisie, yet the general focus seemed to be on the experiences of the working class and the precariat at a time of economic meltdown. Today, as another financial crisis is affecting Argentina, there seems to be a much more sustained fascination with the middle class than with the working poor and marginality. Yet, this focus does not explore the middle class relationship with this current state of economic struggle. Instead, it seems more detached from this concrete socioeconomic context and, in turn, is more attentive to middle class moral qualities – particularly an alleged inclination towards evil and viciousness. Armando Bo’s Animal, shown in ¡Viva! 2019, shows an archetypical bourgeois character who is progressively caught in a circle of moral degradation, paranoia and violence, as a guy from the underclass who has agreed to sell him an organ he needs to survive tries to trick him. The organ donor and his girlfriend are the embodiment of the Argentinian middle class’ paranoid view of the urban poor: they are dirty, lazy and dishonest and they ruthlessly take advantage of hard-working middle-class people like the protagonist as they disregard effort as a tool for social mobility.

Rojo and El Ángel also look at the ways in which middle-class characters are caught in circles of criminality and moral perversion – in this case, as if these were the natural outcome of some innate evil predisposition. In this sense, it is possible to say that, although somehow detached from the current socio-political context in Argentina, these films are nonetheless addressing, even if tangentially, the rise of middle-class classist, xenophobic and racist discourses, and the renewed calls to be tough on crime, repress social protest and reduce social welfare – a phenomenon that is by no means unique to Argentina, as the turn to the right in most South American countries, and beyond, indicates.

To conclude, I’ve here summarised the key developments in Argentinian cinema in the past twenty years. It was literally resurrected in the late 90s with films that denounced the 80s obsession with the past, turning its attention to the present of economic crisis, with an aesthetic and narrative revamp. Then in the past ten years, Argentinian cinema has continued to thrive, as it has evolved into more conventional narratives, less reluctant to engage with the past and more fascinated by middle class violence and moral decay. In the current context of another economic crisis, and the austerity measures of Mauricio Macri’s neoliberal government, it is uncertain what will the future of national cinema be, though so far it has managed to continue being one of Argentina’s most active and exciting cultural sectors.

Words by Ignacio Aguiló, University of Manchester. 

¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival 2019 runs from Fri 22 Mar 2019 – Sat 13 Apr 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.

Bibliography
– Aguilar, Gonzalo (2006) Otros mundos: un ensayo sobre el nuevo cine argentino. Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos Editor.
– Andermann, Jens (2012) New Argentine Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris.
– Andermann, Jens (2018) ‘Argentine cinema after the New: Territories, languages, medialities’, Sense of Cinema [Online]. [8 March 2019]. Available from: http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/latin-american-cinema-today/argentine-cinema-after-the-new-territories-languages-medialities/
– Page, Joanna (2009) Crisis and Capitalism in Contemporary Argentine Cinema. Durham; NC: Duke University Press.