Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Suburban Psychopaths? Argentina's Cinematic "Clan"

One or twice a week, in summer, I ride my bicycle over the Oakland Hills and into the town of Orinda – a distance of about 20 miles - where I have lunch before taking BART back home or doubling back over the hills into Berkeley and thence home. On occasion, though, my wife and I drive to Orinda to enjoy a movie at its classic deco cinema (pictured below) – as we did last Saturday.
When I checked online movie schedules, my wife was looking for a comedy and her choice was the Meryl Streep vehicle “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a gimmicky film that was a waste of time and money. I was surprised, though, to see that the theater – which has divided itself into one large salon, where Streep was on the screen, and three smaller halls that sometimes provide artsier options - was also showing director Pablo Trapero’s dark drama “The Clan,” set in Argentina’s post-Dirty War period.

It surprised me because Orinda is an upper-upper-upper middle class town that’s relatively conservative by Bay Area standards, and “The Clan” is the kind of film that I’d expect to have greater appeal in more diverse and politically active cities such as San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley. Mind you, there were few viewers at the late Saturday showing of Meryl Streep’s film that we attended (By the way, I like and respect Streep, but her new film is no "Sophie's Choice").
That said, I really wanted to see “The Clan,” Trapero’s version of a true crime story in which suburban Buenos Aires patriarch Arquímedes Puccio (played by Guillermo Francella, pictured above left) recruits his son (Peter Franzini, at right) and other family members into a kidnap-for-ransom scheme that goes wrong - especially when Puccio loses the protection of his military contacts after Argentina’s return to constitutional government in 1983. On a Monday afternoon, there were only nine of us in the audience.

Previously, the children worked in the family’s downstairs corner deli, but most of them – not all – become at least complicit in the father’s psycopathic attempt at economic and social advancement. There are some truly discomfiting scenes as Arquímedes phones the families of his victims to extort a ransom from them – in US dollars, of course, at a time when inflation sometimes reached 50 per cent per month.

“The Clan” is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an absorbing portrayal of a dysfunctional family in unstable circumstances. Francella, who made his reputation as a comedian, is disturbingly effective as a sociopathic control freak, even as he helps his youngest daughter with her homework. The others, though, he betrayed – only to be betrayed by superiors on whom he tried to deflect the blame for his crimes.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Patagonia's Parallel Route: a Road-Trip Reminiscence

Patagonia’s a huge region – Argentina’s sector is about the size of Texas and Chile’s is roughly the same as Germany – which means that the region provides almost limitless opportunities for a road trip. I’ve written here often on Chile’s scenic Carretera Austral, but I’ve paid less attention recently to Argentina’s Ruta 40, which parallels the Chilean highway.

Connecting northernmost Argentina’s border with Bolivia to the southernmost tip of its continental territory, facing the open South Atlantic, Ruta 40 is a legendary highway – comparable to Route 66 in the United States. Many US musicians have covered the rhythm and blues standard “Route 66,” but Argentina’s Dylanesque singer-songwriter León Gieco has recorded a series of albums covering the geographical (and musical) distance from La Quiaca (in the north) to Ushuaia (in the south), with assistance from Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Their musical route strayed from Ruta 40 at times, but always pointed in the right direction.
I have driven most (but not quite all) of Ruta 40, most memorably in in 1991, when my wife, a friend and I took four days in southern Patagonia to cover the distance between El Calafate and the more northerly town of Perito Moreno on what was then a precarious gravel road – though now it’s an almost entirely paved parallel to its Chilean counterpart. In a rattling 1969 Peugeot panel truck (pictured below) I got from my father-in-law, we covered some 500-plus kilometers in four days and saw a total of three other vehicles. En route, our transmission lost first and fourth gears, so we made most of the trip in second and third (eventually we were able to repair it in Bariloche).
Unlike the forested Chilean route, the Argentine side consists mostly of scrubby steppes which, however, in the words of Charles Darwin, were notable for “the free scope given to the imagination.” Many times I’ve crossed the “Big Sky Country” of Montana, but this was even “Bigger Sky Country.”
But there were individual sights to remember. One was a westward detour to the splendid isolation of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (pictured above, not to be confused with the Perito Moreno Glacier), where we were the only visitors on the eastern front range of the Andes. Another was the desolate settlement of Bajo Caracoles, still home to the only gas station along the route and a landmark roadhouse hotel. Then there was the Cueva de las Manos - now a UNESCO World Heritage Site - for pre-Columbian paintings of human hands, wildlife and even abstract designs in the canyon of the Río de las Pinturas (pictured below).
In the ensuing years, I’ve driven this segment and more at least another dozen times. The road and its services are constantly improving – guest ranches and even restaurants are more common – but it’s the vast landscape that brings me back to an area that, to paraphrase Darwin, has taken “so firm a hold on my memory.”
There is also public transportation, at least in summer, from El Calafate and El Chaltén north to Los Antiguos (and beyond to Bariloche), with Chaltén Travel and Taqsa. At those destinations, and at several other locations, it’s possible to cross the border and continue the road trip on the Chilean side.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Open(ing?) Skies of South America

Those of us who live in North America often resent the “legacy airlines” – I’ll refrain from mentioning any names – because of their arbitrary rules, rigidity and, of course, astronomical fares. Fortunately for me, I fly only rarely in the United States, and am usually able to use a more reasonable regional airline, but I have a bit more experience in southernmost South America.
In some ways, the situation is similar. Both Argentina and Chile have legacy airlines – Aerolíneas Argentinas and LATAM (formerly LAN), respectively – that dominate domestic air services in those countries. Both began as state-run airlines that underwent privatization in the late 20th century (Aerolíneas is once again state-run), and competitors have had a hard time of it. In Argentina, LATAM’s local affiliate runs a distant second and the state-run LADE (the air force’s Patagonia passenger service) a very distant third. In Chile, Sky Airline occupies a secondary role and there have been some small regional carriers, such as Aerovías DAP in the southernmost Patagonian region of Magallanes.
Both Argentina and Chile need extensive air services – Argentina is the world’s eighth-largest country and Chile stretches from the tropics to the sub-Antarctic – but most secondary and tertiary airlines have failed. It doesn’t help that, in both countries, nearly all long-distance flights are routed through the capital cities – because of this, flying from the Argentine coastal city of Puerto Madryn to the Andean resort of Bariloche (a distance of 928 km) takes nearly as long as the bus. Flying is also more expensive and, in addition, foreign passengers in Argentina pay a penalty (described as a discount for Argentine nationals).

Things may be changing, though. According to several reports, the low-cost airlines Ryanair and Avianca are due to start Argentina operations early next year. This is an encouraging development, but it comes with caveats: as the Buenos Aires daily La Nación has noted, there are numerous obstacles to be overcome – most notably, government-set minimum fares, the lack of secondary airports, the absence of night flights, and strong labor unions. In Europe, for instance, Ryanair personnel clean the cabins, but Argentina’s powerful unions will surely raise objections to that.

Meanwhile, across the Andes, the ironically named Chilean Airwaysfinanced by Bolivian capital, despite diplomatic distance between the two countries over lingering border disputes – has begun services from Santiago to northern domestic destinations including La Serena, Antofagasta, Calama, Iquique and Arica, and international routes that include Buenos Aires, Asunción (Paraguay), and Bolivian cities. If it lasts, this would supplement the northern Chilean services of LATAM and Sky Airline (currently reinventing itself as a budget airline).
Farther south, in Chilean Patagonia, DAP (seen above landing in Antarctica) has recently announced that it will fly twice weekly between the southern Patagonian city of Punta Arenas and the northern Patagonian airport of Balmaceda (pictured below, near the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique). This would make it easier for Patagonian travelers to visit both Torres del Paine and do the Carretera Austral – Patagonia’s greatest road trip.
No less importantly, DAP will also start flying between Punta Arenas and the Argentine city of Ushuaia (pictured below) – helping travelers avoid the tiresome full-day bus trip between the two cities. This will be a particular boon to those who take the Cruceros Australis cruise between the two cities, but don’t wish to travel both ways by sea.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Natales Gourmet?

When I first saw Puerto Natales, more than three decades ago, it was primarily a wool-industry service center, and a stopover for backpackers headed to Torres del Paine – and, at that time, only a relative handful of people visited this part of Patagonia. Accommodations were mostly basic (I stayed at the Residencial Magallanes, pictured below), and the supplies themselves limited – the plainest groceries. You usually had to overnight and, if you found a restaurant, the standard would be grilled lamb or mutton, plus the occasional fried fish. The 1982 edition of The South American Handbook (the only guidebook then available) mentions no specific restaurants, though a handful of hotels and other accommodations offered food.
The Handbook’s editors would hardly recognize today’s Natales, where an attractive waterfront and downtown now teem with hotels, hostels, outdoor gear franchises – and plenty of fine restaurants. Recently, in a week in town, I chose a different and distinctive option every evening, and here are three of my favorites.
What is Afrigonia (pictured above)? Improbably, figuratively and literally, it’s a gastronomic marriage between Zambia and Chile, in the persons of chef Kamal Nawaz and his wife Nathalie Reffer. Yesterday’s mutton has become tender lamb on a skewer, with a side of saffron rice, and the seafood masala (shrimp and scallop curry, pictured below) adds an unaccustomed spice to the local scene. Afrigonia’s prices may be on the high side but, after trekking around Torres del Paine, you deserve something unique and special.
A more recent appearance, Santolla is a seafood restaurant – part of the adjacent IF Patagonia Hotel – whose design indulges contemporary container chic (as pictured below). The bar and dining rooms consist of three ground-level containers, joined together, with the kitchen perched above them. From the outside it looks utilitarian, but the interior is cozy (even rustic) and king crab – it takes its name from the Latin term for Spanish-language centolla - is the specialty here.

Afrigonia and Santolla are both upscale options, but Mesita Grande appeals to the backpacker in me with its thin-crusted pizzas, all served at two long communal tables. My twenty-something daughter called it the best pizza ever, but I also like Mesita’s pastas, particularly the ñoquis (gnocchi), and exceptional ice cream. If it’s not the best restaurant in Natales, it may be the best value – and that’s saying a lot in a town whose dining options continue to improve. Given its success here, Mesita has also opened a branch in the provincial capital of Punta Arenas.

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