Friday, June 30, 2017

Devotional Kitsch - An Argentine Update

The Costanera Norte offers river access to the residents of Buenos Aires.
Not far from our Buenos Aires apartment, leading northwest from the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery airport, the Costanera Rafael Obligado provides direct access to the Río de La Plata shoreline for city residents. It’s a popular spot for walking, fishing and asados (barbecues) and, at its northern end, the Parque de la Memoria is an open-air memorial to the tens of thousands who disappeared under the military dictatorship of 1976-83.

One area “attraction” I’ve always ignored is Tierra Santa, a Disneyland for the devout that displays a kitschy version of ancient Jerusalem and its spiritual legacy (as depicted in the video above). About the only thing I can compare it with is Tennessee’s farcically fake Ark Encounter which, deservedly, appears to be approaching financial collapse. On one level that’s easy for me to say—I’m not a believer—but why would any sensible person spend a single peso to watch an hourly mechanical resurrection when genuine devotional sights are so close at hand?
Carlos Menem renounced Islam for Catholicism in order to become Argentina's president in 1989.
The Catedral Metropolitana is Buenos Aires's most conspicuous religious landmark.
It’s worth noting that, for many Argentines, religion is fungible. For instance, former President Carlos Menem—of Syrian descent—converted from Islam to Catholicism to run for office, since that was a constitutional requirement at the time. Buenos Aires, of course, has many important Christian sites, starting with the classic Catedral Metropolitana and even the handsome Iglesia Ortodoxa Rusa of San Telmo. But the Middle East’s other Abrahamic faiths are represented by landmarks such as the Templo de la Congregación Israelita and the Centro Islámico Rey Fahd—both of which are open for free guided tours.
Palermo's Centro Islámico Rey Fahd is the largest mosque in South America.
None of those, of course, is a theme park—for that, visitors to Argentina might be better advised to visit the city of La Plata, whose República de los Niños, where children can explore scale model replicas of diverse structures that even include a mosque. For my part, though, I prefer more offbeat devotional locations that fetishize folk saints.
La Plata's República de los Niños has a scale model mosque for kids to explore.
Rather than a biblical theme park, I would urge visitors to see the syncretic Santuario del Gauchito Gil, where pilgrims pay homage to a Robin Hood figure from the northern province of Corrientes. It also has the advantage of proximity to the Esteros del Iberá, Argentina’s great subtropical wetlands preserve, to view the most diverse concentrations of wildlife within the country’s borders.
Who needs a mechanical Jesus when you can stand before the altar of Gauchito Gil?
Alternatively, in the western province of San Juan—also an underappreciated wine district—the Santuario Difunta Correa memorializes a maternal figure who, according legend, died in the desert while suckling her newborn (who, miraculously, survived to be found by passing muleteers). In truth, she probably never existed, but her story is more plausible—and far more intriguing—than what supposedly happened in the “Holy Land.”
San Juan's Difunta Correa is a legendary folk saint whose infant son supposedly survived at her breast after she died in the desert.

For those unable to visit either the Gaucho Gil or the Difunta, do not despair! Spontaneous roadshrine shrines—some of them quite large—are common on the country’s highways and along some city sidewalks.
Even in sophisticated Palermo, the faithful leave water for the Difunta.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Argentina's Black Snow (A Film Review)

Ski season started early in South America this year, as Pacific storms blanketed Chile’s side of the Andes with snow, and more than enough made it across the cordillera into Argentina. Skiing, though, is not the theme behind Argentine director Martín Hodara’s Nieve Negra (“Black Snow”), which has recently turned up on Netflix (while the trailer below is in Spanish, the Netflix version has subtitles). Rather, to make a somewhat misleading generalization, it’s a family drama about an inheritance. In fact, it’s more than that, and I’ll try to suggest that without revealing any spoilers.
Presumably set in Patagonia’s “Lakes District”—the film never mentions a specific location—the story centers around a forested property owned by a family whose father has died. In any film about southernmost South America, I always try to identify the locale but, in this case, I noted that the trees along the road to the homestead appeared to be pines or other Northern Hemisphere conifers. Later, researching the film’s antecedents, I learned that it was shot at least partly in the Pyrenees of Andorra and Spain, whose terrain resembles that around Bariloche or San Martín de los Andes, which I expected to be the likely setting.

In the aftermath of the patriarch’s death, the younger brother Marcos (Leonardo Sbaraglia) has returned from Buenos Aires, with his Spanish wife Laura (Laia Costa), to try to convince the rest of the family—including his mentally disturbed sister Sabrina (Dolores Fonzi, in what is barely a cameo)—to sell the property to a forestry company. However, the family lawyer Sepia (a small but noteworthy role played by Federico Luppi) also obliges him to try to obtain the consent of his older brother Salvador (Ricardo Darín), whom Marcos prefers to avoid.

Darín, probably Argentina’s best known contemporary actor, plays a role far removed from his early romantic leads (mind you, at age 60 he’s certainly reached the upper limit for that). Here, instead, he’s a scruffy hermit who has issues with his siblings, particularly his brother. There are issues that deal not just with family secrets, but also on how those secrets fit into a larger context—in this case, I would suggest, the context of public and private corruption in Argentina.

Saying anything more might give away the ending but, in my judgement, it’s more than just a tale of sibling rivalry. Arguably, one might say, it’s an allegory of how Argentine society works, at several levels—until it doesn’t—and its victims are not always obvious at first. In the end, co-optation becomes the default option.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Patagonian Pinot Noir.. and Other Oddities

In mid-summer, the vines are lush at Nant-y-Fall
Last year, I wrote about what was then (and still is, for the time being), the world’s southernmost winery. In Argentina’s Chubut province, Viña Nant y Fall lies just across the border from Chile’s whitewater Mecca of Futaleufú but, at that time, its owner/founder Sergio Rodríguez could not yet offer any wines from the young Pinot Noir vines. Everything was in place, but the first harvest was still aging in the tanks.
A roadside sign points the way to Nant-y-Fall
While driving from Argentina into Chile, I first saw Nant y Fall in 2014, when its roadside sign drew my attention. It was, it turned out, was more than just a winery—it was also an offbeat hybrid of motorhome park, campground and farm that stocked and sold products from throughout the area. While its owner/founder Sergio Rodríguez could not yet provide wine on my previous visits, this time I anticipated tasting the product, though there was one glitch—actually getting there from Futaleufú, as I had driven north along Chile’s Carretera Austral.
In early 2014, the vines at Nant-y-Fall were sparse.
A couple weeks earlier, I had walked from Chile Chico to Los Antiguos, Argentina, because a bureaucratic glitch would not allow me to take my car across the border, and the same was true for this visit to the Argentine side of the border. In this case, though Nant y Fall, unlike Los Antiguos, was some 30 kilometers from the border post—not a distance I could walk in an hour or so. I can cycle that distance on pavement but, on an undulating gravel road, it would have taken me several hours.
The Argentine border post at Futaleufú is barely 100 meters from the Chilean side.
Fortunately, after I spoke with Sergio, he recruited his father to pick me up at the border. After leaving my car on the Chilean side and passing through Chilean and Argentine immigration, it was only a few minutes before he appeared. Within half an hour, we arrived at Nant y Fall, where the vines now covered four hectares of low rounded hills and a narrow road led to its namesake arroyo.
Creekside campsite at Nant-y-Fall
Here there are several parking sites for RVs, with picnic tables and grills, and grassy sites for tents that would make it an ideal stopover for cyclists bound to or from Futaleufú (Nant y Fall is only half a kilometer north of the international highway between the Argentine town of Trevelin and the Chilean side), especially if the border’s closed (hours are 8am-9pm in summer, to 8pm the rest of the year). There’s a freestanding building with showers and toilets for campers and RVers, and also a couple rooms—one double with a private bath and a four-bed dorm with shared bath—in the nearby showroom/workshop/garage.
Family suite at Nant-y-Fall
Before returning to Futaleufú, I had a look at other regional products that the winery sells and here, and lunch with a taste of the 2016 Pinot Noir—and then bought a bottle to take back across the border and home to California. It was so recently commercialized that no labels were yet available, so I’ve had to improvise one.
This pioneer Patagonian Pinot awaits the proper occasion.

In March, the winery hosted its initial Fiesta de la Vendimia en Chubut, the showcase for the province’s small but growing wine industry. It’s worth adding that, although Nant y Fall is presently the world’s southernmost winery that may change—on the south side of the international highway there are newly planted vines, though no new winery is yet under construction.
Sergio Rodríguez with visitors at Nant-y-Fall

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