Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Geriatric Espionage? (Reviewing Chile's Oscar Nominee)

In 1970, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky released El Topo, a surrealist movie that seemingly created the Acid Western genre and was a Mexican entry for the Oscars (it was filmed in Mexico, but ultimately not nominated). This year, Chilean director Maite Alberdi’s El Agente Topo (The Mole Agent) is most emphatically not a sequel, but this rather differently offbeat picture earned a nomination for best documentary, even though it didn’t take home the prize last Sunday.

On one level, The Mole Agent is a real-life spy movie in which a private detective recruits Sergio Chamy, a charming 80-something widower, to infiltrate a nursing home where the detective’s client suspects her mother has been subject to elder abuse. This involves a crash course in surveillance techniques and technology for Chamy, whose sociability swiftly inserts him into a milieu where women outnumber men by ten to one.

 

Alberdi’s production crew filmed the entire work, with permission (but perhaps some deception), at the Hogar de Ancianos San Francisco in the Santiago suburb of El Monte, in an area I’ve visited as a lesser-known wine region.  The finished film is an outgrowth of what was originally a more general focus on Chile’s aging population—by the end of this decade, it could be Latin America’s fastest-aging country, but that’s not what foreign tourists see.

 

With some minor shortcomings, the Hogar de Ancianos appears to be a well-kept facility, with comfortable accommodations and pleasant gardens, that provides attentive services to its residents. Chamy eventually frustrates his handler by insisting that there is no abuse but, in the end, he concludes that loneliness and familial neglect are major issues that don’t get the attention they deserve. When the popular Chamy finally departs the home, the result is more like a feel-good comedy than an exposé.  In fact, it hardly feels like a documentary at all, and Alberti has stated that there’s interest in doing a fictional version—which she herself won’t do because she’s too invested in the one she’s just finished.

El Agente Topo is available for streaming on Hulu (with English-language subtitles, free trial available). 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Long Petal of the Sea (Book Review)

In 1939, as the Spanish Civil War wound down, thousands of refugees fled across the border into France—which then confined tens of thousands in a deplorable detention camp at d'Argelès-sur-Mer. In partial response, poet Pablo Neruda—also a diplomat—chartered the French cargo vessel Winnipeg to carry 2,200 Spanish refugees across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal to his homeland of Chile where, despite isolated episodes of xenophobia, they integrated themselves into local society.

Chartered by Pablo Neruda, the French freighter Winnipeg carried Spanish refugees to Chile.

That’s the historical background for Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which becomes a tale of exile and adaptation that includes several larger-than-life figures, most notably Neruda himself but also the late President Salvador Allende (Isabel’s father’s cousin) and the notorious Augusto Pinochet (mentioned only in passing). Some characters are fictionalized versions of historical figures, such as pianist Roser Bruguera, clearly based on the painter Roser Bru (who turned 98 in February).

Isabel Allende's novel focuses on one exceptional refugee family.

Bruguera is one focus of a complex family story that melds with an equally complex political history that involves her going into exile, with her husband Víctor Dalmau, from Pinochet’s dictatorship. Allende is especially good at depicting the intrigues and obstacles her characters must navigate, including neighborhood informants, imprisonment, intra-familiar conflicts that tore many Chileans apart, and the disruptions of exile.

The first Spanish refugees would have passed through Arica's customs house (now a cultural center).

Being a geographer, I try to be alert to people and place, and I found one unfortunate error. I expected that, after the Winnipeg passed through the Panama Canal, it would go directly to Valparaíso, whence the refugees would proceed to Santiago and elsewhere in the densely populated heartland. As it happened, though, the ship made a stop in the northern port of Arica, a city I know well, where Chilean officials met the vessel and some of the passengers came ashore to stay.

The nitrate port of Pisagua was the northernmost point on Chile's contiguous rail network.

Allende, though, claims the officials arrived by train, but the northern Chilean railroad network, developed to help exploit the Atacama Desert’s nitrate deposits, never reached Arica—the most northerly major station was in the port of Iquique, roughly 200 km to the south (though there was a smaller station in the nitrate port of Pisagua, only about 125 km to the south). It might have been possible to reach Arica by rail at this time, but that would have involved a roundabout route via Buenos Aires and slow trains to northwestern Argentina and then Bolivia, where the Ferrocarril Arica-La Paz connected the two countries. Given the time, distances, and often contentious relations between Bolivia and Chile, it’s unlikely that anyone would have taken this route and, as it happens, there were flights from Santiago to Arica as early as 1929.

Oficina Chacabuco was the camp where Víctor Dalmau was presumably imprisoned. 

Allende describes, but does not specifically identify, the location where her protagonist Dalmau “ended up at a camp for saltpeter miners in the north that had been abandoned for decades and was now converted into a prison.” That description fits Oficina Chacabuco, about 100 km northeast of the port city of Antofagasta, which is now a national monument and in situ museum that I’ve visited several times. She also offers a plausible description of the Dalmaus’ ostensible rural retreat, outside Santiago, when they return from exile in Venezuela.

 

All in all, Allende’s novel is a rewarding read that provides an insider’s view of refugees, immigrants, and the contributions they make to their new countries—with lessons for countries still including Chile and, of course, the United States (where Allende now makes her home).

                                                                          

  

Friday, March 19, 2021

After the Jabs? Post-Pandemic Patagonia's Not Quite There

Proof of life?

On February 24th, I received my second dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine and, two weeks later, I undertook a full-scale grocery mission to Berkeley Bowl West for the first time in a year (my wife—also fully vaccinated now—was doing the shopping in that time, while I had only made occasional brief sorties to a neighborhood grocery). It felt like a milestone, one of the first, perhaps, in my quest to return to southernmost South America (even if, for now, I may have to settle for the pears on display here).

The aisles at Berkeley Bowl, on my first visit in a year

A nice pair?

I have yet to renew my passport—having waited purposefully until a new and competent administration took over the reins of government in Washington—but, in any event, I won’t be heading south until November at the earliest. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that LATAM Airlines was offering flights from Los Angeles to Santiago for as little as US$500 r/t. For some time after I returned from Chile to LAX last March 27th, the pandemic had closed the border to all but Chilean citizens and permanent residents but now, it appears, times may be changing.

 

Is Chile Winning the Arms Race?

Part of the reason, surely, is Chile’s success in vaccinating its population. According to Latin America Reports, five million Chileans may have already received their inoculations, and the government has agreements with China (Sinovac), Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca to acquire 36 million doses (the country’s population is roughly 19 million). While President Sebastián Piñera’s second term has been shaky, there’s no doubt that his administration has been proactive in protecting the population (though there’ve been conflicting data on the Chinese vaccine’s effectiveness). Quarantines, curfews, and other sanitary measures also remain in force.


What does this mean for intending for potential foreign visitors (like myself and my readers)? Because of the previous US administration’s malfeasance and negligence, it’s been worrisome that US passports may have lost the cachet they once had but, as LATAM’s promotional fare would suggest, that’s not an issue at present. That said, any trip to Chile will run into various restrictions: there are several COVID requirements, including a negative PCR test, a sworn pre-boarding statement, a health insurance policy, an electronic tracking form on arrival, and an obligatory ten-day quarantine. Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez is the only authorized entry point, and there are additional requirements for traveling beyond Santiago, especially to Patagonia, which may entail additional PCR tests.

 

How Hard is the Border?

These are Argentina's open border crossings - but with restrictions

In my case, the need to cross the Argentine border complicates matters even further, but I’m probably better placed than most. At present, the only non-Argentines permitted to enter must be relatives of Argentines and, being married to one for nearly 40 years, I technically qualify—but only if there’s a family-related issue at stake. There are just a handful of open crossings, the most convenient of which is Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini, commonly known as “Ezeiza,” in suburban Buenos Aires. The only option in Patagonia is Paso San Sebastián, shared by Argentina and Chile, in Tierra del Fuego, but if I somehow managed to enter Argentina, a patchwork of local and provincial travel restrictions could make any such achievement a pyrrhic victory. Instead, I’ll wait.



Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Vicarious Argentina

In most years, the Northern Hemisphere winter becomes my Southern Hemisphere summer and, while I’m not a stereotypical summer beachgoer, these short California days get me thinking about the area below the Equator. Sadly, during this pandemic, it’s gotta be virtual, but one option is the cinema. Fortunately, Argentina has one of the Western Hemisphere’s most vibrant film industries, and this has been an opportunity to catch with some things I hadn’t yet seen. It’s vicarious travel but, on one level, it’s satisfying until I can return to the road—ideally, later this year.

In that context, here are brief reviews of Argentine films that I’ve watched lately, all on Netflix. Only one of them is recent, but all of them focus on absorbing (but less than edifying) aspects of life in the country.

 

Pizza, Birra, Faso (1998)

I’d long intended to watch Pizza, Beer, Smokes (title explanation follows in an endnote), but only recently managed to watch the feature film directorial debut by Uruguayan-born Adrián Caetano (who partnered with Bruno Stagnaro; English-language interview with Stagnaro here). It’s the tale of a group of petty thieves with few scruples—colluding with a taxi driver to rob his passengers, for instance, and stealing the earnings of a double amputee street musician.

Part of their activity is cheekily adolescent, as when they scale a fence to break into the landmark Obelisco—equivalent to DC’s Washington Monument—and climb its staircases in the darkness with the aid of cigarette lighters and paper scraps. Later they get into more elaborate and violent schemes, including an attempted restaurant robbery at gunpoint, but there is also comic relief, as when the delincuentes—who don’t know how to drive—rely on one of their taxi victims, a grandmotherly woman, to chauffeur them around the city. In an fit of compassion, they drop her off at the city airport, where she calls the cops on them.

In the movie the gang climbs the Obelisco, but the directors couldn't get official permission and thus used a studio to replicate the interior staircases.

It is something of an ensemble cast, though Héctor Anglada stands out as El Cordobés, an immigrant from the provinces who wants to run away to Uruguay with his pregnant girlfriend but can’t resist attempting one last big score (in real life, Anglada died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 26). Without spoiling the ending, I will say that this is not an inspiring movie, but it does depict a reality that most visitors will not experience but should at least acknowledge.

Ugi's is the gang's pizzería of choice.

Endnote: Pizza, beer, and smokes are the gang’s priorities, but it’s symbolic of their (lack of) status that, when one of them suggests pizza at the modest Banchero (known as creator of the iconic fugazzeta), the rest of the group overrules him for takeout at the lowest-common-denominator chain Ugi’sBirra, of course, is the Italian word for beer, and is widely used in Buenos Aires; their preferred Quilmes is the Ugi’s of fermented beverages (no craft brews for these guys!). Faso, meanwhile, is a lunfardo (slang) term for cigarettes (everybody in this film smokes), but it can also mean a joint.


Palermo Hollywood (2004)

Set mostly in one of Buenos Aires’s fashionable neighborhoods—home to the TV and movie industry, and vigorous nightlife—Eduardo Pinto’s film has much in common with Caetano’s, but there’s a major distinction. The protagonists, Mario and Pablo, may be petty thieves (not to mention party animals), but they’ve formed a friendship across class boundaries. While Mario’s father is prosperous and politically connected, Pablo’s working-class family is feeling the pressures of living in an area that’s undergoing rapid gentrification (The trailer above is Spanish-only).

Mario and Pablo profit off Palermo Hollywood's nightlife, but  the barrio's gentrification is squeezing Pablo out.

Like the characters in Pizza, Mario and Pablo find themselves in a dangerous situation that, in this case, will test the limits of their loyalty to each other. For ne’er-do-well Mario, his lifestyle is a sustained teenage rebellion against his father, but for Pablo it’s his only option for survival and escape from an untenable personal predicament. To say much more would spoil an ending that some might think they anticipate.

 

Brian Maya, who plays Mario, also wrote the screenplay. Palermo Hollywood showed at the 2005 Sundance film festival.

 

Al Acecho (2019)

The most recent of these films, Francisco D’Eufemia’s Al Acecho  (translated somewhat ambiguously as Furtive) tells the tale of a Pablo Silva, a park ranger who’s trying to reinvent (redeem?) himself after apparent legal problems. In the process, Silva finds himself dealing with various problems including corruption in the park’s administration, some of whom may have condoned or even promoted poaching in an area of surprising biodiversity.

Viewers shouldn’t rush to sanctify Silva, portrayed by Rodrigo de la Serna (who appeared as Che Guevara’s  companion Alberto Granado in The Motorcycle Diaries and also plays a key role in the Spanish Netflix hit Money Heist). As with Palermo Hollywood, the ending may not be totally unexpected given the way the plot develops, but it’s not what D’Eufemia’s opening scenario might give us hopes of seeing.

 

One review described the setting for Al AcechoParque Provincial Pereyra Iraola, as “remote” and “little visited.” Even allowing for the fact that the film is fiction, I can’t refrain from pointing out that the park is only about 20 km northwest of the Buenos Aires Province capital of La Plata, and just 40 km from Argentina’s capital, via a major paved highway (When my wife was a student at the Universidad de La Plata, she went there with her brother and friends on day trips for barbecues). I apologize but, as a geographer, I still can’t overlook these things.

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Morning(s) After - Musings on Vaccines and Travel

Tuesday afternoon, I received my first dosage of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, and am scheduled for the follow-up in about a month. The vaccination itself was painless but, later that night, my left shoulder started feeling sore and I could not shift positions as I normally would during sleep. In the morning I awoke with a slight headache, but that subsided after a walk with the dog(s) – unfortunately, as I’m recovering from ankle surgery, I’m in a walking boot and can’t handle them myself, but my wife and daughter can still hold the leashes.

 

Since then, the pain has dissipated and I look forward to receiving the booster shot that should provide immunity from the virus—liberating me, in theory, to travel again, though there are so many contingencies that I don’t anticipate returning to South America until at least the end of the year.

My passport paperwork awaits submission.

One of those contingencies is a new passport. Mine expired in September and, under the previous US administration (as inept as it was loathsome), the State Department inexplicably started slow-walking these essential documents for a time. In fact, even some Republicans called the policy “unacceptable,” “inadequate,” and “slow and inefficient.” Hearing other anecdotal evidence from friends and acquaintances, and given that I wasn’t likely to travel any time soon, I chose to delay my renewal application until the Biden-Harris administration replaced the worst Secretary of State in the country’s history.

Now it’s the morning after a four-year nightmare and, while I have no immediate travel plans, I feel confident to submitting my application to a professionally run government department. Moderna and a new government may be the vaccines we needed, but they’re only a start. Still, it seems, we may be better in a better position than our trans-Atlantic cousins suffering through the self-inflicted economic and political traumas of Brextremism—not to mention their own issues with the pandemic.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Tilting (Back) to the Molino

In the early to mid-1980s, when I first visited and then lived in Buenos Aires, it was in the Congreso neighborhood barely two blocks from the national legislature (which was out of service then, as Argentina chafed under a military dictatorship). Still, the area itself retained a certain elegance, with the ponds and fountains of the Plaza de los dos Congresos and architectural landmarks such as the Art Nouveau Confitería del Molino.

The Plaza de los dos Congresos as seen from the Palacio Barolo (the tower of the Confitería del Molino is visible to the right of the Congress building).

My wife-to-be’s parents owned our modest apartment on Cangallo (now Perón) that was barely two blocks from the Congreso, and was within walking distance of numerous landmarks, including the Molino. They had bought the tiny (cozy?) two-bedroom unit to house their kids while attending the Universidad de Buenos Aires; there were three other apartments in the low-slung building, and everybody had access to a rooftop terrace for asados. Part of the time we shared it with my brother-in-law and his wife, and part of the time we had it to ourselves.

Today, high fences block access to the pools of the plaza (the Congreso rises behind the monument).

Accustomed to single family houses, I sometimes found the apartment cramped, but it was easy walking distance to the theater and cinema district—not to mention the world’s greatest ice creamery—along Avenida Corrientes, and to the country’s symbolic heart along the Avenida de Mayo. At the east end of Avenida stands the Casa Rosada presidential palace but, from vantage points like the observation deck of the Palacio Barolo, the west end view of the Congreso and its plazas was truly spectacular.

In better times, families gathered outside the pools, and kids waded in them.

Sadly, the area often looked less appealing close up. I always enjoyed watching kids wade into the pools on hot summer days but, in the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 economic meltdown, city government fenced off access to them, and areas that were once gathering places became little more than thoroughfares. Even before that, in 1997, the landmark Molino shut down and gradually deteriorated even though it was declared a national historical monument shortly thereafter.

The Confitería del Molino is a true landmark (the decorative windmill itself is not yet functional, according to reports). 

I didn’t really frequent the Molino, though I did pay one memorable visit when a local journalist made numerous useful suggestions for the first guidebook I ever wrote on the Argentine capital. Now, I read, the scaffolding has gone down from a major restoration and the building itself, now property of the Congreso, will reopen to include a new version of the confitería; while I have no photos of the interior, Madonna shot a kitschy 1995 video there that displays the main floor and its columns.

The renovated Cine Gaumont is another positive development in what has been a declining neighborhood.

While the neighborhood is still recovering from decades of neglect, there are other hopeful signs such as the revival of the classic Cine Gaumont, operated by the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Visuales (National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts). Meanwhile, our old apartment—now the property of my wife and her three siblings—is rented out to a Colombian immigrant family. Despite the worn exterior, it’s still comfortably livable.

Our weathered apartment building, on Perón (ex-Cangallo) is better than it looks from the street.

Even though I may never live in the neighborhood again—since 2002, we’ve owned an apartment in Palermo—I look forward to revisiting the Molino and, perhaps, enjoying my morning medialunas alongside the congressional powerbrokers. At least, when it becomes possible to travel there again.

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