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.

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