A Less Wild Side to Argentina
AFS Essential Cinema: More Than Buenos Aires: Film Renaissance in Argentina
Midway through Argentine director Carlos Sorin's 2004 film Bombón: El Perro, a scene takes place the likes of which I've never seen. And if you'd asked me beforehand if it were the kind of scene I'd be interested in watching, my answer would probably have been a resounding "Of course not! What the hell are you talking about?" Ahh, how little I knew then ... three nights ago.
The scene involves a few men and a dog. The dog, Bombón, is a purebred male Argentine Dogo, a stately beast the men are trying to get to breed with a female Argentine Dogo in the hopes of turning him into a profitable stud. Bombón has been brought to a dog ranch in the middle of nowhere by his owner, a quiet, guileless, unemployed, and middle-aged auto mechanic named Juan (played by Juan Villegas), and his trainer, a boisterous, larger-than-life character named Walter (Walter Donado), both of whom are looking to Bombón and his perfect genes to lead them to the promised land of economic security, a land a million miles removed from their local Patagonia, a desolate region at the southernmost tip of South America.
Only one problem: Bombón is indifferent to the temptations of the fairer sex (smart as well as stately), and upon being thrust into a pen with two beautiful members of his breed, he promptly acknowledges them both, contemplates mounting them, thinks better of it, and then lays quietly down on the ground and falls asleep. Nonplussed, Walter and Juan head into the pen in the hopes of teaching their Dogo about the joys of copulation and transmuting his education into gold, even going so far as to aid in his mounting.
There's no great action to this scene, no great drama – save for the threat of lingering poverty – and yet I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. How, I wondered, did the film's animal handlers manage to train a dog to feign sexual interest and then turn away from his lust with exaggerated indifference? In all my years of movie-watching, I'd never seen an animal come close to the kind of performance this mastiff was giving; Alan Arkin wishes he could do bemused nonchalance with such conviction. And then there was the attempt at forced consummation, which is played for laughs only insofar as the entire idea of it seems so absurd. No jokes are told, no scenery is chewed, no gags are overplayed. There are just a couple of grown men trying with all their might to force a dog into an erection and a conquest. The entire scene has the air of unforced reality to it – the rarest of virtues in the world of cinema.
This kind of magnificent understatement is all over the latest installment of the Austin Film Society's ongoing Essential Cinema Series, More Than Buenos Aires: Film Renaissance in Argentina, which opens Tuesday with the Austin premiere of Bombón and will feature movies by Julia Solomonoff (Hermanas) and Sundance Award-winner Lucrecia Martel (La Ciénaga). The films tackle the smallest kinds of drama, forgoing the brash explosiveness of Hollywood and the colorful extremes of their Latin American cousins from Mexico and Brazil in favor of tales of domestic restraint and quiet personal redemption. Argentina may have invented the tango and given the world footballer Diego Maradona, but its movies are the very soul of modesty.
Take Jorge Gaggero's Live-in Maid, which closes the program on Dec. 23. Its story couldn't be simpler: A once-glamorous upper-class matriarch named Beba (Norma Aleandro) is forced to fire her maid, Dora (Norma Argentina), after 30 years of service due to a recent slide into destitution. Quietly giving in to depression, loneliness, and self-loathing, Beba is a grown child, lost in a world she never bothered to understand, seeking solace in alcohol and the past, and grasping at financial security by selling her possessions one by one. Like a sweater with a loose stitch, she unravels slowly, imperceptibly, but inevitably, without friends to count on or family to take comfort in. Meanwhile, Dora is back on her feet after barely hitting the ground, accustomed to the ways of the hard world and to placing the demands of work and material need over the call of anything even resembling desire.
The two women couldn't be more different, and though their curious intertwining is the heart and soul of Live-in Maid, Gaggero never gives in to the siren song of Hollywood sentimentalizing or easy coincidence. With matter-of-fact naturalism and attention to detail and without the use of a musical score, writer/director Gaggero simply places us inside the world of two aging women whose approaches to surviving in a society that could do without them are miles apart. Circumstance is key, not motivation. Life is simply what it is, and Gaggero, like so many of his contemporaries in Argentine film, isn't interested in the situations that arise out of contrivance but rather the drama that is born out of real life.
All screenings take place Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Admission is free for Austin Film Society members, $4 for general public. For more information, visit www.austinfilm.org.
Nov. 25: Bombón: El Perro (Bombón: The Dog) (D: Carlos Sorin, 2004)
Dec. 2: Historias Mínimas (Intimate Stories) (D: Carlos Sorin, 2002)
Dec. 9: Hermanas (Sisters) (D: Julia Solomonoff, 2005)
Dec. 16: La Ciénaga (The Swamp) (D: Lucrecia Martel, 2001)
Dec. 23: Cama Adentro (Live-in Maid) (D: Jorge Gaggero, 2004)