Comedies represent a challenge for festivals such as ¡Viva!, since they often rely on audience knowledge of culture and especially language. Most problematic of all are ‘mockumentaries’, attempts to ‘play’ with the conventions of certain kinds of documentary practice. La estrella roja goes one step further, operating within the history and mythology of a specific Argentinian community and its involvement in major political events of the 20th century, still highly sensitive for some.
I’m not generally a fan of mockumentaries so I don’t want to pass judgement here. I’ll stick to a detached observation. In some ways this film might be seen as riffing on the recent cycle of documentary films about female figures seemingly not properly represented in histories. In such documentaries we expect newsreel footage, possibly home movies and interviews with relatives, friends and biographers who offer ‘witness statements’ about what they remember or what they have discovered through research. We may well have a ‘narrativised’ investigation by the documentarist so that we experience the thrill of finding the evidence and making the links.
The subject here is Laila Salama, a woman from the Jewish community in Argentina, who mysteriously disappeared in 1934 as a teenage girl during the Purim festival when she was expected to be crowned as the festival queen. Thereafter she became a spy, reporting on Nazi activity in Argentina and joining a British intelligence group. Active throughout the wartime period in Europe she is later said to have been involved in the capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, working with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. After that she disappears from view. But she has a place in Argentinian mythology with a tango and a song named after her – as ‘La estrella roja’.
All of the expected ingredients are here with the film’s director Gabriel Lichtmann played by the actor Héctor Díaz. Most of the other characters are also played by actors, some of whom are well-known in Argentina. There is a strong narrative drive and a climactic moment to the research/investigation. The whole film lasts not much more than 70 minutes and a great deal of care has gone into the presentation. I was surprised by the statistics about the Jewish community in Argentina. There are currently around 300,000 in the Jewish diaspora in Argentina and they must be the most likely audience for the film. Of course, the history of the Holocaust is a much more widely known and the filmmakers must hope this will encourage sales. The numbers were higher still during the 1940s (before migration to Israel) and there were also significant numbers in the wider German diaspora in Argentina who were Nazi sympathisers. The film also makes a link to Wakolda (Argentina 2013) a fiction film based on the activities of pro-Nazi Argentinians around 1960 when Eichmann was captured – its central character is a 12 year-old girl. I don’t know whether La estrella roja will prove controversial because of its take on the historical events but so far it seems to have been well-received. There is often said to be a distinctive style of Jewish humour and perhaps this film is an example of such humour? The film screenss again at HOME on Saturday 2nd April. It is accompanied by a complementary short film Los conspiradores (Spain 2021).
Début features form a significant part of ¡Viva! 28 and La chica nueva is the first feature of Micaela Gonzalo who also co-wrote the film with Lucía Tebaldi. This is a young woman’s story which didn’t quite take the direction I expected. We first meet Jimena living on the streets, or more accurately sleeping in hairdressing salon, in a city in Northern Argentina. She will make her way by bus to the other end of the country to the city of Rio Grande on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, selling some (possibly stolen?) hairdressing equipment to pay for her ticket. She has a half-brother Mariano in the city. She clearly doesn’t know him that well but he reluctantly agrees to put her up for a few days. Gradually a few details of Jimena’s background will emerge – but only a few, Jemina doesn’t talk much and is quite guarded.
The location of the story is important. Rio Grande is a city which has a special economic status, something like an enterprise zone or a ‘freeport’ in a European context. It offers tax incentives and has become a manufacturing centre, especially for electronics goods, attracting investment from multinationals looking for cheap labour to assemble goods. This has allowed Argentina to replace imports of phones, laptops and tablets etc. But it also creates a kind of rampant ‘wild west’ form of capitalism in a region far from Buenos Aires with a colonial history of exploitation. There is no other significant source of employment and this means a modern ‘precarity’ for workers not unlike the 19th century conditions found in ‘company towns’. Mariano has a job at an electronics factory and Jemina will also find work there.
The festival brochure lists this film as part of its International Women’s Day celebrations and it is clearly a female-focused narrative. Jimena develops a relationship with Martina, one of her co-workers who was once linked to Mariano and she becomes part of a close group of women workers. Gradually she gets to know her half-brother too, but this will have its problems, partly linked to industrial relations in the factory and his desire to make money any way he can. Jimena is not lacking ambition either but how far will she go to make money quickly?
It is an intriguing film. Micaela Gonzalo attempts both a form of ‘coming-of-age’ story and a narrative about precarity and industrial relations. It occurs to me that I’ve seen similar stories set in Iceland, the Faroes, Northern Norway or Scotland – where the work is often in a fish processing plant. (See, for instance Run (UK 2019) set in a Scottish fishing port in which the husband works in a fish-processing plant and his wife is a hairdresser.) In some ways La chica nueva could be a Ken Loach or Dardennes Brothers film. It is quite short for a feature (roughly 75 minutes) but the director manages to present its parallel narratives despite the fact that we learn so little about the central characters. This is achieved by restricting conversations and relying on strong performances by the leads with Mora Arenillas as Jimena, Rafael Federman as Mariano and Jimena Anganuzzi (the most experienced cast member) as Martina. The shooting style moves slightly away from the social realism that might be expected, often giving us close-ups of the performers’ faces to ‘read’ instead of explication through dialogue. It’s Argentina and I was amused to see that the women at the factory play football and a camping trip involves a meat-based barbecue. I confess that I wasn’t quite sure how the imminent football World Cup was causing ructions in the factory. I would expect that demand for flat screen TVs and smartphones would increase but instead this leads to a crisis in industrial relations in the plant. I enjoyed the film and thought the performances were good. The story had real promise and I hope Micaela Gonzalo is able to develop her undoubted skills on future projects.
La chica nueva plays again in the festival on Sunday April 3 (with an introduction by Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Co-ordinator) and on Thursday April 7. You can get a flavour of the film from this trailer (no English subs):
The full ¡Viva! film festival experience returns to HOME, Manchester at its usual time of the year after the interruptions of the last two years. The 2022 festival begins this coming Friday 18th March with Explota explota, a film featuring the songs of the 1970s superstar Raffaella Carrà, and continues through to Thursday April 7th. A familiar programme structure sees two features each weekday and an extended programme at the weekends. A festival calendar is available here. This year’s programme features 19 new features from Spain and Latin America plus two classic archive films from Luis García Berlanga. These are later works by Berlanga, La Vaquilla (The Heifer, 1985) and Patrimonio nacional (National Heritage, 1981), both comedies.
A highlight of the programme will be the visit of Icíar Bollaín, who will be present for a Q&A following the screening of her 2021 film Maixabel. This film explores the potential for ‘repentance and reconciliation’ when a woman agrees to meet one of the ETA group members who killed her husband, a Basque politician eleven years earlier. ‘Live’ Q&As were not possible for the last festivals and it’s great to see them returning. The twenty one festival films are available across fifty screenings with all films being screened at least twice. Some features will be accompanied by short films. There are also other ‘added value’ elements such as film introductions and guest appearances plus the annual Café Cervantes opportunity to chat about films in Spanish and a ‘Language Lab’ session for adult students.
This year’s films come from Spain, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Mexico. Eleven of the films are from début directors and there is a group of six ‘coming-of-age’ stories so there is a ‘youthful’ feel to the festival overall.
It can’t have been easy trying to develop a festival programme as the COVID regulations in different territories have chopped and changed over the last two years but ¡Viva! is in the safe hands of Rachel Hayward, Head of Film, Jessie Gibbs, ¡Viva! Festival Coordinator, and Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and HOME’s Senior Visiting Curator: Film. We hope to feature at least one report from the festival this year as we make our cautious re-entry into cinemas. But if you are in Manchester or can visit easily, we recommend diving in. All the details of screenings and events are on the HOME website.
Azor is a terrifying film which shows very little in the way of violence. This makes it even more frightening. Director and co-writer Andreas Fortuna is Swiss but the film is set entirely in Argentina. Yvan De Wiel is a private banker who arrives in Buenos Aires from Geneva with his wife Inès in late 1980 during the period of the ‘Dirty War’ and the ‘National Re-organisation Process’, overseen by the fascist military junta. De Wiel (played by the Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione) is on a mission to discover what happened to his banking partner René Keys, who has ‘disappeared’, and to try to sustain his bank’s relationship with its wealthy clients in this difficult period.
The De Wiels are experienced and cunning operators. Yvan acts in a way that suggests he is humble and amenable – he isn’t, but he does depend to some extent on his wife, who chooses his suits and monitors his performances in negotiations. At one point she implies that he risks falling into the ‘mediocrity’ that her father warned her about. Inès moves elegantly through a series of social gatherings, observing and gathering intelligence especially by talking to the wives of the wealthy and influential characters they meet.
There is something familiar about the narrative device of having the protagonist follow in the footsteps of a colleague/partner. Many of the reviewers make references to Harry Lime in The Third Man. I thought instead of another Graham Greene character, The Quiet American. In a crucial passage (the narrative is divided into named sections) De Wiel is taken down river in a small boat. It is one of those South American rivers, smaller than the famous ones, which is overgrown on either bank and which again several reviewers refer to as a Heart of Darkness moment. Keys was clearly a dynamic character who took risks. It got him noticed and made him successful, but by extension perhaps too dangerous. Although Argentina has long been an independent country there are hints here and there of its neo-colonial past and the North American and European involvements in the culture and economy of the country.
The most frightening character is perhaps Mons. Tatoski, a senior cleric who tries to inveigle De Wiel into getting involved in speculation in the Forex (foreign exchange) market. De Wiel makes clear that his private bank doesn’t do anything so risky. What makes this exchange so tense is the setting, in the inner sanctum of a club that presumably has always limited its membership to the rich and powerful. That now means those sanctioned by the junta and the Monsignor is some form of Papal representative with a past, perhaps as a rugby player. He’s tall, beefy and ‘persuades’ De Wiel to drink Gordon’s gin just like Keys before him. This is one of several exchanges in which De Wiel is challenged by existing or potential ‘clients’. Rongione plays De Wiel as a seemingly mild-mannered man, always watchful and appropriately dressed for a club or a trip to the race track but not giving even a hint of what he may be feeling underneath. However, his appropriate wardrobe is not quite right for his trips to meet landowners in the broad hinterland of Buenos Aries. He travels by private plane at one point and goes riding with a client. There is one staggeringly beautiful long shot of De Wiel and Inès riding on the estate of a traditional landowner, Augusto Padel-Camón (see above). Most of the time, however, Swiss cinematographer Gabriel Sandru is confined to shooting interiors or more confined outdoor scenes. These include meetings arranged around swimming pools in private mansions. It’s noticeable that Inès is often the only one who swims. Director Fortuna clearly knows Argentina well but he was helped by the distinguished Argentinian writer Mariano Llinás as co-writer of the script. Paulina (Argentina 2015) is a Llinás films that I enjoyed.
There are no good guys in this film. The narrative pushes us to identify with De Wiel and some of his clients like Padel-Camón, but this is misleading. They are positioned to show aspects of their humanity and Padel-Camon has already suffered the disappearance of his favourite daughter. But underneath they are still primarily concerned with their own wealth and status. The junta is ruthless in arresting and ‘disappearing’ leftists and critics of any kind. But it is also squeezing the wealthy and extracting their riches. The Swiss private banker offers a more personal touch than his corporate rivals but ultimately the deals he makes are about protecting capital and we suspect that though he may not be as flamboyant or dynamic as his erstwhile partner Keys, his quiet methods might get the job done. But what kind of job is it? None of the characters in the film cares about the working people of Argentina. It pains me to think that it was Margaret Thatcher who inadvertently helped to trigger the downfall of the junta by vigorously defending British interests in the Malvinas. The junta fell with its leading figure General Galtieri after the defeat of the Argentinian forces. It was good to see Galtieri go but the whipped up jingoism in the UK helped Thatcher win an election and proceed with her destruction of many British communities. The Swiss private bankers no doubt smuggled wealth out of the country before the fall in 1982 and we get one hint of how they might have done it.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Overall I found this a compelling narrative about the ‘fear and loathing’ during this dark period of Argentinian history. For a début film it is remarkable. Sandru’s cinematography is also excellent, given he has relatively little experience of features. But perhaps the key to the film’s success is the casting of Fabrizio Rongione. I realised later that I have actually seen him in a host of rather different roles for the Dardenne Brothers. He must speak several languages and Azor is a narrative that requires a multi-lingual approach. International business usually requires English but here most of the exchanges are in Spanish or French. If you are wondering about the title, the word ‘azor’ in Spanish means ‘goshawk’ but in the code language of the De Wiels it means “be careful”, “don’t give anything away”. Don’t be put off by the relatively low ratings for this film. It’s not a Hollywood thriller but a chilling and very intelligent glimpse of the way in which international capital, traditional landowning classes and fascism mix in Latin America. I recommend it. It has reached some UK, cinemas distributed by MUBI ,and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK.
Ostende is currently part of MUBI’s Library offer, having been part of a New Argentinian cinema strand back in 2017. The development of several film schools in Argentina has meant the production of a large number of films that have been apparent on the festival circuit during the last ten years. I’ve usually found one or more such films popping up at London, Leeds or Glasgow, festivals I visit regularly, as well as at ¡Viva! in Manchester with its coverage of Latin American cinema. There have been a couple of duds over ten years, but most have been well worth my time.
A MUBI article discussing the New Argentine cinema explains that many of these films from younger directors have struggled to get into Argentinian cinemas but have instead found distribution deals in other territories following prizes at international festivals. Ostende appears to be a low budget film that has reached a few international festivals and has been streamed in Argentina, Italy and Germany and, via MUBI, international subscribers. It features a very simple idea that feels familiar but I can’t think where I might have seen something similar. The central character is a woman in her twenties who arrives alone at a seaside resort hotel at the end of the season. She has won (with her boyfriend) a prize in a quiz show of a four day break at the resort, but the boyfriend is still at work and he will join her for the weekend. The hotel is a modern building comprising several two storey blocks, a pool, restaurant-bar and access to a beach.
There is very little conventional narrative development in this 82 minute film but the film itself is ‘about’ narrative as a concept. The young woman isn’t named as far as I can see, so I’ll refer to her as ‘Laura’ after the writer-director of the film Laura Citerella and the actor who plays her, Laura Parades. Laura has little to do when she arrives except read, sit by the window or on the windy beach, grab a coffee or a drink in the bar etc. Laura is not especially ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ but she has an interesting face and even if she appears quite serious, she easily opens up to the young waiter who chats her up and tells her a story. She also seems to have decided that she wants to find a story in the mainly empty hotel. She finds it in the shape of the relationship she observes that involves an older man, always wearing a pair of red shorts, and two younger women. Various small details about this relationship add up to scenarios which seem to Laura to place the young women in danger. Added to this, the film’s soundtrack is an odd mixture of the songs and dialogues which Laura receives through her earphones and the melancholy sounds of the wind on the beach and the crashing waves.
The arrival of boyfriend Francisco (who works at INCAA – National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts) doesn’t change things much as Laura continues to worry about the two young women. When she and Francisco leave at the end of their stay, the camera sneaks back to find Mr Red Shorts and the two women. A surprise ending is presented without much ceremony. The story concocted through Laura’s observations and assumptions has led to suggestions of a Hitchcockian narrative. Certainly it bears resemblance to one famous Hitchcock film but the big difference is that Laura does not attempt to intervene in any way. Her spying on these characters doesn’t seem to prompt any obvious self-reflection either.
This is a slight film in some ways but it does have some power. I think this comes from careful pacing, some excellent camerawork and editing (by Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguillansky respectively) and a terrific performance by Laura Paredes. She’s in nearly every scene, often in close-up. We seem to become intimate with her and one reviewer refers to the film being ‘gently sensual’ which seems a good call. In some scenes we switch between close shots of Laura watching and long shots of one or more of the trio of characters under her observation. The other technique that stands out is switch focus with a very shallow depth of field used on occasions. This and the editing of dead ground, doorways, windows etc. adds to the disturbing feel of the mostly empty resort. Much of the final sequence which concludes the narrative of the trio is in long shot. Overall I found this an interesting little film – much achieved, seemingly with few resources.
I watched this film without much preparation. I knew the title and I had read that it had links to that important and deep-rooted issue of ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. But I did expect that the main focus would be the crime and its investigation in some way. It isn’t. Instead it’s a narrative about someone who almost unknowingly becomes part of the crime scenario and who then suffers the consequences. The film is presented in Academy ratio. The only reason for this as far as I can see is that it represents the increasing sense of entrapment felt by the central character Cecilia.
This is an intelligent and very well-made film with a stunning central performance by Elisa Carricajo, who is well-known in the theatre in Argentina. Much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and the technical credits are very impressive especially sound design, editing and cinematography. The writer-director Francisco Márquez was very clear about his intentions in the Q&A that followed the screening. The ‘common crime’ here refers to both the ‘institutional violence’ of the Argentinian police (which Márquez argues amounts to daily deaths of young men in custody or on the street) and to the ‘blind eye’ of the Argentinian middle class when it comes to action to stop this violence – which perpetuates the history of ‘disappearing’ those deemed as dangerous by the authorities. These disappeared are nearly all young men living in poverty conditions.
It’s very difficult to comment on the narrative without spoiling it for future audiences so I’ll just outline a couple of events and characters without going into too many details. Cecilia is a sociology teacher in a local university (a very low-key institution, but perhaps that just reflects the low budget of the film?). She is in the process of applying for a more senior job at the university which is one of the pressures on her, although everyone expects her to get the job. She lives in a small single-story dwelling with her small son Juan who must be 10 or 11? Her childcare is shared with the boy’s father who seems to have him a couple of days a week. Cecilia doesn’t seem like much of a cook and she also employs a cleaner cum housekeeper Nebe. This gives her a little extra time to prepare her lectures. It’s a while since I’ve been presented with quotes from Althusser and later on a pair of her ex-students ask her advice on preparing an abstract for a paper. They seem to be an encouraging pair of academic rebels who adopt a Gramscian approach – hurrah! Cecilia’s reaction to their request for advice is interesting.
The central incident comes one night when Cecilia is alone in the house, awake during a storm when she hears someone pounding on her door and crying for help. Peering through the blinds, she sees a figure who might be Nebe’s grown-up son Kevin who Cecilia had met briefly a couple of days earlier. But it’s the middle of the night and Cecilia is frightened. She goes back to bed without opening the door. Later it is revealed that Kevin has ‘disappeared’. Cecilia visits Nebe in what is considered as the ‘rough’ part of town, reassuring Nebe that she will pay her while she takes time off and campaigns to find her son, but not mentioning the night-time incident.
From this point on, Cecilia begins a downward spiral as the failure to help her visitor in the night begins to prey on her. The second half of the film depends very much on Elisa Carricajo’s excellent performance and the subtle sound design. I also feel that the costumes she is given to wear seem particularly unflattering and it’s interesting to see her smoking. I don’t know what the smoking levels in Argentina are like now but in a UK context, a teacher smoking is someone who might be considered as ‘under stress’. The script rather conveniently prevents any later scenes of her teaching – which is where I would expect the stress to become more obvious. But I was shocked by Cecilia’s behaviour at a friend’s dinner table.
I think there are a number of films which similarly deal with middle-class angst about ‘not doing the proper thing’, sometimes a question of morality and sometimes an almost criminal act. In that sense this film is generic. In the second half of the film the director also uses some familiar devices from psychological horror stories. Most of these are used in subtle ways through editing and sound effects but some – the shower curtain ripped open to reveal nothing, a toy racetrack with cars still running in an empty house – are perhaps too familiar. Listening to the director and appreciating his approach it is clear he was attempting a more profound statement about the issue in Argentina and the film aims for a level of social realism. He had some success with a previous film also raising questions about ‘disappearances’ and his worked has been bracketed with that of Lucretia Martlel’s The Headless Woman (2008). I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Un crimen común, but I admire its production. However, I think it might be a tough sell to distributors and I think audiences would need some preparation if they are not to be disappointed because of expectations about a crime fiction thriller.
The trailer below (with English subs) reveals a little more of the plot and illustrates Cecilia’s decline.