Buenos Aires Blues: Five Must-See Argentine Films

By - 21 May, 2011

There are almost as many Argentine movies about the military dictatorship of the 70’s and the disappeared as there are Spanish movies about transsexuals. Granted, some of them are pretty good (Garage Olimpo, Chronicle of an Escape), but still, it’s a cliché I tried to avoid when compiling this list. I also purposely left out the blockbusters (Nine Queens, Burnt Money) and the Oscar winners (The Official Story, The Secret in Their Eyes) because I assume you’ve all seen them already. Still, choosing just five movies wasn’t easy, because having been born and raised in Argentina, I grew up watching a lot of local film and there’re so many that I love. So, what I did was select five movies that have something in common, at least for me.

I left Buenos Aires almost ten years ago and I haven’t been back since, and these are the five movies that remind me the most of the Buenos Aires I grew up in. They’re not all post-card pictures of the beauties of the city, but they represent its spirit, its personality and its inhabitants to the core – with all its corruption, craziness and contradictions. It’s a bittersweet formula. They all make me miss the streets where I spent the most important years of my life in, but at the same time, they remind me of why I left and why I haven’t gone back.

Waiting for the Hearse (Doria – 1985)

Probably the most iconic comedy in the history of Argentine cinema. You won’t find an Argentine person over the age of 12 who hasn’t seen this at least twice. Unfortunately, however, it’s not quite well known internationally. Maybe because the topic, the characters, the situations and the jokes refer to stuff that only natives can fully understand and appreciate. Nevertheless, I have used this movie, in countless occasions, as an intense introductory course of Argentine Studies for neophytes. It worked great with many of my past girlfriends; whenever I wanted to show them the place where I came from, the environment where I grew up, I’d play them this DVD.

With an all-star cast of the greatest comedians of its time, Waiting For The Hearse, shows one day in the life of an archetypical middle class family of Italian immigrant descendants living in a quiet residential neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The center of the story, and the nucleus of the family, is the senile grandmother (superbly impersonated by a male actor, Antonio Gasalla) who’s presumed dead, unleashing an infinite series of hilarious impossibly loud arguments between her three sons and their respective wives. Every other line of dialog in this script is a genius immortal quote. Many of them have been incorporated in the colloquial lexicon.

Buenos Aires Vice Versa (Agresti – 1996)

This is the movie that put Alejandro Agresti (Valentín, The Lake House) on the map, as one of the best Argentine film directors of his generation. It does, however, deal on a tangent way with the 70’s dictatorship, having children of disappeared people as main characters. But that’s just the premise, then the movie moves on into developing its main character, the city of Buenos Aires, seen through the eyes of very dissimilar people of all walks of life through intertwined storylines (it could be said that this movie is to Buenos Aires what Amores Perros is to Mexico DF).

I was a communications college student and I didn’t care much about Argentine cinema until I saw this and it was like, all of a sudden, a ray of hope. Some freshness was on its way and I think this movie pretty much opened the doors for all the indie masterpieces that came in the second half of the nineties.

Pizza Beer and Cigarettes (Caetano/Stagnaro – 1998)

The Argentine response to Boyz N The Hood, with three young outcasts (none of them a famous rapper turned actor though) as the boyz and the streets of downtown Buenos Aires as the hood. There’s no gangs here, distinguished by red or blue bandanas, just marginal youth trying to survive another night in a violent city. Stealing from a disabled panhandler, mugging a businessman and watching life go by sitting on the sidewalks, with cheap pizza, beer and cigarettes as the sole ingredients of their daily diet. Shot in a raw style, with mostly unfamiliar faces and non-professional actors (think Larry Clark’s Kids), this movie feels a bit like a documentary of the real Buenos Aires underground that not many visitors (and locals) get to see. The situations, sadly, are all too familiar and many remind me of real life experiences and anecdotes of some old close friends of mine. Extra kudos deserved for being the first “serious” Argentine movie ever to include cumbia music in its soundtrack.

76-89-03 (Nardini/Bernard – 2000)

If I was forced to chose just one, this would be it, my favorite Argentine movie of all time. This no-budget indie black-and-white flick went by widely unnoticed at the time of its release. I pride myself in saying I was one of the few who saw it on the big screen. Since then, however, it has become a cult classic of sorts.

I think of it as the Argentine equivalent of Kevin Smith’s Clerks and if we lived in a fair world it would’ve led to sequels, merchandising and an established career into mainstream filmmaking for its authors. But achieving cult auteur status in such a small market as the Argentine film industry is no guarantee of success—it took the directing duet seven years to come out with another feature, the equally great D-Graduated.

76-89-03 is the story of three friends, broken down into three acts, each one comprising a single day during a significant year in Argentine history: 1976 (the coup-d’état and the beginning of the bloody dictatorship, during the three kids’ elementary school days), 1989 (the arrival of president Menem and the new paradigm of first-world living in a third-world country, with the three young-adults making life-defining decisions while cruising Buenos Aires hectic nightlife) and an imaginary 2003 (the movie was finished before 2000 and ’03 was predicted as year of the return of Menem).
The movie is packed with tons of hilarious dialogue and memorable quotes, but one scene in particular steals the show. El rey de la noche (The King of Nightlife) is a coked-out pedophile club promoter that the three guys run into in 1989; he spits out a ten minute long monologue full of perversion (and wisdom) that makes me bust out tears while laughing out loud every time I watch it. Just for that magnificent scene, it’s a DVD worth owning… if you’re able to find it.

El Bonaerense (Trapero – 2002)

I once worked as a civilian consultant for the Police Department in Buenos Aires and what I saw in there was so backwards, ridiculous and surreal that for years I dreamt about writing a screenplay about it. Trapero made it first. El Bonaerense narrates the daily life and struggle of a small-town under-educated poor man who moves to Buenos Aires’ outskirts and is pretty much forced to join the force. With a crude, naturalist style of filmmaking and no exaggeration at all, Trapero paints a raw picture of the reality of a cop’s life without demonizing, nor victimizing him. The result is a movie that’s sad overall, but has plenty of moments that are way funnier than any of the Police Academy installments, without being a satire. Plus, the soundtrack includes some impressive cumbias, including some cumbia villera, Peruvian chicha and the classic trailer track by neo-cumbia pioneer DJ Taz.

You can buy El Bonaerense on DVD HERE

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