Is ‘Wild Tales’ what Argentine cinema should aspire to?

12 03 2017

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This is a slightly edited version of the article published in Popoptiq in February 2015. 

Wild Tales fulfills an Argentine need for release and catharsis. It’s engineered to reflect the zeitgeist or, at least, its own interpretation of the national mood. It stages a multi-directional offensive against marriage, city and national governments, illogical bureaucracy, class and ethnic resentment, and even parenthood. Damián Szifrón, its director and writer, locates six unconnected narratives in clearly Argentine contexts, but mostly avoids specifics: they happen in the present day, are symptomatic of ongoing social and political tensions, but also occur during an unspecified time, as likely today as yesterday and tomorrow, and no people, groups, or parties are explicitly singled out for criticism. No one and everyone is to blame for our spiteful and violent collective moment.

This is no subtle analysis of reasons and origins, only a spectacular, sensational snapshot, or rather an hilarious, infinitely-watchable, and ultimately adolescent cry. The film’s rebellious spirit is immediately likeable, but its obvious calculation and polish soften its rough edges and boost its market value. It’s no surprise that it has become the most commercially successful Argentine movie since records have been kept. This kind of expensive, start-studded, ambitious fare hardly exists in Argentina, and its novelty combined with its shrewd topicality created a perfect storm at the box-office.

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Szifrón sidesteps the usual pitfalls of most omnibus films through a disarmingly simple, even musical, solution. He has every episode run longer than its preceding number, culminating in the final, most elaborate, and delirious tale. This gives the whole a unifying rhythm. The storylines never connect, except at the thematic level, yet the experience is never fragmented, since each part operates like another version of a repeatable, progressively more complicated plot.

Yet the limits of cinematic running time are Szifrón’s partial undoing. Each story has a limited number of minutes to trace a character’s descent into madness, as well as his or her revenge against the responsible individuals or institutions. There’s simply too little space for too many restatements of the same journey. Admittedly, in some cases, this parabola to disaster happens off-screen. In the first tale, a man tricks everyone who has ever wronged him into sharing a plane, which he then pilots into the home of his most hated oppressors, his parents. We never see the man nor his meltdown, only meet his victims minutes before the crash. Yet most of the remaining tales track well-adjusted individuals as they lose their minds. Their reasons are often understandable, sometimes less so, but all evoke Michael Douglas in Falling Down, time and again, buckling under the weight of one final indignation. Szifrón is often forced to compress narrative development and settle into simple action-and-reaction logic, transforming the mental labyrinths of his protagonists into linear graphs of colliding objects.

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For Argentines, Wild Tales is a menagerie of recognizable acting talent, which means the film will play quite differently for audiences abroad, who are probably only familiar with Ricardo Darín, the experienced con man from Nine Queens and the honest judiciary employee from The Secret in their Eyes. Here, he plays a family man – and a demolitions expert – whose car is unjustly towed away, and whose battle against the bureaucratic powers that be reaches operatic – and explosive – heights. But, among local viewers, his fellow cast members are no less renowned. Darío Grandinetti, who starred in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, is in the opening airplane episode. Leonardo Sbaraglia, a versatile and intense actor, shows up as a casually racist driver, who butts heads – and many other body parts – with a poorer, equally temperamental man who blocks him on the highway. Oscar Martínez, whose lengthy career stretches back to 1974’s La Tregua, Argentina’s first Academy Award nominee, is a proud, rich father who tries to cover up his son’s murderous dawn of drunken driving. And, as a woman who discovers, on her wedding night, that her new husband has already cheated on her, is Érica Rivas, the most electrifying of the bunch, known in Argentina for her supporting part in the Argentine version of Married… With Children. She has to deal with a wafer-thin character, whose sole defining trait is her becoming unhinged. Yet she’s such a monstrous force, such an expanding explosion of invective and fury, that Wild Tales’ most compelling claim to the transcendent and sublime is her own doing.

Non-Argentines are likely unaware of the debates surrounding Wild Tales in Argentina. There is an ongoing national conversation about the need for such industrial film-making. Local movies can be roughly divided into either art house pics or straightforward commercial entertainment, although there is also a burgeoning “genre movement,” built on the strength of usually cheaply-produced, but increasingly more refined exponents of science fiction, horror, and police procedurals. But what isn’t as common in Argentine cinema is what has been historically prized by the Academy Awards: middle-brow fare that remains commercial while trying (if not necessarily succeeding) to plumb depths of serious meaning. The question, of course, is whether or not Argentina needs to focus on this area, and if Wild Tales is an example to follow. As with so many things, this debate would be much simpler, and more quickly resolved, if there were more money to go around to satisfy all demands. Because there is not, every aesthetic detour seems decisive, and thus an above-average collection of short stories finds itself at the eye of the cinephilic hurricane.

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Wild Tales made back its budget, and then some. This has compelled certain analysts to point out that, while Szifrón’s dark comedy drew in millions of audience members, hundreds of obscure documentaries and smaller-scale movies, principally funded by Argentina’s National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts, have never earned a dime. The implication being that the latter are worthless or a waste of money, while the former is the money-making model to emulate. Yet part of the reason for the commercial failure of many unsung Argentine films – usually those not featuring well-known actors – is a flawed distribution model: how can any production recoup its costs when it’s shown in one or two screens, nationwide, for as many weeks? More crucially, film is not just an industry, it’s also culture. Government finance is crucial for cinema to exist at all in some countries, Argentina included. One might debate where the funding goes, to whom, and why. But its support of non-commercial projects is not an argument against it. Indeed, that’s its raison d’être. It would certainly be healthy, for the local context, if there were more productions like Wild Tales. But that should not be to the detriment of other kinds of film art.

Szifrón’s angst-ridden movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. The cards were stacked against it, with tough competition from Russia’s Leviathan and Poland’s Ida (which eventually took the prize). But in 2010, The Secret in their Eyes pulled an upset against Haneke’s The White Ribbon, so anything seemed possible. Many viewers back home supported Wild Tales like they would the national soccer team at the World Cup. Others suggested it does not represent Argentina so much as it reveals the influence of Hollywood. For many, in a country that struggles to achieve symbolic power and presence in world media, these were – and are – important matters. (And for others, of course, they aren’t at all. Argentines, if nothing else, can only agree to disagree.) It seems to me that a nation of immigrants – from neighboring South American countries, from Europe, from Asia, from Africa – cannot honestly produce anything other than endless hybridization, and that includes, obviously, films that behave like American products but sound distinctively Argentine. The problem, perhaps, is that this particular brand of hybrid is the one that receives most of the attention and all of the Oscars.

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