Argentinian cinema has come into its own in the 21st century. Always one of the larger film industries in Latin America – along with Brazil and Mexico – it has forged a journey often ahead of the curve in demonstrating the faultlines of a nation coming to terms with a military dictatorship (1976 to 1983) that ‘disappeared’ over 30,000 people.
At the turn of the century, a lean, poetic culture of filmmaking emerged. The new Argentinian cinema was marked by urgency and immediacy, which contrasted with the more sober and allegorical work of older filmmakers like Pino Solanas and Luis Puenzo.
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Martín Rejtman’s Rapado (1992) heralded the beginning of this shift, but it was the visceral quality of Pablo Trapero’s Crane World (1999), the dry humour of Daniel Burman’s Waiting for the Messiah (2000) and the sly, corrosive gaze of Lucrecia Martel’s The Swamp (2001) that signalled the wave of change.
The films that followed demonstrated how the legacies of trauma had produced new ways to reimagine not only the past but also the future. From Adrián Caetano’s immersive Chronicle of an Escape (2006) to Milagros Mumenthaler’s dreamy Back to Stay (2011) and Benjamín Naishtat’s satirical Rojo (2018), the past became both the fabric of political discussion and the material of tantalising fictions.
The need to examine the construction of Argentina as a nation built on colonialist exploitation became newly prominent, as seen in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) and Martel’s Zama (2017). Indeed, many of the most resonant films of the last 20 years, as Francisco Márquez’s new psychological thriller A Common Crime demonstrates, expose the deep class inequalities that continue to shape Argentinian society. A playful LBGTIQ+ cinema also emerged in films like Marco Berger’s Plan B (2009) and Lucio Castro’s End of the Century (2019).
The 10 films listed below offer a window into the versatility of 21st-century Argentinian filmmaking. They demonstrate its games with genre and its formal audacity. They also show its willingness to explore the boundaries between documentary and fiction, and the use of theatrical and self-referential tropes as a way of exploring the very nature of cinema itself.
Nine Queens (2000)
Director: Fabián Bielinsky
Made as the nation was entering economic freefall, Fabián Bielinsky’s debut feature interlinked capitalism and criminality to compelling effect in a high-action heist thriller. Ricardo Darín and Gastón Pauls (both terrific) play two Buenos Aires con artists who conspire to scam a stamp collector by selling him a rare sheet of stamps – the nine queens of the film’s title.
Think David Mamet’s House of Games (1987) colliding with The Usual Suspects (1995) and you will have some idea of the multiple plot twists and narrative turns that Bielinsky orchestrates. The film spurred a number of remakes – including the LA-set Criminal (2004) and the Hindi-language Bluffmaster! (2005) – but neither have the edge or panache of the original. Bielinsky made only one other film, the austere The Aura (2005), before his death in 2006.
The Blonds (2003)
Director: Albertina Carri
Albertina Carri’s response to the kidnapping and disappearance of her parents during the 1976 to 1983 dictatorship disturbs all documentary conventions. The person who tells the story is not Carri herself but an actor, a woman in her late 20s, who becomes her provocative alter ego.
Unlike in conventional documentaries that deal with the memory of the disappeared, Carri does not investigate the quality of the evidence. Rejecting any nostalgia for the past, the film prefers to focus on domestic moments where the past seems to touch the present. Carri stages the moment of the disappearance through a crafted animation sequence in which a plastic spaceship swoops down from the sky and whisks away her toy-figurine parents. By converting the disappeared into fictional characters, The Blonds challenges the idea of the victim as being defined by their family lineage. A cult film that reshaped the rules of post-dictatorship cinema.
The Magic Gloves (2003)
Director: Martín Rejtman
There is no better film at capturing the rippling effects of Argentina’s economic crisis at the turn of the century than Martín Rejtman’s The Magic Gloves. This wry black comedy, populated by a cast of eccentrics, unravels as a series of droll sketches. When hapless Buenos Aires taxi driver Alejandro bumps into a former school friend, it sets in motion a series of changes in his life. He moves into the flat of a former porn star, begins a new relationship with a flight attendant and makes the decision to invest in what seems a decidedly dodgy import venture: the magic gloves from China from which the film takes its title.
As in his films Silvia Prieto (1999) and Two Shots Fired (2014), Rejtman has an eye for smart visual gags. In this absurdist feature, he crafts a portrait of a country that’s past its best – a bit like Gabriel’s worn-out Renault 12 car – but determined to find a way of getting rich quick.
The Headless Woman (2008)
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Lucrecia Martel, one of the key stylists of contemporary cinema, followed The Holy Girl (2004) with this existentialist drama. Well-to-do Verónica (an amazing performance by María Onetto) is involved in a seemingly minor car accident on a deserted provincial road. After the accident Verónica is lost, wandering through her routines with a vacant smile as if trapped inside a fish tank. And while the family patriarchs agree to ‘take care’ of the situation, erasing all traces of the accident, something rotten remains. The viewer is immersed in Vero’s hallucinatory consciousness.
Martel brilliantly confronts the viewer with the realities of a society built on inequalities, injustices and disappearances that are all too regularly ‘covered up’. The result is a genuinely disarming and daringly original film about guilt, ghosts, complicity and erasure. Its influence hovers over A Common Crime.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
Director: Juan José Campanella
Remade in Hollywood in 2015, Juan José Campanella’s romance-cum-thriller hinges on an unsolved murder. Involving star-crossed lovers, parallel love stories and entertaining narrative twists across two time periods (1974 and 1999), it’s a compelling examination of historical memory, vigilante justice and the traumas of the past.
Ricardo Darín – the Tom Hanks of Argentinian cinema – excels as a dogged legal clerk preoccupied by the brutal rape and murder of a young, recently married schoolteacher. Unable to find justice at the time, he revisits the case 25 years later in the hope of finding out what really happened to the perpetrator.
The second Argentinian film to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film (Luis Puenzo’s 1985 film The Official Story was the first), The Secret in Their Eyes proved both a commercial hit at home, where it was seen by over 2.4 million viewers, and an international triumph, securing distribution in more than 75 countries.
Director: Matías Piñeiro
The second of Matías Piñeiro’s five ‘shakespeareanas’ – playful riffs on Shakespeare’s comedies – is a bright and breezy study on the sense of repetition that marks contemporary life, which plays out on the streets of Buenos Aires. One of the most articulate in a new wave of Argentinian directors, Piñeiro ingeniously refashions Twelfth Night’s themes of performance, gender politics and the vagaries of love into an appealing tale set among young actors and lovers in the hipster venues of what appears a sprawling, never-ending city.
Viola (María Villar) is making deliveries for her boyfriend’s DVD piracy business when she comes into contact with an all-women theatre company. She finds herself taking on a role in the forthcoming production of Twelfth Night – with elements of The Merchant of Venice mischievously thrown in to disturb the narrative.
Piñeiro’s film uses sudden close-ups that constantly shift the viewer’s perspective, creating a wry sense of the unexpected. Arguing for a more fluid approach to the arts, gender and sexuality, its exhilarating mix of melodrama, witty romcom and philosophical intrigue blurs the boundaries between cinema and theatre.
Wild Tales (2014)
Director: Damián Szifron
In this portmanteau film, Damián Szifron presents a collection of six thematically interlocked stories that chart a society teetering on the edge of the abyss – an all-too-familiar trope in 21st century Argentinian cinema. In all six tales, a mundane trigger – a throwaway comment, a parking ticket, an instinctive gesture – serves as the catalyst for an emotional explosion where social norms go out of the window.
Each story follows a different generic path, from the road movie of ‘The Strongest’ to the revenge tragedy of the thrilling final episode ‘Till Death Do Us Part’. In the latter, Erica Rivas excels as the all-smiling bride who decides to teach her groom a lesson on their wedding day. El Deseo – the production company owned by the Almodóvar brothers, also backers of Martel’s films – co-produced, and an Almodóvar-esque eccentricity certainly marks Szifron’s film. It’s a rollercoaster cinematic ride, with characters each pursuing their own, often frenzied journey to liberation.
The Clan (2015)
Director: Pablo Trapero
Pablo Trapero followed White Elephant, his 2012 treatment of idealism and hope in Buenos Aires’ Villa Lugano neighbourhood, by turning to the case of the notorious Puccio family who kidnapped four people for extortion in the period between 1982 and 1985. The narrative is told from the position of the aggressors, led by middle-class patriarch Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella, Darín’s comic sidekick in The Secret in Their Eyes) who had honed his skills working for the secret service during the 1976 to 1983 dictatorship.
Trapero cuts thrillingly across the different time periods covered in the film with high-octane sequences amplified by a soundtrack that deploys both 1980s tracks and non-period pieces. The result is a cautionary tale of how those responsible for the crimes of the dictatorship were given the immunity to pursue a regime of terror in the democratic era.
Theatre of War (2018)
Director: Lola Arias
Theatre-maker and musician Lola Arias made her film debut with a riff on her 2016 theatre production Minefield, bringing together six Falklands War veterans to examine the legacy of the conflict on its respective nations. Set in a neutral white box space, which represents the nowhere land of the Falklands that the men repeatedly return to in their conversations, the film interrogates the documentary format as a means of contesting how official narratives are constructed.
The ex-combatants – who include one of the 598 Gurkhas who fought for the British in the conflict – find points of contact as well as differences that can’t be overcome. Doubles of their younger selves are deployed to powerful effect. Ultimately, in establishing a fluid space between documentary and fiction, Arias creates a means of allowing the men to work towards a different understanding of their past.
La flor (2018)
Director: Mariano Llinás
The filmmaking collective El Pampero has redefined Argentinian cinema in the 21st century. Laura Citarella, Mariano Llinás, Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguillansky all work on each other’s films, directing, editing, performing, writing, producing, often with Mendilaharzu as director of photography. We could have chosen any one of their films, from Citarella’s Ostende (2011) to Moguillansky’s Castro (2009), but it is La flor, Llinás’s epic 13-hours-plus film for and about the four actresses that make up Piel de Lava, one of Argentina’s most acclaimed theatre companies, that makes the final cut.
A film about the nature of film itself, La flor encompasses a huge number of genres and styles – from the B-movie, musical and transnational spy thriller to the film-within-a-film, silent movie and quest narrative. There are no limits to Llinás’s ambition as the plot takes the viewer across countries, languages and different historical eras. At its core are Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo and Valeria Correa, all embroiled in games of disguise, duplicity and fiction. This is a film that showcases El Pampero at its best; it’s bold, playful, beguiling cinema.