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Popular and Political Argentinian Cinema at Viennale 2023

A man eats spaghetti out of his hands while holding a Tupperware container.Martín Shanly in About Thirty

The particular focus of this year’s Viennale might have been Chile—the main retrospective, dedicated to Raúl Ruiz, was paired with a program exploring the country’s cinema in the half century since the 1973 coup—but its neighbor Argentina was also very well-represented. More than a specific curatorial inclination, this reflected the fact that it’s been a terrific year for Argentine film. Alongside such festival-circuit hits as Lisandro Alonso’s Eureka, Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3 and Rodrigo Moreno’s The Delinquents, the Viennale screened more modestly scaled and below-the-radar films, including Martín Shanly’s About Thirty, Martín Rejtman’s The Practice and Puan by Maria Alché and Benjamin Naishtat. 

There are strong thematic and tonal parallels between the latter three titles, each a socially-minded comedy centered on a male and middle-class protagonist in ages ranging from the cusp of 30 to that of 60. Taken together, the films offer a compelling composite portrait of the contemporary Argentinian experience and the existential implications of being mired in a perennial cycle of economic crises. That the Viennale dates coincided with the country’s general elections, whose first round of voting on October 22 narrowed the presidential race down to a depressingly familiar face-off between an establishment centrist and a populist reactionary, only further encouraged such a reading. 

In About Thirty, Shanly’s second feature, the director also plays the main character Arturo. As the film opens, he’s shown dragging on a joint with the desperation of a shipwrecked man clinging to a lifebelt. Reading from his personal diary in voice-over, he announces that it is “possibly the worst day of [his] life.” Contrary to what is suggested by the title, the occasion turns out to be not his thirtieth birthday, but the wedding of his former best friend. As the day progresses, the narrative keeps jumping back in time to chart his increasing alienation from friends and family across the preceding years. Remaining in a realist register and eliciting discomfort without fully tipping into cringe comedy, each of these delightfully scripted episodes culminates in the humiliation of the chronically unemployed, broke and single Arturo. (There are shades of Curb Your Enthusiasm to this repeating set-up, with Arturo as a docile and pitiable Larry David.) At the wedding, all the characters are gathered together as if for the express purpose of compounding his profound sense of inadequacy. 

Arturo spends the entirety of About Thirty in a stoned daze, accepting the various insults and misfortunes that come his way with befuddled passivity, but the weed is more symptom than cause of his predicament. The character essentially differs from the man-children of, say, Judd Apatow. No easy catharsis awaits him, even if he does seek it in such places as an ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazon. Unsurprisingly, being incapable of introspection, the trip yields no more significant revelations than his keeping of a diary. Although the film doesn’t exonerate him, it also doesn’t treat him as a punching bag or scapegoat. By setting the wedding in March 2020, Shanly integrates the pandemic as a final chimera in Arturo’s wait for deliverance. In a universalizing gesture, the film closes with an extreme zoom-out that observes Arturo alone on his balcony and slowly disappears him in a panoramic view of a ghostly Buenos Aires. It’s a movement that reflects our own retrospection, bringing back discomfiting memories of the naïve optimism of those early lockdown days, when COVID was supposed to rouse us from our collective torpor and rectify all the ills of capitalism. 

The protagonist of The Practice might be some 15 years older, but he’s hardly wiser or more effective. Gustavo is an Argentine expat living in Chile and working as a yoga instructor. No reason is given as to why he stays in Chile after his marriage falls apart, since he seems to have no other personal attachments and could teach yoga anywhere. The one thing that is clear is that he doesn’t want to return to Argentina. Instead, he first moves in with his chain-smoking and hectoring siblings-in-law, then sublets a room on Airbnb that eventually floods and finally sets up camp on the floor of his studio. In any confrontation— whether it’s his wife selling all his furniture, or his mother berating him via Zoom, or his crush falling for a hunky rival, or one of his students stealing from the others during class—his stock reaction is a numb stare. Whenever things get too stressful, he takes off to a yoga retreat in the countryside where they lock away your phone at check-in.   

The Practice is Rejtman’s return to feature filmmaking after a nine-year absence. His deadpan, hyper-precise style of comedy, as indebted to Bresson as it is to Buster Keaton, has undergone little change, though here he pushes the minimalism further. The exceptional banality of the dialogues and settings makes for a productive contrast with the characteristic sophistication of the mise-en-scène. Rejtman generates much of his humor from the staccato editing of mostly static and meticulously blocked compositions, creating punchlines through stark juxtapositions. He also introduces a logic of repetition to the jokes, which corresponds to the circular trajectory of Gustavo’s life. It’s never not funny when Gustavo tears his meniscus while attempting a lotus position, only to refuse medical treatment in favor of a YouTube guru’s tutorials and then tear it again at the next occasion. The practice of the film’s title refers to yoga but is clearly symbolic for praxis. Gustavo’s complete lack thereof ensures that he will keep tearing his meniscus and his limp will keep getting worse. 

Unlike his above-mentioned peers, Puan’s Marcelo does eventually manage to bridge the gap between theory and praxis. Alché and Naishtat’s film is the most politically pointed of the three, making direct reference to Argentina’s skyrocketing inflation and its on-the-ground repercussions, as experienced by the staff and students of the University of Buenos Aires. (Puan is the nickname of the esteemed faculty of philosophy, taken from the name of the street on which it is located.) In an early scene, Marcelo is lecturing a class on Rousseau. In the middle of a discussion on the relationship between progress, wealth accumulation, inequality and the imperative of individual virtue, two representatives of the student council come in and call for a protest against the administration’s handling of the budget. The moment could easily have come off as contrived and on-the-nose, but equal credit goes to Alché and Naishtat’s script and to Marcelo Subiotto’s performance for rendering the scene convincing and organic. 

It’s no small feat and they repeat it several times, always with the intention of illuminating a social reality. At his second job teaching philosophy in an economically disadvantaged part of town, Marcelo invokes Hobbes to comment on the state’s exercise of authority as represented by the armed policeman who guards the classroom. At his third job as a private tutor to a rich old lady, he struggles to make intelligible Heidegger’s concept of Dasein by drawing a contrast between functioning (passive) and existing (anguished). Far from dry, these already droll exchanges are enlivened further with physical comedy. The old lady eye-rolls and sighs her way through the lesson before falling asleep altogether, which Marcelo takes as his cue to sneak out 15 minutes early—except he is foiled by the fiercely loyal maid who barges in with the vacuum cleaner. Nor is the whole film dominated by philosophical disquisitions. After Marcelo sits on a dirty diaper, a long and ever more mortifying scene follows him on a cross-town trip with his academic rival, a blowhard as suave and good-looking as Marcelo is clumsy and unkempt, to attend the memorial of a recently deceased colleague.  

The skillful balance between accessibility and intellectual rigor is integral to the film’s politics. Underlining the vital role of critical thought in our relationship with the world, Alché and Naishtat present Marcelo’s gradual conversion from resignation to action as an appeal. Puan was released in theaters in Argentina on October 5 to anticipate the elections and participate in the opposition to Javier Milei, one of the leading candidates, who has promised to defund public education. In a remarkable coincidence, something similar happened in Poland two weeks earlier. The release of Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border (also included in the Viennale program) was timed to coincide with the national elections there, resulting in a box-office hit whose severe criticism of the authorities’ inhuman treatment of refugees proved incendiary. A comedy and an emotional drama are not necessarily what comes to mind when thinking of activist filmmaking. How rare and encouraging to be reminded that cinema can be urgently political as well as genuinely popular.  

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