Chromosomal: Argentina's 'XXY' is among a crop of Argentina's "New Cinema," and plays as Frameline's Centerpiece film. (Photo courtesy Frameline)

Argentina's New Wave at Frameline

Matt Sussman June 19, 2008

Last year’s Frameline First Feature Award winner was Alexis Dos Santos’ debut Glue (2006), an overall festival favorite, and one that SF Bay Guardian Arts and Entertainment Editor Johnny Ray Huston wryly observed as "yet another example of how new Argentine cinema…continues to stretch the time and space dimensions of the word new." It had already been a half decade since 2001, Argentine film’s watershed year at film festivals abroad and the year the entire industry—and country—suffered through a catastrophic economic collapse. The state-subsidized film schools that had nurtured members of the ’90s new wave were forced to close and many in the film industry fretted over what seemed like a foreclosed future.

Since then, Argentina’s economy has stabilized and slowly been on the mend, and film production has cautiously followed suit. Though as Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke and James Surowiecki observed in their 2006 film-centric travelogue through Buenos Aries, continued economic jitters have added to an atmosphere of low-level anxiety that seems to permeate daily life. So, not solely a folie a deux of film critics, the continued currency of "New Argentine Cinema" stems from the Argentine film industry’s tenacity as well as the uncompromising intelligence shown by so many of the directors who continued to get yoked under the banner. The term seems less a temporal designation than something whispered to ensure continued good fortune: If you say it, the films will keep coming.

was certainly exemplary in this regard. Dos Santos’ skinny punks were hardly germ-free adolescents—their lives a seemingly endless recombinant routine of huffing glue, zoning out in front of the TV, listening to, playing or watching music, hanging out and casual bisexuality. But rather than use his characters as avatars for a smug and lascivious nihilism a la Larry Clark at his laziest, Dos Santos’ camera and his actors’ rapport gave Lucas, Nacho and Andrea (and us) room to breathe and appreciate the sensual, exploratory joys to be found in their teenage kicks.

Holding up the precedent set by Glue two of the strongest entries (both debut features, no less) at this year’s Frameline, Santiago Otheguy’s La Leon and Lucia Puenzo’s XXY are unsurprisingly Argentine. Both films cover new terrain not previously mapped out by new Argentine cinema’s queerer entries. Veronica Chen’s Vagon Fumador (2001) and the heavily-Chen influenced Ronda Nocturna (2006), by France-based Argie expat Edgardo Cozarinsky, focused on midnight cowboys navigating the depressed concrete arteries of Buenos Aries. La Leon and XXY leave the capital and its troubled hustlers behind and head for the countryside, turning their attention towards the fallout from the weakening Latin American nuclear family and their character’s rocky navigation of their liminal sexualities.

Set amidst the shanty communities that dot the verdant canals and reed marshes of Argentina’s Parana River, La Leon is both a somnambulant study of simmering desire and a verite-style portrait of its local setting. Seemingly drawn in chiaroscuro charcoals, Otheguy’s film follows the geographically and sexually isolated Alvaro (Jorge Ramon, whose eyes flit between glowering stoicism and deep kindness), whose fascination with his village’s garrulous and crude tugboat captain El Turu (Daneil Valenzuela) leads both men to a painful impasse.

As with the foliage-dense films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, only the surrounding jungle bears witness as much as we do to the cautious testing of desires and muted wrongs that inevitably follow. Alvaro, like his neighbors, is as tied to the land as he is to his aging father as he is to the stultifying masculinity that compels El Turu to act like such a blowhard. Otheguy’s film is suffused with a strange beauty and fatalism, with many of his shots of whistling reeds weirdly summoning the more atmospheric moments from Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943).

On the other end of the class spectrum, but no less moody and rife with gender trouble, is the adolescent drama and Frameline Centerpiece feature XXY. Like Glue, Puenzo’s film is a thoughtful and refreshingly blunt look at teen sexuality and the familial forces that seek to normalize and regulate it. And as with Glue, XXY‘s success largely rides on Ines Efron’s truly fearless performance (Efron played Andrea in Dos Santos’ film). Efron plays Alex, an intersex teenager born with both male and female sex organs, whose well-meaning but fearful parents have fled Argentina to guardedly raise her on the remote Uruguayan coast.

Though the tomboyish Alex has been brought up as a girl, the hormonal tug of adolescence has made her more sexually precocious and her parents soon come to realize that as the specter of adulthood looms, Alex will have to make a choice about which gender she will live as for the rest of her life. It’s a choice Alex fights having to make (or even acknowledge), and her confusion and anxiety only become exacerbated when she falls for the gawky son of a visiting plastic surgeon, who is just as unsure about his burgeoning sexual identity.

Though Puenzo’s film strays into dangerous Freudian literalism in a few instances, thanks to the strength of its performances XXY largely shows rather than tells. As we find out, Alex’s craggy coastal stomping grounds hold as much pain and potential freedom as the verdant riverbanks of La Leon. What is perhaps most heartening is that both XXY and La Leon are slated for theatrical distribution— a reversal of the lackluster track record many recent Argentine films have had in attracting distributors.

Of course, there are many other queer-tinted Argentine films that have yet to start making the festival rounds, let alone land a distribution deal (my good Argentine friend recently sung the praises of Diego Lerman’s Mientras tanto [2006] and Tan de repente [2002], as well as Gonzalez Castro’s Resfriada [2008]). But so long as Dos Santos, Otheguy and Puenzo move forward in the promising directions indicated by the strength of their debuts, and more established filmmakers such as Cheng and Lucretia Martel continue to raise the bar, "new Argentine cinema" should still retain its usefulness as a critic’s watchword rather than as a belated index of a passed moment in time.