Taekwondo (2016)

Two Taekwondo training partners who know little about each other spend a few days in the company of seven other men. Are we just imagining it, or is there a spark between them?

TaekwondoArgentina
3.5*

Directors:
Marco Berger

Martín Farina
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Martín Farina

Running time: 105 minutes

If you’re a gay man, you’ve often wondered whether a particular guy is gay. When you finally find out he is, you tell yourself, “It was glaringly obvious all along!” Perhaps you even pat yourself on the back and praise your own “gaydar”. And when you find out he’s not, it suddenly seems just as self-evident. While we’re wondering, the possibilities often appear to be both endless and contradictory.

Marco Berger specialises in warm, friendly tension resolved at the very last moment thanks to the briefest of happy ends. His films focus almost exclusively on unspoken desire capped by a tender moment of contact that makes us feel like everything will work out in the end if we are just patient enough for it to happen.

The Argentine filmmaker’s latest feature, co-directed by Martín Farina (whose homoerotically charged football documentary, Fulboy, Berger co-edited), is titled Taekwondo and features a real ensemble cast for the first time in his career. The entire film is set in a large house in the countryside, where a group of nine strapping young men – all friends of the affable, curly-haired Fernando (Lucas Papa) – are hanging out. It’s December, and summer is already in full swing. This means a lot of lazing around, primarily in and around the swimming pool, and mostly in very skimpy clothes. Sometimes, none at all.

In the charmingly verdant, near-symmetrical opening shot, we see a newcomer arrive at the house. Germán (Gabriel Epstein) is an acquaintance of Fernando’s from their Taekwondo class and is joining the gang for a relaxing, fun time. He is the odd one out from the beginning because the eight have known each other for a long time. Fortunately for him, Fernando makes a point of finding him wherever he is, speaking to him, sitting next to him in larger groups, lying next to him by the pool and even sleeping in the same room. We quickly learn that Germán is gay, but what is the deal with Fernando?

This is a question that lingers for most of the film’s 105-minute running time. It always hangs in the background but is pushed centre stage every time Germán peeks at him (we know why), or he glances at Germán (does it mean what we think it means?), or the scantily clad men around them playfully call each other “cocksuckers”. The film also raises a few related but more general questions – ones that almost anyone who is gay has asked themselves at one time or another: What does it mean when someone looks at me? When does a look become a stare? And how do I distinguish between a stare born out of simple curiosity and a stare that is meaningful?

Taekwondo is divided into three interwoven sections: the delicate, silent dance between Germán and Fernando; the many conversations between Diego, Fede (nicknamed “Fatso”), Juan, Lucho, Maxi and Tomás, the majority of which concerns sex with women; and the questionable intentions of Leo, who stalks around in an attempt to get Fernando’s attention.

The film’s major flaw is its handling of the many speaking parts. The second section mentioned above, which consists of loose discussions between various speakers, is particularly problematic because beyond Germán and Fernando, the characters are simply not memorable or well-defined. In fact, it will likely take a second viewing to recognise all the men at the house.

Taekwondo does go overboard by pelting us with close-ups of crotches both covered and exposed, even when the point of view is not connected to anyone in particular. This kind of ogling by the camera, while not exactly comparable to the gross gaze that Abdellatif Kechiche deployed in Blue is the Warmest Colour, is pointless and voids whatever sensuality the shots may have generated if used more discreetly.

If the two directors had utilised the camera as a substitute for specific characters’ point of view, the film would have been infinitely more engaging and immersive. But the gratuitous abundance of full-frontal close-ups simply leads nowhere and becomes annoyingly repetitive. By contrast, scenes like the one in which all nine of the men squeeze into the sauna drip with sensuality precisely because there are no full-frontals. 

All the while, we are grateful that someone as captivating as Epstein was cast to play Germán and that he portrays him as someone who is careful but never pitiful. Germán has no problem being gay, but because he is unfamiliar with the other guys’ sentiments about homosexuality, he doesn’t bring it up. The film’s two comical highlights are the scenes in which he shares his feelings with another gay friend – once over the phone and another time in person.

Berger has always been at his most effective when his stories are simple and focused on two main characters. This was the case in arguably his two best films to date: Plan B and Hawaii. Taekwondo loses time by presenting non-essential storylines and characters. It also negates some of Berger’s trademark sunshine by including a marginal character clearly uncomfortable with his own sexuality. His presence taints the otherwise laid-back, albeit sometimes sexually tense, atmosphere.

But it is fun to see how Berger and Farina work to tease us to breaking point with the promise of something happening. Viewers will have to bide their time, but those who know Berger’s films (this is Farina’s first fiction film behind the camera) can also rest assured that he always delivers in the end.

It might appear that time is standing still in this idyllic summer film, but the small steps that Germán and Fernando take always make us smile out of pure exhilaration for them to realise and benefit from something that is clear to almost everyone else. Taekwondo would have been served better by having fewer in-your-face crotch shots and more clear-cut characters, but the easygoing ambience and the playful camaraderie make for an environment the viewer can easily get used to.

Look out for Marco Berger making a cameo appearance halfway through the film as an anonymous character whose companion is hit in the head with a tennis ball.

Truman (2015)

A man reaching the end of his natural life has to juggle his quest to find a decent adoptive family for his dog and an unexpected visit from an old friend.

trumanSpain/Argentina
4.5*

Directed by:
Cesc Gay

Screenwriters:
Cesc Gay

Tomàs Aragay
Director of Photography:
Andreu Rebés

Running time: 110 minutes

Truman says nothing and does very little except rest, sigh and sleep. And yet, the emotion that his presence elicits from the viewer of the film titled after him and helmed by Catalan director Cesc Gay is nearly pulverising.

“Truman” is a long-in-the-tooth, slow-on-his-feet boxer that has been with Julián, an Argentine-born theatre actor based in Madrid for more than three decades, for a long time. It comes as no surprise that Truman has basically become the divorced Julián’s life companion and second son.

After a brief opening scene in snow-swept Quebec (a running joke is that Julián consistently calls it the North Pole), we follow the middle-aged Tomás from his home to the airport and to Julián’s front door. Their meeting, after what we gather is too long, brings tears to Tomás’s eyes. But like so much else in the film, there is a gradual accumulation of details that clue us in about precisely why people act the way they do. In this particular case, the emotion comes not so much from seeing an old friend again but from the probability of this being the last time they meet.

Julián has been suffering from cancer for a while, and there is little hope left the new round of chemotherapy would keep him alive for much longer. Instead, he has decided to embrace the end and live out his final days far away from the hospital’s oncology department. He is also eyeing the future, and besides organising his funeral, perhaps the most important task is to find a suitable home for his beloved Truman.

While we see the dog only occasionally, he is never far from our minds, as his name pops up in conversations between the two lifelong friends, and we can see Julián’s concern for Truman’s future well-being gnaw at him, likely because it also serves as a constant reminder that Julián will no longer be around.

In the lead, Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín inhabits the lead role like a second skin. Unshaven but with a gravelly voice of gold and piercing blue eyes that can seduce or give a fatal death stare with equal poise, Julián is captivating to watch. Often an enigma, ironically the result of his unexpected and discomfiting forthrightness, he is at his most vulnerable in the company of his son, Nico, and the range of emotions that Darín betrays with amazing subtlety is heartrending.

Tomás, played by Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, is an eminently likeable character who gives his old friend a great deal of leeway, even though his initial intention was to talk him out of skipping the chemotherapy. Over time, thanks to some gentle and not-so-gentle reminders from Julián’s cousin, Paula, we realise he feels a measure of guilt over not having visited Tomás more often, despite being in a much better financial situation than his friend the theatre actor.

This is the perfect combination of comedy and tragedy. Despite the grim reality of Julián’s health, his interactions with those around him – many of whom don’t quite know how to react to someone planning for their own imminent demise – produce countless scenes of laughter at the awkwardness into which he rushes head first. Whether it is his questioning of Truman’s veterinarian about dogs’ feelings after the death of their owner or his chance meeting with an old friend whose girlfriend he slept with and for which he now wishes to apologise, the narrative always finds new finds to entertain us with genuinely moving pieces of the puzzle.

But the real magic lies in the fact that many a scene derives its emotional power from us looking back at them with hindsight, perhaps none more beautiful than the aftermath of Julián’s spur-of-the-moment visit to Nico (in retrospect, a perfectly pitched performance by Oriol Pla). Nico is studying in Amsterdam and knows little about his father’s current state. While their interaction in Amsterdam is full of the awkwardness and warmth we would expect, we only realise afterwards what was really going on, and the revelation is enough to send the viewer grabbing unashamedly for the nearest box of tissues. And this is before a mesmerisingly staged final scene that will tear down any remaining diehards’ bulwarks against showing emotion.

While losing some of its texture in the final act, in particular during an ill-fitting scene that sees a major character storm off in anger, Truman is overwhelmingly a very well-controlled mix of comedy and melancholy. The performances are dynamite, with Darín deserving top honours, and the modulated rollercoaster of emotions that we feel heightens our sympathy for the characters.

Paulina (2015)

Rape victim seeks to understand reasons for assailant’s behaviour, but despite creativity, depiction ultimately just skims the surface of complexity.

la-patota-paulina

Argentina
3*

Director:
Santiago Mitre
Screenwriters:
Mariano Llinás

Santiago Mitre
Director of Photography:
Gustavo Biazzi

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: La patota 

There are always at least two sides to a story where more than one person is involved, and in the case of Paulina by Argentine filmmaker Santiago Mitre, looking at and weighing all the sides can be discomfiting to anyone intent on clinging to black-and-white beliefs. The exercise may even produce immense confusion in the viewer looking to reconcile all these points of view.

The film itself is not confusing; on the contrary, even though it sometimes jumps back in time to cover events once more but from a different perspective, the story is very simple: Paulina, who has started her Ph.D. in law and is also the daughter of a judge, has decided to leave Buenos Aires and head back to her hometown in the Northeast of the country, close to the border with Paraguay, to teach human rights and democracy at a small school. The children, most of them of indigenous heritage, are sceptical of her presence, and the first classes get off to a bad start when Paulina seeks to discuss the concept democracy and is quickly confronted with a different outlook from these children who feel that white Argentines do not or cannot represent their needs in the system. 

One night, when Paulina drives back home on her motorcycle, she is attacked. Suddenly, without warning, the film flips back on itself to show us characters we had not seen before. A young man, Ciro (Cristian Salguero), who works at a sawmill, learns that his girlfriend has broken up with him to hook up with a man from outside the community. He is outraged, and when he sees someone driving a motorcycle in the dark, he takes it to be her and encourages his friends to rape the woman.

This is where the film’s path converges with the previous story line, as we see Paulina mistaken for the girlfriend and her being gang-raped by the group of boys, most of whom attend her class. The tense build-up, covered very competently by the director and his cameraman, who use short takes that positively vibrate with adrenaline, as well as the shocking incident itself, leaves us stunned, but Paulina’s subsequent actions turn the film into an unexpected examination of the different ways in which people can respond to the same events.

At the centre of the story is Paulina, who feels a desperate need not only to teach but to understand the people in this community. This understanding, we come to see, extends to her rapists and their situation, as well as a questioning of the rationale for punishment as meted out by the law. Her personal life takes a major hit, as well, because of her way of dealing with the fall-out of the rape, but she is determined that the cold rules of the law not be applied to people if the judicial outcome is more or less as pointlessly cruel as the act itself.

Such thinking sends her father, who had his hopes pinned on her to follow in his footsteps, flying into a rage, and we can understand his concern for his daughter’s personal and professional situation very well. On the margins, there is also Paulina’s boyfriend, Alberto (Esteban Lamothe from Villegas), who finds her drifting away from him with every new revelation.

At the same time, it becomes clear throughout Paulina’s arguments that she is the one who should decide over her own life, just as the people affected by the government’s decisions should also be allowed to decide on their own rules. The film does not answer the question whether one should intervene if someone makes a “wrong” decision but instead highlights the fact that people have their reasons, and just because we do not understand them does not make them irrelevant.

Paulina is at its best when it shifts the audience’s empathy between the father and the daughter, and the departure from the linear narrative is effective in this regard, although it would have had a greater impact if it had been used more than just a couple of times. As things stand, it seems more like a gimmick, which is unfortunate.

The film handles its difficult material, including the brutal plot elements of a rape and the mulling of an abortion, but also the marginalisation of a community with little formal education, very competently. There is also fertile ground for discussion, especially about Paulina’s decisions along the way, which seem ever more difficult to comprehend, both for those around her and the audience.

In its effort to create ambiguity by showing us the world is more complex than we might like to believe, however, Paulina only skims the surface of a number of important issues. Had any one of them been exploited with greater care, this may have been an engaging film worthy of deep reflection, but instead, its reluctance to dig below the surface rather than merely hint at the turmoil makes this an incomplete production, well-intentioned though it certainly is.

Viewed at the San Sebastián International Film Festival 2015

Butterfly (2015)

Argentinian filmmaker Marco Berger takes on parallel realities to show characters rising above circumstances and becoming themselves, time and time again.

Mariposa

Argentina
3.5*

Director:
Marco Berger

Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 103 minutes

Original title: Mariposa

The worlds of Marco Berger’s films are almost always happy (though never uncomplicated) places. Going against the tradition of using (anguish about) sexuality as a way to amplify the drama, this Argentine director has consistently — with a single exception, Ausente — presented his viewers with stories where small steps lead the way to happiness. His films have no villains, although a case can certainly be made that the teenager in Ausente is the most (and only) unpleasant character in his œuvre. Instead, he focuses on the gentle tension that exists when people like each other, and this tension is resolved either through satisfaction or through the departure of one of the parties. His bright, optimistic world view is reflected in the atmosphere of his films, filled with sunshine and greenery.

While Berger almost exclusively examined same-sex attraction in his previous films, his fourth and latest feature, Butterfly (Mariposa), which premiered in the Panorama section at the 2015 Berlinale, places heterosexual attraction in the foreground. However, his affinity for one of the central tenets of gay rights is unmistakable: The major theme of the film is that no matter our circumstances, we will fall in love with the person with whom we were meant to fall in love. In the end, it’s always nature, not nurture.

In the very first scene, a butterfly sits perfectly still, and a young mother leaves her infant daughter by the side of the road. A few moments later, we see the mother with her daughter again, just as moments earlier, but she notices the butterfly gently flapping its wings and makes the decision to hang on to her child. The consequences of this single moment will be evident throughout the rest of the film, as we see the effects of her two decisions.

The idea of parallel worlds has been done before on film, with examples ranging from Sliding Doors to Run Lola Run (Lola rennt), but Butterfly, shot in Buenos Aires and in and around Tandil, is much more subtle and much less pure spectacle than those two films were. It is to Berger’s credit that the sexual tension at the heart of his story — between a boy, Germán (Javier de Pietro), and his adopted sister, Romina (Ailín Salas) — is handled with tenderness, understanding, and absolutely no sentimentality or exploitation, and his overarching message is a powerful one. At times, the symbolism of the butterfly does become needlessly belaboured, as the main character inexplicably buys a kind of butterfly snow globe for no apparent reason other than to suggest to us that he is being moved by some force he does not understand: his universal self across all worlds.

In the one story, the bearded, curly-haired Germán, an only child, falls in love with Romina, the girl with the dyed blond hair and the dark roots whom he meets when his parents crash into her in the woods. In the other, the clean-shaven, bespectacled Germán grows closer and closer to his adopted sister, Romina the brunette, whom his parents had found in the woods as a baby, until they both realise they can no longer resist the temptation to be with each other. In the meantime, their relationship to each other in both worlds affect those around them, but only temporarily, as everyone eventually gravitates towards the same people in either story.

One of these people is the handsome Bruno (Julian Infantino), Germán’s friend in the one world and Romina’s boyfriend in the other, who physically and awkwardly gravitates towards Germán. It is obvious Bruno is not particularly attracted to Germán, but there is a conspicuous yearning that — as Berger has shown in nearly all of his films, including his first short film, The Watch, by letting shots of underwear speak volumes — manifests itself as a hilarious, throbbing erection.

Despite Bruno being more or less closeted in not one but two worlds, we always sense that happiness is just around the corner, and when the moment arrived, I started smiling like a giddy teenager. Berger makes us fall in love with his characters, because they are thoroughly likable and their world is one that we want to be a part of. This world seems entirely credible, and while the characters may stumble here and there, most of their desires are ultimately fulfilled.

Berger has stated that the origin of Butterfly was partly personal, as it relates to the time after he was rejected by two film schools in Norway, and he had to choose between giving up on his dream and following his heart. Whether he would have ended up making films regardless is of course an open question, but audiences around the world will be enthusiastically applauding his decision to make movies that inspire them by creating wholly plausible worlds we want to believe can be ours, too.

He says he also drew inspiration from the 1998 film Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los amantes del círculo polar), about two step-siblings falling in love in a world that is so elusive it slips through our fingers at the end.

The separation between the worlds of Butterfly is at once very clear and not always obvious. The characters differ with regard to the colour and the length of their hair or their facial hair, and Berger also uses red and blue in various ways to distinguish the worlds from each other. However, the scenes are often cut in such a way that they start in one world and abruptly change to another when there is a sudden cut. This strategy is mostly successful but sometimes seems unnecessarily overused. The continuous back-and-forth between the two worlds and their stories does require the viewer to pay attention throughout, but this intense scrutiny and comparison pay off handsomely, because we recognise that, despite all the obstacles, our characters are slowly moving in the direction that will make them the most happy.

With Butterfly, Berger has affirmed his view of the world as a place we should be optimistic about. The screenplay, built on small moments rather than big ideas, is intelligent but never seeks to outsmart the viewer. Unfortunately, the fast-paced alternation between the two worlds and the focus on two couples instead of one do slightly hinder the depth to which the characters are revealed (Hawaii and Plan B were much more effective in this regard), but even within these constraints Berger does elicit a great deal of feeling from his situations. His characters have their reasons for acting the way they do, and while some will point to the broken heart of at least one girl in one world, and of another in the other, as evidence that people sometimes do get hurt, the film leaves us with the message that going for what we want often leads to the best possible world. After all, without those two broken hearts, the future may have had exponentially greater heartache in store.

Hawaii (2013)

Hawaii poster2Argentina
4*

Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 101 minutes

It’s difficult to imagine Marco Berger making a winter movie.

From the beautiful sunset of one of his first short films, The Watch, to the evergreen bubble of lush gardens in rural Argentina that is a constant metaphor for the budding relationship in Hawaii, his films have always been optimistic about the possibility of finding love, or at least of finding someone. That possibility, however, is not without its ups and downs, and one should never make assumptions about anyone else’s interests or intentions.

Hawaii is a refreshing return to form for Berger after his tense and visually frigid second film, Ausente. Having secured more than $22,000 through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter (disclaimer: I also made a contribution of less than one-half of 1 percent), Marco Berger and co-producer Pedro Irusta set about shooting a film they had initially planned to make with twice the budget. The product is surprisingly well-crafted, and perhaps thanks to Berger’s experience on the short-film anthology Sexual Tension: Volatile, he appears to be in complete control even as he tells a story that one expects to take up much less time.

The world of the film almost exclusively belongs to its two central characters, Eugenio and Martin, played by Manuel Vignau and the curious, wide-eyed Uruguayan actor Mateo Chiarino, respectively. With the exception of three brief scenes, they provide the only interaction of the film, and our attention is focused on the flowering of their relationship alone over the course of a few weeks during the summer.

Martin is homeless. He sleeps in the bushes under a small blanket and goes from house to house during the day asking for work. Eventually, he arrives at the gates of a large property, where the slightly bearded Eugenio, two or three years his senior, tells him the house actually belongs to his uncle, but that he needs help around the house. As Martin is about to leave, he realises he knows Eugenio from many years ago, when he spent time in the area before moving to Uruguay.

The rest of the film looks at the gradual shedding of secrets and the intimacy of shared childhood memories, which bring the two closer together.

Hawaii’s simplicity is only illusory, but the questions the viewer has as the actions unfolds will be answered – or, at the very least, framed through the prism of humanity – by the end of the film in a way that ties together the loose ends. Berger expertly manages his characters’ secrets, some of which we know from the beginning, and some of which he only lets us in on over time. Almost surprisingly, homosexuality is not really one of these secrets, although it is referenced obliquely, but Berger knows that we would assume these two characters are keeping that secret, and in the process we may see the forest for the trees – in other words, we may miss the more important story, which is the growth of a relationship outside the limits imposed by supposedly keeping sexuality a secret.

Such optimism also illuminated Berger’s début feature, Plan B, in which two straight men realise they have feelings for each other. That is not to say Hawaii is devoid of tension: After a major revelation, we can feel the characters almost unable to speak to each other, and yet we will soon come to realise the source of anxiety is not quite what we think. Berger is not fooling us on purpose as much as he seems to indicate that people have their reasons, and we have to be more patient to fully comprehend them, instead of drawing an all-too-simple conclusion.

His hair styled in a butch cut, Martin at first appears to be a very straightforward role, but over time we recognise the combination of vulnerability and survival that has brought him this far, and he doesn’t want anyone’s pity. He only appears to be slightly naïve, but just because he does not spend his time writing or drawing, like Eugenio, does not mean he is not sensitive.

He, and the viewer, wants questions answered, but he does not blindly rush toward an explanation. Perhaps the viewer is more impatient, trying to figure out what it means when one touches the other lightly on the shoulder, or when Martin puts his hand on Eugenio’s chest to feel his heartbeat. Is this a game? And do they both know what they are feeling themselves, or are they in the dark about their own emotions? How close can the one allow himself to be to the other without causing suspicion?

These questions are central to the experience, and it is impressive to see Berger pose them to us without seeming to tease us, and yet, at the same time, he keeps our attention on the development of the story and of these characters.

Later, when Martin picks up one of Eugenio’s T-shirts and puts it on, we wonder whether he wants to be more like Eugenio or if there is something more intimate to this gesture. Berger keeps us in the dark, but it is not to create some false kind of tension. It is the most natural scene in the world, and yet he has imbued it with an ambiguity that is audacious and spot-on.

The first 15 minutes of the film, almost entirely without dialogue, seem to belong to a different film altogether, but far from being an artistic flaw, we eventually there is some meaning behind this, too: These 15 minutes are used to sketch a world where Eugenio and Martin have not yet met each other as adults. Once they do, it is as if the world they inhabit also changes, and the result is a film that we can savour.

Hawaii contains clever compositions that do not attract attention but demand more attention because they are deceptively simple. One example is when Martin looks at himself in the mirror in Eugenio’s room. A few minutes later, Berger only needs to show us Eugenio looking in front of him to realise he is actually looking at a reflection of Martin behind him, changing his clothes, and no reverse shot is even necessary.

That kind of oblique look, of knowing what the viewer sees and what the character sees without showing him looking, is missing, unfortunately, from a later scene next to the river. That scene in Brokeback Mountain when Jake Gyllenhaal is peeling a potato and refuses to look behind him at Heath Ledger changing his clothes was awe-inspiring because we knew exactly what was going on in Gyllenhaal’s character’s mind. The scene next to the river in Hawaii eschews this subtlety in favour of more explicit leering.

The rest of the film contains a great deal of contemplation, and while we often don’t know what goes through the characters’ minds, we have some idea. An early shot shows Martin filling a water bottle at a tap before the camera focuses on his crotch. It is a subtle hint at the frustration he keeps hidden, but this frustration helps us understand his character rather than the story, which is a good thing, even though it does make Eugenio rather difficult to decipher.

Then again, perhaps that is life. This is the world occupied by the two main characters, and by them alone, and yet we don’t feel like voyeurs but rather like explorers (incidentally, the film cites Jules Verne from time to time) who share some of the joy of their experience.

Just like Plan B, Berger’s Hawaii is a film that will make its many homosexual viewers happy to be gay. It is not political, and it is not about gay guilt or repression or angst about coming out. On the contrary, it shows how wonderful it is to be alive and be with someone who is comfortable around you, and it treats the possibility of finding love as a reality.

Villegas (2012)

VillegasArgentina

3*
Director:
Gonzalo Tobal
Screenwriter:
Gonzalo Tobal
Director of Photography:
Lucas Gaynor

Running time: 100 minutes

An odd film with interesting characters that nonetheless leave you cold, Villegas is the début feature of Argentine director Gonzalo Tobal, who always turns away just as his characters are about to become vulnerable and doesn’t give us anything concrete, least of all the storyline.

It opens with two cousins, living very different lives, who receive a phone call that brings bad news. Their grandfather, living in the remote village of Villegas in the Argentine countryside, has died, and although the two young men haven’t seen each other in a while, they leave together from Buenos Aires to attend the funeral.

The more serious of the two, the clean-shaven one with a job and a girlfriend, is Esteban. His cousin is Pipa, a bearded musician whom we meet lying sprawled out on his bed in his underwear, the sun streaming in through the curtains, in a room that needs a serious tidying-up. These two cousins are completely disconnected from each other, and each still harbours ideas about the other from a long time ago when there was still some interaction between them.

Pipa lashes out with sarcasm because he feels vulnerable, and also because he doesn’t want to show his cousin how much he is actually hurting after his band kicked him out. At first, he seems a bit too interested in annoying Esteban, but over time we come to realise he is sincere and still finding his way. Pipa meets Jazmín, a girl at a gas station on the highway, and asks her about a small restaurant he and his cousin used to go to that ought to be nearby. He charms her, although he was actually just looking to hook up with her, and this cute, very unexpected twist takes us by surprise.

It’s too bad the film doesn’t build on this initial moment that reveals some of Pipa’s character. It is true, there are a few other pieces to the puzzle we take notice of, but they are almost always dead-ends. For example, his cousin’s sister, Clara, is a little infatuated with him, but all he wants to do is listen to Marlene Dietrich sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” on their late grandfather’s gramophone in the now-empty house.

One small act that does pay off, however, is when Pipa sets up Esteban with a girl, because he senses his cousin, deep down and despite what he says, wants to have some fun. This meeting, though purely for pleasure with no possibility of lasting longer than a few hours, does change Esteban, but again we are left to wonder how much or what exactly will happen as a result.

Villegas doesn’t give many answers to our questions, and the story itself is also too minimal, with too few moments of significant narrative weight, to keep us interested in the journey we’re taking. The countryside could have played a much bigger role in this film, especially the scene of the two men getting lost in a field in the middle of the night, but despite a great backdrop, the story in the foreground is badly drawn and ultimately not stimulating enough to keep our attention.

Viewed at the Sarajevo Film Festival 2013.

A Last Wish (2008)

Una ultima voluntadArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 9 minutes

Original title: Una última voluntad

Argentine filmmaker Marco Berger’s very first short film has as much ambiguity as anything he would make in the future, and unlike so-called gay cinema in general, but exactly like the rest of Berger’s oeuvre, this film lacks any kind of overt anguish over sexuality.

In A Last Wish (Una última voluntad), set deep in a forest at an unknown time in history, we find a soldier, already captured by a foreign army, about to be executed by a firing squad. He is granted one last wish, and we learn this wish has to be executed as a final courtesy to a man who is about to die, as long as it is possible, takes less than five minutes to complete, and does not nullify his imminent  execution.

The final wish of the man, credited as The Condemned (Manuel Vignau), who is never named, is very simple: a kiss. Besides the unusual request that he makes (we surmise it is unusual, because the general doesn’t understand how such a request can be granted if the company consists exclusively of men), he also has a sense of mystery about him because we never hear him speak. He conveys his wish to an officer in charge, who shares it with the others.

Initially, there is some confusion, but when a thorough examination of the manual reveals there is no legal reason to deny the request, a solution must be found. Who will kiss him? The officers decide to draw straws, or matches, to be more precise, and thereby determine the other participant in the execution of this act, credited as The Chosen Soldier (played by Lucas Ferraro, who also starred opposite Vignau in Berger’s début feature, Plan B).

The short is barely 7 minutes long, and its cinematography does not exactly elicit enthusiasm, but there is a moment towards the end, once the man has been executed, that we get a pensive 360-degree pan that reveals the true purpose of the film: It is not about what happens (whether the prisoner is executed or not, whether he is kissed or not) what about the effect these events, and in particular that kiss, have on the officer who likely did not expect to share such an intimate moment with his enemy that day.

The 360-degree pan reveals The Condemned and The Chosen Soldier, both entirely still, and the relationship between the two in this scene is striking on Ferraro’s face. He doesn’t quite know what to make of everything that has happened, and neither do we, but we know that one instant had an effect on him, and that sometimes love can hit you harder than violence.

Berger’s film is about a moment of discovery, not of sexuality but of intimacy, and although the setup is terribly contrived and the visuals are mostly uninteresting, his story as a framing device for a powerful moment that is sure to linger with you.

The Watch (2008)

El relojArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger
Screenwriter:
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 14 minutes

Original title: El reloj

Argentinian director Marco Berger’s very first short film has so much ambiguous sexual tension it is surprising the film wasn’t remade and included in the anthology film in which he participated with fellow countryman Marcelo Mónaco, Sexual Tension: Volatile.

Two teenagers meet on a curb at sunset, waiting for a bus that never comes. It’s a wonderful image that sums up the rest of the film very well. The one, Juan Pablo, is talkative and very sure of himself, looking straight at the other, so much so he makes the already-shy boy even more nervous. Juan Pablo says he’s sure they know each other from school, but they don’t. Then he says the other boy is called Maxi, but he’s not. He’s Javier.

In a flashback it is revealed they went on a double date once, but only for the sake of their former girlfriends, and they didn’t really talk to each other.

Juan Pablo invites Javier home, where Javier meets Juan Pablo’s cousin (this moment is repeated in Berger’s own El Primo episode in Sexual Tension: Volatile, in a way that shows how much the director’s sense for visual tension has developed in four years). The boys watch television before going to bed, where they lie next to each other in their underwear without doing anything.

In the end, there is no big spark or moment of realisation, but there are short glances, and it seems obvious the boys are curious, even if not necessarily in each other.

Although the cast is small, the action minimal and the locations few, the film is a treat, as we get suggestions of depth in these characters whose intentions are elusive without they themselves being distant or unreadable. The chatty Juan Pablo, in particular, played by Nahuel Viale,  is a very interesting figure as he tries his best to attract the handsome but timid Javier without really knowing what all of this is leading to. Every time he suggests they do something (go home with him, have something to drink, go to bed), Javier simply goes along. That says as much about Javier’s intentions or curiosities as it does about Juan Pablo’s interest.

The short interaction has no real meat to it, and the appearance of Juan Pablo’s mother feels out of place because of it is so brief, but the film doesn’t leave us unsatisfied. It may not be transparent, and even the meaning of its title is not particularly self-evident (nor is that of the hot-air balloon in the opening shot), but the hesitation of making a fantasy a reality and the implicit but silent acquiescence that is visible to the viewer but not so obvious to the characters themselves speak to a very human quality that is highly commendable; it also informs nearly all of Berger’s subsequent films.

Sexual Tension: Volatile (2012)

Tension sexual volatilArgentina
2.5*

Directors:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Screenwriters:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title:
Tensión sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil 

Didier Costet, who co-produced Beauty, a 2011 film in which a middle-aged man from rural South Africa stalks one of his daughter’s male friends, is also the production muscle behind this anthology of short films about gay attraction. Only two directors took part in this project, which accounts for the generally homogeneous tone, one that is usually missing from anthology films with a larger variety of voices and visions.

The two directors are Marcelo Mónaco, who has helmed raunchy films from the sexually explicit Porno de autor to the gay porn film Cum-eating Rancheros; and the more commercially oriented Marco Berger, whose films, like Ausente, have dealt much more with tension and lust than sexual release.

While Berger has stated in the past that he is often conscious of making gay films for a straight audience, Sexual Tension: Volatile is very clearly targeted at a gay audience, as the tension is not really between the characters but rather from the side of the viewer, who wonders whether there will be a spark between two characters, even when such a turn of events would be narratively implausible.

The anthology consists of six short films:

Ari, by Mónaco
El Primo (The Cousin), by Berger
El Otro (The Other), by Mónaco
Los Brazos Rotos (Broken Arms), by Berger
Amor (Love), by Mónaco
Entrenamiento (Workout), by Berger

Each is around 15 minutes in length, and the film ends on a very playful note, just as the tension is about to be broken.

The opening short is very silly, with a young twink who goes to get his first tattoo falling in lust with tattoo artist Ari and fantasising about him. The tattoo parlour looks like little more than an empty studio, and the fantasies are nothing to get excited about.

It is only by the time of Berger’s short film, El Primo, that we can sense it might be worth our time to watch the entire compilation; in fact, this may be the best film of the entire bunch, although Mónaco’s Amor comes a close second. The object of affection is a boy who never speaks (something that can work wonders in a film of this length), but whose crotch outline seems to be everywhere the lustful visitor (Javier De Pietro, who has matured physically and professionally since his stint in Berger’s Ausente) casts his eyes. Berger’s films are often interested in crotch outlines – in swim trunks (“Platero” in another anthology film, Cinco; and Ausente) or in underwear (El relojPlan B) – and have become a trope in his canon. De Pietro, who sometimes pushes his glasses back up his nose to see better, conveys some nervous energy, and in this case his expressionless face helps the film a great deal by allowing him to act as a screen for our projection of anxiety.

El Otro demonstrates that Mónaco can produce some gorgeous moments, as two best friends Kevin and Tony talk about their sexual escapades. Kevin is complaining that he isn’t getting sex from his current girlfriend, but Tony, having just seen what a big member his friend is sporting, wants to help him out by showing him positions and suggesting phrases to help things along. The catch is, Kevin has to try it on Tony. The actions are not always credible, and neither is the blocking, but there are two long takes, both two-shots, that look beautiful and show directorial promise, even though the camera more often objectifies the two boys completely by focusing on their crotches throughout.

Los Brazos Rotos is a bizarre inclusion and seems too artistic – even for a gay audience! There is no dialogue, although only the arms of the main character are (more or less) supposed to be broken, and not the soundtrack. Berger shows his cinematographic range, as he did in El Primo, by playing more with shadows and darkness than co-director Mónaco; however, shots like the one in the bathroom, which shows a man being washed by his male nurse while we look at it in a mirror, with a bottle of shampoo strategically placed to obscure our view of his private parts, seems almost amateurishly titillating. We only realise the intimacy of the situation afterwards, when the nurse does, but while it is going on, you may just want to hit the fast-forward button.

Amor certainly has the best-looking pair in the entire film. At a bed and breakfast in the countryside, a youthful man and girlfriend are escaping dreary city life by sleeping in late. When she is on the phone to her mother, she asks the manager of the place to wake up her sleepy boyfriend, but in the bedroom the two accidentally touch each other, without being repulsed by it. It is a beautiful, innocent moment that creates tension and questions, none of which is properly resolved, but these issues don’t seem at all misplaced.

Berger’s final film, Entrenamiento, sees two men very interested in building muscle spend all their time together. At first, we may think they are boyfriends, but they soon start sexting with girls who demand to see more and more skin. When they take pictures of each other, from up close, we question their sexuality even more. However, as in all the other films, no one is ever shown to be hard, so perhaps the situations are as sexless as they seem, and it is only the viewer whose tension the title refers to.

This is the first volume in what is supposed to be a series, and a second collection of shorts, titled “Violetas”, about attraction between women, was released early in 2013. What the title’s “volatile” means in this case is wholly unclear. All the crotch shots are probably meant to entice us, but that would make this a kind of porn, without the sex, and that’s not really any fun, is it?

Olympic Garage (1999)

Argentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Bechis
Screenwriters:
Marco Bechis
Lara Fremder
Director of Photography:
Ramiro Civita

Original title: Garage Olimpo
Running time: 100 minutes

Although this makes it all the more frightening, it is refreshing to see a conflict not based on race or religion, but on ideology. The reason this should inspire fear in viewer and character alike is that this kind of setup makes it much more difficult to distinguish a friend from an enemy.

Olympic Garage is set during Argentina’s Dirty War of the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which many Argentines were rounded up, because they’d been denounced by someone as a traitor to the system or an anarchist or a subversive, and tortured before simply disappearing. The mass disappearances of the country’s citizen led to a commission established after this time of military rule called the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons to look into the vast scope of the government’s actions to silence the general population.

What the film manages to convey better than anything else — and there are many scenes of torture and calculated moments of sudden, cold-blooded violence to demonstrate how power-hungry and callous some of the policemen were who enjoyed this civil war against the people they are meant to protect — is that shocking, government-sanctioned acts can take place in the middle of a city without anyone knowing about it.

A great deal of the film takes place underground, in a parking garage in downtown Buenos Aires, and we regularly see people (often, the same people, going about their daily life) walking lazily past the entrance to this parking garage, ignorant of the abhorrent acts being committed inside. In the same vein, there are multiple shots taken from a helicopter that might signal the constant surveillance of the citizenry, but as the sound is cut completely, all we get is a feeling of cars flowing over highways and people walking on sidewalks, unaware of the things their fellow citizens are suffering.

These scenes in the parking garage focus on Maria Fabiani, a girl whose French mother living in Buenos Aires doesn’t know where her daughter is, only that the police came to take her from their home and that she will be at Police Station 23, but she is nowhere to be found, like so many others. Over the course of the film, Maria slowly loses her mind (who wouldn’t?), but actress Antonella Costa isn’t always convincing.

However, her boyfriend Felix, played by Carlos Echevarría, is a study in how to effectively communicate conflicting emotion and convey complexity with few words. While he is her boyfriend in an on-again off-again kind of way, he never told her that he tortures people for a living in a parking garage (luckily the torture sounds are mostly obscured by a portable radio outside the room whose volume is turned up whenever the pain is about to start), but when she shows up as a suspect he has to fulfil his duty while not alienating or hurting her. It is a delicate balance that Echevarría, in his début feature film, pulls off admirably.

The film has a nice bookend structure involving a man in whose home a bomb is planted right at the beginning of the film, though the woman with the bomb, called Ana — a friend of his daughter’s — is not given any back story nor integrated into the rest of the film, which is a real shame.

There are some nice little details, in particular the relationship (or the beginnings of a relationship) cultivated between Maria and a fellow inmate, a mechanic called Nene, as well as the hints of feelings that Maria inspired in another fellow anti-government activist Francisco, and the observation of how Felix tries to assert power over Maria, but the film is not very strong on story. 

Toward the end, the film becomes very political as the church is implicated in oppressive regime’s horrible deeds and a final title card informs us that many of these people responsible for the disappearance of thousands of innocent civilians today walk the streets freely.

Olympic Garage offers a glimpse of the hardship endured by those fighting for a better life but who were tortured and ultimately ended up dead as a result of their desire to fight, or just resist. The film is not entirely engrossing but it has many points of entry for anyone wanting to know what kinds of things went on underground during Argentina’s Dirty War.