By Jeffrey Middents*
The Latin American film of the moment – Relatos salvajes or Wild Tales – is not just a cultural phenomenon in Argentina, but perhaps a political touchstone as well. Damián Szifrón’s madcap dark comedy about revenge won this year’s Goya Award for Best Iberoamerican Film and was nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. It has also been a box-office powerhouse, easily becoming the top-grossing movie of the year at home in Argentina and gaining significant financial success in Spain, Italy and throughout South America. In the United States, the film’s slow roll-out over the last two weeks since Oscar weekend earned a remarkable $385,000 in just 28 theaters nationwide. This is particularly impressive since its format – an anthology of six short films that are narratively unrelated – historically results in a somewhat uneven cinematic experience that plays poorly with audiences. Relatos salvajes bursts at the seams with the hottest Argentine movie stars of the moment: Ricardo Darín from El secreto de sus ojos/The Secret in Their Eyes, Dario Grandinetti from Almodóvar’s Hable con ella/Talk to Her, Leonardo Sbaraglia from Plata quemada/Burnt Money and especially Érica Rivas from Coppola’s Tetro.
The film’s real impact, however, comes from its contemporary themes, which resonate strongly, especially with Argentine audiences. It has inspired new slang: on the streets of Buenos Aires, “Bombita,” the nickname of the character played by Darín, now refers to the welcome rage against an impossible system. “Pasternak” also has taken on special meaning that, without spoiling one of the most delicious segments of the film, refers to a low-flying plane involved in a hilarious act of ultimate revenge. So memorable is this name that, in a public speech about a new train project around the Buenos Aires airport, President Cristina Kirchner last September 8 used it when joking with reporters about the number of low-flying Aerolineas Argentinas flights. Szifrón even noted her “official support” by posting the clip on his Facebook page.
Kirchner may be ruing the day Relatos salvajes ever appeared in theaters. Although the film is explicitly unpolitical, commercial cinema – yielding its sharpest dagger against the most universal circumstances of contemporary society writ large – it has steered directly into Argentine politics. The mysterious death of whistleblower prosecutor Alberto Nisman, blamed on the President, has prompted calls for revenge against her. The film’s premise – people exacting revenge on the powers they cannot otherwise fight – has surfaced as a common point of departure in several biting op-eds in Argentine newspapers in the last month, referring to the “wild tales” the Kirchner government has been telling to cover up the growing scandal. “Like the memorable film that arrived on the red carpet this year from the points of the cinematic world,” Federico Sánchez Chopa wrote in Tandil Diario, “Kirchner’s regime wants to launch the last act of its tale in a wild way.” Nelson Salvidio takes the concept even further in a scathing indictment: “Cristina, Néstor [her husband, and the former president] before her, and their quarrelsome followers can be credited for crafting images and acts so that half the country believes their tales.”
With his midnight-dark, hyper-stylized fable, Szifrón may have inadvertently captured Kirchner in his lens. In the last segment of the film, the bride exhorts the videographer at her wedding to capture the mayhem she has caused, resulting in another line that has become an Argentine catchphrase: “Shoot this, Néstor!” We shall see whether Argentina’s real-life revenge narrative will be as entertaining.
March 9, 2015
*Jeffrey Middents is an Associate Professor of transnational cinema and literature at American University, with a particular interest in Latin American narrative. He is currently working on a book on director Alfonso Cuarón.