Argentina: Wild Tales, Indeed

By Jeffrey Middents*

Photo Credit: inigo_montoya_es4 / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: inigo_montoya_es4 / Flickr / Creative Commons

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.

Argentina: Who killed Alberto Nisman?

By Fulton Armstrong

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

March for Nisman on January 19, 2015, Buenos Aires, Argentain. Photo Credit: jmalievi / flickr / Creative Commons

Conspiracy theories, accusations, and counteraccusations – usually driven by personal prejudices and political agendas – are not uncommon in Argentina, but the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18 has brought them to a crescendo.  Each theory probably contains a grain or more of truth, but none adequately explains how this respected man, who had spent 10 years investigating the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires 20 years ago that killed 85 and injured hundreds, wound up dead on his bathroom floor with a bullet in his head just hours before he was to testify before Congress.  Three main scenarios have emerged.

Scenario A:  Nisman was a national hero whose assiduous investigation of the AMIA attack, aided by Argentina’s intelligence agency (SIDE), had conclusively demonstrated an Iranian role in planning and funding Hezbollah’s execution of the bombing.  He was about to request the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman on charges of colluding with Tehran to cover up Iran’s role – and they or unidentified loyalists ordered his murder to stop him.  Under this scenario, a stealth team working on behalf of the President suborned or sneaked by the 10 body guards placed around Nisman’s apartment to enter and – using a 22-caliber pistol that he’d borrowed from an aide – killed him.

Scenario B:  Nisman was a zealot manipulated by disgruntled SIDE officials and got in over his head in a plot to bring down the President and her government.  Nisman had charged Presidents with coverups before – accusing President Carlos Menem in 2006 of taking a $10 million bribe from Iran to keep investigations from leading to its operatives – and his distaste for CFK was well known.  In December, she fired long-time SIDE chief, Antonio Stiusso, who (according to this theory) sought revenge by helping Nisman make his case.  (Officials close to President made the unsubstantiated and dubious claim that the man who lent Nisman the gun, Diego Lagomarsino, was also an intelligence agent.)  Under this scenario, accepted by very few Argentines, Nisman took his own life.

Scenario C:  In the house of mirrors that is Argentine intelligence, power plays are shrouded in intrigue and hard to divine.  Under this scenario, persistent rumors suggest a struggle between pro- and anti-Stiusso factions in which Prosecutor Nisman was collateral damage, perhaps because of his eagerness to do the dismissed SIDE director’s bidding.  Precious little information is available to label the factions – pro- or anti-CFK, or pro- or anti-Israel, or even pro- or anti-Iran – but there’s a consensus that something was rotten in SIDE.  Eight days after Nisman’s death, CFK announced an effort to dissolve it and set up a replacement agency, and the Congress has already begun to take action.

However much partisans of one perspective or another want to believe these scenarios and their variants, information is too weak or contradictory to give much credibility to any.  CFK and Timerman’s advocacy of trade with Iran – primarily swapping Argentine grain for Iranian oil – and their negotiation on a joint investigation of the bombing weren’t secret.  The exchanges were the subject of numerous public statements since 2013, and a number of Argentine officials, including Stiusso and other senior SIDE officers, were involved in both initiatives.  Interpol officials, moreover, deny that either CFK or Timerman had ever requested suspension of arrest warrants for any of the Iranian suspects.  But the President’s attacks on Nisman before and after his death have been strident and personal – clearly crossing the line for a chief executive talking about a prosecutor – and her public statements, including flip-flopping on whether the death was a suicide, do have a certain odor that create the impression that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude in Hamlet might say, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  The poisonous political climate in Buenos Aires over el caso Nisman appears likely to drag on – yet another crisis the country can ill afford.

February 9, 2015