When people talk about Fabián Bielinsky, the first thing they usually mention is the mythic quality of the director’s brief, but intensely creative career; the director made only two feature-length and one short film, but all received impressive critical acclaim. Striking a balance between auteur and commercial cinema, his work was poised to take Argentinean filmmaking in a new direction. But he never got the chance to remake the industry – he passed away shortly after the release of his second feature, at the age of 47.
Bielinsky’s films were unlike anything being produced in Argentina at the time; they are at once gripping crime dramas and precisely crafted works of art. His first feature, Nueve reinas (2000), depicts an elaborate con set against the backdrop of the Argentinean financial crisis of the late 90s – complete with an eerily prescient scene that involves a run on the downtown branch of a bank in Buenos Aires. The film opens in a convenience mart, where young Juan is working a con on the cashier. He is successful the first time, but when he tries it again with the next shift (a mere three minutes later), he is nabbed by the store’s manager. A man, who has been observing the scene from a distance, identifies himself as a police officer and takes Juan into custody. Once outside, he explains that he is a fellow grifter and that he’s in need of a new partner. He offers to show Juan the ropes for a day and, after a bit of resistance on the young man’s part, the two get to work.
Even from this initial encounter, Bielinsky establishes a riveting generic ambiguity surrounding Juan and Marcos. It is unclear whether this will be a buddy film, or whether Marcos is simply running a con on his young protégé. It certainly seems an unlikely coincidence when, just a few hours into their partnership, Marcos receives a phone call that leads him to a fancy hotel in the city center. Inconveniently, it is the hotel where Marcos’ sister and younger brother are employed. The sister, apparently still peeved because Marcos swindled her out of their family inheritance and left her in charge of their brother, grudgingly shows them to the back, where one of Marcos’ ex-partners (whom he also conned) is waiting. The old man drops the con to beat all cons in their laps: a perfect forgery of a priceless set of stamps from the Weimar Republic (the Nueve Reinas, or Nine Queens), and a potential buyer right there in the hotel. Of course, one thing leads to another and Juan is asked to put up his savings as an initial investment to get the con off the ground. Is this the opportunity of a lifetime, or is he about to turn into another casualty of Marcos’ questionable ethics?
One of the most striking aspects about Bielinsky’s work in Nueve reinas is the way he manages to maintain a taut narrative arch while integrating explicit social and political commentary into the film. The Buenos Aires he depicts is one cut through with desperation – though not all of its inhabitants are outwardly abject, the society has degraded to the point that the weak are consistently fed upon by predators, some of whom dress the part and others that prefer the guise of three-piece suits and positions of power in government or financial institutions. The film creates the claustrophobic sensation that we have entered a world in which everyone is a criminal – sometimes even the victims. The directorial style is reminiscent of David Mamet – particularly in The Spanish Prisoner (1997), though it offers a more consistent rhythm of intrigue and payoff than the earlier film.
Nueve reinas was followed by El aura, released in 2005. The film features the extraordinary Ricardo Darín (who played Marcos in Nueve reinas) as Esteban, a reclusive taxidermist who dreams of committing the perfect robbery. Actually, he does more than just dream about it: aided by his photographic memory and attention to detail, he actually plans a 60-second raid that would empty the coffers of his employer without a shot being fired. According to Esteban, the only reason such robberies ever turn violent is because most criminals are too stupid to plan them correctly. In this, he is confident that he has the advantage. But there is a big difference between planning a crime and executing one, and Esteban, who is subject to epileptic fits that induce a temporary fugue state he refers to as “the aura,” hardly fits the profile of a master criminal. His heist remains nothing more than a fantasy and he returns to the quiet and delicate work of overcoming the movement of time with glue, a pair of tweezers, and an eerie collection of glass eyes.
Sometimes, though, life presents a second chance. While on a hunting excursion with a colleague in the (heart-stoppingly beautiful) forests of Patagonia, Esteban stumbles upon a real-life band of criminals preparing to rob an armored car filled with the proceeds from a nearby casino. Through a complex series of coincidences and manipulations, Esteban manages to insinuate himself into the group, but his passing fantasies about knocking over his own place of employ in no way prepared him for the real dangers he faces as a result. As the day of the heist draws closer, Esteban comes to realize that capture by the police is perhaps the least of his worries.
El aura is a lush, expertly conceived and finely crafted film – clearly the work of a director who has hit his stride in the form. Bielinsky, while extremely effective at evoking the bustle, claustrophobia and generalized paranoia of the big city, is masterful at capturing the infinite beauty and infinite foreboding of the forest. The pacing of the film is also extraordinary: if Mamet was whispering in his ear during the filming of Nueve reinas, Bielinsky must have been channeling Fellini when he made this piece. Though their milieus could not be more different, both El aura and 8 1/2 actually create the experience of the dream state they depict. In the former, the meditative pace of the film evokes the disorientation of the trance that precedes Esteban’s epileptic fits: moments of both clarity and confusion in which time seems to collapse in on itself (in Bielinsky’s film, this state of suspended animation also ties back neatly to the profession of its protagonist).
Neither edge-of-your-seat commercial thrill ride nor purely meditative art-house character study, these two films carve out a satisfying space for themselves between the two extremes. The social and aesthetic questions Bielinsky tackled, though they do not take center stage in either film, add a depth to the work that bodes well for its longevity, and are perhaps best appreciated when the two films are viewed in succession (you won’t regret the investment of time). As a bit of added enticement, here are a few clips to get you started. I actually went with the Chinese trailer for Nueve reinas, because the voice-over guy that does all the American releases was just. too. much.