Category Archives: Argentinean

A Red Bear (2002)

“Sometimes if you love somebody, it’s best to stay away.”

I’ve watched several Argentinean crime films lately, and A Red Bear (Un Oso Rojo) is the best of the bunch. The film has a searing honesty, and while the plot could conceivably allow for sentimentality, the film and its characters wisely veer away from sentiment and instead focus on the harsh realities of poverty in a merciless world.

The film begins with one very short scene depicting home life for Oso (Julio Chavez), his attractive wife Natalia (Soledad Villamil) and their small child Alicia. It’s Alicia’s first birthday but Oso leaves the party behind. He commits a crime which goes horribly wrong, and the next thing you know, he’s in the slammer, and his marriage is over.

Then the film moves forward 7 years. Oso is released and he returns to his old haunts….

The plot elements of A Red Bear are very familiar. The film centres on the return of Oso and his desire to set things right–well the only ‘right’  he is capable of managing. He returns to a crime-riddled suburb of Buenos Aires to find his wife and daughter and also to collect the money owed by fellow crook, Turco (Rene Lavand). After 7  years, the wily Turco doesn’t want to hand over the loot, and he instead he wants Oso to join one last heist. 

The blurb on the DVD cover included some hogwash about Oso trying to stay out of trouble. This doesn’t happen–to get ‘on his feet,’ Oso on his first day out of prison, mugs an affluent-looking young man and leaves him blubbering and begging for mercy. It’s through violence and crime that we see Oso hauling himself up from being a homeless nobody to a man who wants what’s owed.

It’s easy to imagine someone getting out of prison and trying to pick up their life where they left it. Oso does just this. After reconnecting with Turco, Oso looks for his ex-wife, Natalia and his now eight-year-old child. Natalia is remarried to out-of-work labourer Sergio (Luis Machin), a man with a gambling habit. On top of this, Alicia is struggling with reading and she’s falling behind at school. While the teachers advise that Alicia read more books, there are no books in the family’s bare little home, and there’s no money to buy any. It doesn’t take too long for Oso to find out that the marriage has problems, and he is prepared to step in and hold everyone accountable for the responsibilities he left behind 7 years ago.

A Red Bear is an excellent character study that merges into crime–after all, crime is a large aspect of Oso’s life. Julio Chavez’s marvellously understated performance as Oso pulls these two distinctly different parts of this film together while maintaining an intriguing curious distance between Oso’s behaviour and his innermost thoughts. This distance is never breached–hence the film’s lack of sentimentality. It could conceivably be pathetically sad that Oso has his child’s name ‘Alicia’ tattooed on his arm, but it’s also possible to see this as Oso’s rather limited attempt at fatherhood and connecting with a child he will never know. Is the tattoo a heartfelt gesture or some emblem of ownership? The film plays with both possibilities.

It’s impossible to know just what Oso is thinking or what is motivating him, and so some of his actions come as a surprise–both to the viewer and to the other characters. There’s a point in the film when Oso appears to be putting himself in the position of judge and jury of those whose performance he finds less-than-satisfactory, but then there’s a moment when everything changes. A bitter acceptance and a sense of humiliation settles on Oso over the course of three scenes: a scene in which he’s humiliated in front of his daughter, a scene where his employer gives him a gentle warning about staying away from his daughter, and a third scene that takes place between Oso and his ex-wife. Oso seems to veer away from domestic vigilantism towards doing the best he can under the circumstances. Oso’s stoicism gives no clue to his thoughts, but his actions ultimately answer any unspoken questions. Crime sequences are excellently juxtaposed with Alicia singing the Argentinean national anthem and its refrain about the ‘throne of equality.’

From director Adrian Caetano

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Conversaciones Con Mama (2004)

“Capitalism is making us all sick.”

Conversaciones Con Mama (Conversations with Mother), an Argentinean film from writer/director Santiago Carlos Oves is the story of a relationship between a middle-aged son and his elderly mother set against Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001.

Jamie (Eduardo Blanco) is an executive who suddenly finds himself without a job during the crisis. He has a middle-class lifestyle–a nice home, a wife and two children, and an elderly mother he supports. When the money crunch hits, Jamie’s wife, Dorita (Silvana Bosco) decides that the best course to take is to sell the apartment currently occupied by Jamie’s elderly mother (China Zorrilla), and then to help expenses, Jamie’s mother is supposed to move in to the now-disused maid’s room. Dorita and her mother pressure Jamie to approach his mother with the news.

When Jaime visits his mother, he finds her surprisingly stubborn on the issue of moving out. It’s not difficult to feel sympathy for Jaime. Played by actor Eduardo Blanco, he has one of those extremely flexible faces–a bit like Roberto Benigni, and it’s this very look that helps create empathy for Jamie–a man trapped on all sides by demanding women. Jamie’s mother is at first very elusive about any sort of move, and it’s difficult to tell just how much is dottiness and how much is avoidance. While she refuses to discuss the apartment, she focuses on the infrequency of Jamie’s visits, and the food she cooks for his visits that is wasted. It becomes clear that there’s no love between Jaime’s mother, Dorita and his mother-in-law. But the idea also appears that while Jaime’s life has gone on without his mother, her life has also developed. During their frequent conversations, she begins using words and phrases that catch Jamie’s attention, and then he discovers that she has a boyfriend.

When Jaime finally pins down his mother long enough to explain his financial dilemma, she refuses to move out of her apartment, citing the fact that her boyfriend, ‘retired anarchist’ Gregorio (Ulises Dumont), an elderly man who spends all day training and educating fellow seniors and protesting, is moving in with her. At first stunned by the news that his mother has a boyfriend, Jaime agrees to meet the new man in his mother’s life.

Argentina has produced a number of films illustrating the lives of individuals affected by the financial crisis, and most of these films concentrate on the minutiae of daily lives and the impact on relationships (Live-in Maid, Common Ground) . Conversaciones Con Mama is one of these films. It has its overly sentimental moments, but then it also has its largely understated scenes. At one point Jaime discovers that neither of his children are following the career paths planned by their parents. His son, for example, doesn’t want to a career in economics but instead he wants to be a tango dancer. At first, the response from the audience and from Jaime is skepticism, but then we see his son dance, and he’s really, really good. The idea seeps through the film that commodities aren’t what’s important–it’s people and their relationships that should be paramount consideration. This is an idea that becomes glaringly obvious to Jamie as he’s continually pressured by the status conscious Dorita to prise his mother out of her apartment. And this underscores the idea that due to the inauthenticity of capitalist values, independence is subsumed to materialism which then affects relationships and quality of life.

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Mi Mejor Enimigo (2005)

“What’s this? War or a boy scout camp?”

Set during the 70s during border tensions between Chile and Argentina, Sgt Ferrer (Erto Panjojo) takes five conscripts out on patrol near the border. Ferrer is ordered to discover the barb wire boundary from the 1904 borders and then ‘defend the islands.’  The men are each given twenty bullets and told to kill 5 Argentineans. Since this is hardly a well-funded project, they have one compass to guide the way.

Given the set-up, the absurdities come fast and furious–with the underlying message that the men are entirely expendable in this insane mission. One of the conscripts, the plump, sweet but clueless Almonacid (Andres Olea) has the job of picking up a pebble every 1000 steps to mark their progress and approximate distance.  As the terrain changes, the Chileans found themselves on the flat pampas covered plains with nowhere to hide, and they can’t tell where Chile ends and Argentina begins. It doesn’t take long before disaster strikes and the men find themselves locked into a version of trench warfare with their enemies –The Argentineans .

mi mejor enimigoMi Mejor Enimigo from director Alex Bowen, starts off very strongly before sliding into a few predictable cliches. Some of the characters are well developed while others are virtually ignored. But in spite of these faults,  the film manages to redeem itself with its clear, subtle final scenes that underscore the idea that war is a pointless exercise in stupidity. Are the Chileans at the mercy of the Argentineans or their own officers? There’s one scene with the Chilean soldiers chatting when it suddenly occurs to them that they are all from Northern Chile. One of the men realizes that their origins dictate their assignment as it’s a well-known fact that many southern Chiles don’t see Argentina as a blood enemy. There’s an uncomfortable moment of silence and then the conversation moves on. The film’s gorgeous cinematography and stunning use of wide open skies, spectacular sunsets and vast open plains helps the sometimes weak plot in the message that borders are hard to clarify and sometimes impossible to maintain….

A great deal of the story focuses on private Rodrigo Rojas (Nicolas Saavedra) a young man who carries a photo of a waitress (Fernanda Urrejola) inside his helmet. He swears that if he survives this girl will be his, and this statement parallels the idea that some men get medals and some men don’t.

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Cautiva (2003)

 “Why would I want to know?”

cautivaCautiva is an extremely effective Argentinean film that focuses on the plight of the approximately 30,000 ‘Disappeared’ victims of the right-wing military junta that ruled the country between 1976-1983. These victims of the so-called Dirty War were grabbed from their homes and off the streets and simply vanished in one of several prisons. The victims were never tried or convicted of any crimes, but instead they were tortured and usually murdered in prison, or taken on Death Flights (weighted and dumped from airplanes in to the ocean). In spite of the fact that most of the victims of the Dirty War never made it out of the prisons, the few who survived tell of systematic torture and abuse. Argentina’s President Menem granted pardons to most of those guilty of the Dirty War murders, but an interesting situation arose: many pregnant women snatched by the junta gave birth in jail before being murdered. What happened to those babies? The search for the missing children of the Disappeared became pivotal to the issue of pardons for torturers. The kidnapping of the babies and children of the Disappeared was not ‘covered’ by Menem’s pardon, and so discovering the fate of these stolen children became an alternate method of uncovering and publicizing the revolting details of the military junta’s actions.

The film Cautiva looks at the fallout of the Dirty war through an inadvertent victim–Cristina Quadri (Barbara Lombardo). When the film begins, she’s the adored only child of an affluent couple–Pablo (Osvaldo Santoro, a retired Captain of the Federal Police, and his wife Adela (Silvia Bayle). While at school one day, Cristina is told that her parents were two of the Disappeared, and that the Quadris are not her real parents. A judge sends her to live with her maternal grandmother.

Cautiva really is an excellent, powerful film that handles its subject matter with sensitivity. While Cristina initially rejects the knowledge that the Quadris illegally adopted her, she gradually comes to realize the truth. The young actress who plays the part of Cristina Quadri/Sofia Lombardi plays the role with understated grace, and never milks the audience for sympathy. There’s a sort of rough justice to the fact that the Quadris lose ‘their’ stolen child and then have the gall to squawk about their rights. A few scenes indicate that Pablo still imagines that he can snap his fingers and order the killings of those he dislikes, and a confrontational scene between Cristina and the Quadris establishes their justification for their hideous actions. When everyone shies away from telling Cristina the details of her parents’ brutal deaths, she seeks answers on her own. Finally she realizes that for the past 16 years, a web of deceit has been carefully woven around her, and that she’s been robbed of her parents, her identity, and even her name. She lives in a country in which mass murderers are shielded “by laws to protect them from subsequent democratic governments.”

Since the film begins with a scene of Kissinger in Argentina at the 1978 World Cup as a guest of General Videla, we should get the idea that military torturers have friends in high places. In fact the largest torture center in Argentina–the ESMA was just 1000 meters away from the stadium. In Spanish with subtitles, Cautiva is directed by Gaston Biraben.

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The Take (2004)

 “Occupy. Resist. Produce.”

takeThe documentary The Take examines the fallout of the 2001 Argentine economic crisis with a focus on unemployed factory workers. There’s solid background here–the IMF’s role in the crisis, $40 billion cash exiting the country overnight, and President Menem’s decision to close the banks. When Argentineans discovered that they could not withdraw their hard-earned savings from the banks–and that foreign loans were paid with their money, understandably people were more than a bit P.O’d. There’s some great footage conveying the rage of the people as they storm the banks and lay siege to institutions in which Argentineans had placed their trust.

The fallout from the economic collapse was devastating. Factories closed–and bosses simply vanished overnight–leaving thousands of unpaid workers in the dust. Without work, and no hope of getting employment, workers spontaneously formed cooperatives and “reclaimed” (occupied) workplaces. Previously abandoned workplaces became productive once again, and this raises several ethical and legal questions. In the middle of this controversy, director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein follow the stories of several of those workplaces including some of the more famous names–Zanon Ceramics and the one that started it all–the Brukman Suit factory–now a collective of 58 seamstresses.

Included here are many interviews with various workers as they attempt to seek the legal right to occupy–and work in–the factories. I’m not sure that the film made it perfectly clear that these workplaces were occupied by employees who were owed back wages, and consequently this gave them the ‘right’ for legal redress. The film also covers the critical issues collective members must face, and the Menem vs. Kirchner political campaign. Menem’s “Messianic” comeback marketing campaign is almost funny when one considers exactly what really took place in Argentina under his watch, but then politicians are particularly practiced at denying reality. One of the most interesting–and unexpected–elements to the film is that many Argentineans apparently look back to Peron’s rule as the golden age of Argentine. That’s sad, but I suppose this is a relative evil approach. Many of those interviewed, however, express intense distrust and dislike of all politicians, and this has led to a refusal to participate in elections–for participation is seen as tacit endorsement of a corrupt system. There’s also some great footage here of the riots that took place as the Argentineans expressed their absolute fury and disgust for their government. Excellent stuff, and if you enjoy this film, I also recommend the book Horizontalism edited and translated by Marina Sitrin.

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Live-In Maid (2004)

 Live-in Maid (Cama Adentro) is set in Argentina in 2001 during the financial crisis that devastated the economy, and the film examines the shifting relationship between a middle-aged woman and her live-in maid. Divorced, upper-middle class Beba Pujol (Norma Aleandro) is used to a pampered life, and that’s largely due to the constant ministrations of her faithful maid of 28 years, Dora (Norma Argentina). The two women serve as a contrast in economic opposites. Whereas Beba is manicured, expensively dressed, and coiffed, Dora is heavy-set, and her haggard appearance is secondary to her function as a workhorse.

maid2When the film begins, the economic crisis is already underway in Argentina, and Beba is feeling the results, but she’s in denial. Unable to pay her maid for over seven months, she has just begun to join the masses in attempting to sell any precious possessions for a little cash. While many lay their wares on the sidewalks, in Beba’s case, she enters a shop and masquerades as a customer before she’s driven by necessity to explain her purpose–the sale of her china teapot to the shop owner.

Beba is used to privilege, and so it’s very difficult for her to adjust to a new life based on poverty. She still expects the maid to fill her glass with whisky, and she still expects to have her hair done even though at this point, she can’t even pay her maid for keeping her large Buenos Aires apartment spotless. Dora gets room and board for her efforts, but she is unpaid labour. Since the relationship between Beba and Dora is supposed to be a financial transaction (Dora works and Beba pays), when Dora is faced with the prospect of never getting paid, the relationship between the two women is severed. But this also allows the women to renegotiate their relationship outside of monetary considerations.

Live-in Maid is not an overtly political film, but nonetheless it addresses many relevant social issues. These two women are actually the single most important figure in each other’s lives. Beba’s only child lives in Spain, and Dora has a long-term relationship supporting the very shady Manuel. For 28 years, Dora has ‘served’ Beba, and there are many things they both accept about the inequity of their relationship. There’s a moment when Beba offers Dora a better, larger bedroom, but Dora rejects it. Their relationship cannot shift from its old paradigm so easily. Even though Beba is penniless and is exploiting Dora, it’s difficult for her to let Dora go, and it’s equally difficult for Dora to leave even though she’s not getting paid. The financial aspects of the relationship mask the emotional commitment they both feel.

In the beginning of the film, Beba is not a particularly sympathetic character. Her refusal to give up luxuries–such as hair appointments and whisky seem to reflect her shallow, materialistic character. But a few scenes later, after many humiliations, Beba chokes on a meal she accepts in lieu of cash payment for make-up she is trying to sell, and this incident acts as a wake-up call for Beba. This film could so easily have slipped into sticky sweet sentimental drama, but instead Live-in Maid maintains a crystal clear poignant portrait of two women who desperately need each other, but who are reluctant to admit it. Instead it is easier for them both to cling to the defining financial transaction–something that passes all too often as a substitute for a relationship with another human being, and once that financial transaction is abandoned, the women are free to redefine their relationship on new ground. From director Jorge Gaggero, Live-in Maid is in Spanish with subtitles.

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Son of the Bride (2001)


brideJust from reading the small blurp on the back of the DVD box, I had the impression that this was one of those “disease of the week Hallmark films.” The disease in this particular film was Alzheimer’s. The title of the film, Son of the Bride combined with the description of the plot, led me to believe that the film was about a man whose parents want to remarry–the plot complication was that the mother had Alzheimer’s. After watching and enjoying Nine Queens, I decided to give Son of the Bride a try–both films are from Argentina and both star Ricardo Darin.

Son of the Bride was a wonderful film, and the parents who want to remarry in spite of the Alzheimer problem is a sub-plot within the much larger, richer theme of the film. The subject of Alzheimer’s is handled with grace and dignity, and this film was not a voyeuristic tear jerker but rather a warm, funny intelligent view of how complicated life can become, and how solutions can be simpler than we first imagine.

Rafael (Ricardo Darin) is a restauranteur in Argentinia. He enjoys running the Belvedere restaurant is spite of the fact that owning the restaurant is extremely stressful and fraught with problems. Rafael seems to thrive under all the stress of juggling suppliers, employees and bills. He is good at his job–in fact, the Belvedere is the only thing that Rafael is proud of. Unfortunately, his relationships have suffered as a consequence of devoting himself to the restaurant. He’s divorced (and wishes he was a widower), hasn’t visited his mother in the nursing home for over a year (she has Alzheimer’s), takes his devoted girlfriend for granted, and has little time for his daughter. Everyone around Rafael can see that his relationships are problematic–everyone except Rafael, of course, who thinks things are fine as they are–and then a crisis occurs which forces Rafael to examine his relationships differently….

Ricardo Darin is simply a wonderful actor. Eduardo Blanco plays his friend, Juan Carlos–a man who has suffered through a crisis of his own and helps Rafael to see the possibilities of change. Blanco was great fun to watch. He really reminds me of Roberto Benigni. Rafael’s ex-wife was a great character too, and their scenes between Rafael and his ex wife are particularly good. From director Juan Jose Campanella

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Private Lives (2001)

 “Anyone who survives has to change.”

private-lives42-year-old Carmen (Cecilia Roth) leaves Madrid and returns home to her native Argentina to visit her dying father. She’s lived in Spain for the past twenty years with infrequent, brief trips home.

Carmen has arranged to rent an apartment during her two-week stay, and she’s also arranged for the services of a young male model Gustavo (Gael Garcia Bernal) and a female companion. While Gustavo wants to get to know Carmen better, she holds him and everyone else at a distance. Carmen clearly has emotional problems, but her family is very adept at hiding secrets. Younger sister Ana (Dolores Fonzi) is determined to extract Carmen’s secrets from her brother-in-law Dr Rossemberg (Luis Ziembrowsky).

Part kinkfest, Private Lives fails to adequately explore many issues dragged front and centre by the script. Several scenes cover Carmen’s erotic fetishes, but there’s little substance–beyond the moaning and the grinding–to explain Carmen’s past. Instead the emphasis is on kink–at least for the scenes in Carmen’s apartment. The film shifts focus between Carmen’s fetishes and Ana’s determination to discover the truth about Carmen’s past. The result is a film that addresses Carmen’s kinkiness, but fails to delve into Carmen’s political past. There’s so much here politically that could be explored, but it isn’t. The sense remains, however, that both Gustavo and Ana are amazingly ignorant about life in Argentina before they were born. Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the film is Carmen’s need to recreate a cell-like structure for gratification. Private Lives is a tepid drama made a little steamier with Cecilia Roth’s charged sexuality. In Spanish with English subtitles. From director Fito Paez.

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I Don’t Want to Talk About It (1993)

 “Happiness is an undeniable condition.”

In Marie Luisa Bemberg’s film, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, by the time Carlotta is two years old, it’s obvious that she’s different. Her mother, well-to-do widow, Dona Leonor, refuses to discuss Carlotta’s dwarfism with anyone, and she even goes as far as destroying any dwarf figurines and burning any copies of Snow White she can find. Dona Leonor’s fierce protectiveness is only a form of denial, for in reality, Dona Leonor is ashamed of her daughter. Dona Leonor’s attempts to cover Carlotta’s dwarfism are especially transparent in social situations. Carlotta is raised with love and privilege in the small Argentinean town of San Jose de Los Altares during the 1930s. It’s a town full of gossips and organized social events. No one mentions Carlotta’s dwarfism, and she matures into an educated, accomplished young woman.

And then dapper bachelor and ladies’ man, Ludovico d’Andrea (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives in town. There’s an air of mystery about Ludovico, and he manages to combine charm and sophistication with a sort of sad grace. His daily visits to Dona Leonor’s shop seem to hint at an attraction to the handsome widow, but Ludovico is in love with Carlotta. We are told: “Love is strange. It only comes rarely, and even rarer are those it chooses.”

I Don’t Want to Talk About It isn’t a love story by any means–even though a romance unfolds. Bemberg’s story is far too sophisticated to be a mere love story. The key to the film’s core is found in the narrator’s final descriptions. We rely on the narrator to conclude the film for us, and to subtly add meaning with the final few sentences. Fundamentally, the film’s message is that courage is required to be oneself–especially if the elements of ‘difference’, unattractiveness, or unpopularity are present. Carlotta is very comfortable in her petite body, for example. It must occur to her that she’s different–but she never questions her mother because to Carlotta it simply doesn’t matter. Denying truths about oneself is a form of spiritual suicide. This is something that the shop boy, Mojamme must learn. Carlotta is never guilty of that. In fact, she embraces her dwarfism and turns her state into a celebration. There’s a mystical fairy tale quality to the film–and this is enhanced by the cinematographer’s use of lighting. There’s the blue light over the streets at dusk, and scenes with the sunlight and sunset on the sea–this is a beautiful, haunting, delightful and subtle film. Bemberg is one of my favourite directors, and I recommend all her films. Sadly too few are available.

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Common Ground (2002)

 “In questions of survival, there are no rules.”

commonIn the Argentinean film Common Ground, the country’s failing economy provides the backdrop to the misfortunes of a middle class, middle-aged couple. Literature professor, Federico Luppi (Fernando Robles) and his wife, social worker Liliana (Mercedes Sampietro) live in Buenos Aires. One day they lose their jobs. Both victims of budget cuts, Federico is also selected for early retirement for his political views.

The couple takes a holiday in Madrid to see their only son Pedro (Carlos Santamaria) who, according to his father, has sold out for the nice middle class life–giving up dreams of becoming a novelist to work in computer technology. The holiday to Madrid proves to be a failure, and Federico and Lili return to Buenos Aires with their financial problems unsolved.

With the government not paying pensions immediately, Federico and Lili face imminent financial disaster, and they’re forced to sell their spacious modern apartment and move to the country where they hope to grow lavender for perfume.

Common Ground is a tepid, rather limp drama that fails to inspire on many levels. First, given the financial problems experienced by Federico and Lili, they talk about shrinking their lifestyle, and living on a budget. While Federico grows more depressed, their life really seems to change very little. There’s still wine, still cigarettes, and still plenty of food. A further blow to undermine the film’s power is the unrealistic and idealized move to the country. This move is supposed to be a step downwards which will enable the middle-aged couple to survive–at least they’ll have the ability to grow their own food and develop a preposterous business plan. Not one scene of toil is evident–Lili removes home made bread from a primitive, ancient oven and serves it hot with her home-made marmalade, and Federico delivers a final knock to a stake in the ground, but that’s it.

By glossing over the hardships of growing your own food, the film weakens the dilemma of this city couple. From the viewer’s position, Federico and Lili while worried about their future, were never exposed to the true meaning of poverty. With a sanitized version of country life, their downsizing–which is supposed to be a hardship–looks like an enviable, bucolic retirement.

The film also skirts the issue of Federico’s politics. The plot allows him one or two vague token discourses on the subject. There’s also an entirely gratuitous scene that takes place between Federico and a woman named Tutti, and this is all part of the cumbersome subplot about lavender farming. Ultimately, this well-acted film goes nowhere. While it tries to show how Argentina’s financial problems eroded the life of one nice couple, it fails to do more than scratch the surface. In Spanish with English subtitles.

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