Sure, plenty of commercial comedy and drama flicks are premiering in the U.S. this summer. And sure, some of them are bound to be entertaining and of high quality.
But don’t be blinded by Hollywood’s glamorous, big-budget productions and the amalgamas of producers behind them. Argentine films, produced in large part by government subsidies, are proof that directors and producers don’t need to be rich to be talented.
Argentina’s historically been ranked as one of Latin America’s leading cinemas. It’s the only country in the region to have won an Oscar (and it did so twice). But the country has seen an insurgence of high-quality, widely-accessible films since the mid-1990s, when the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) reinstated funds for directors and producers.
If you are even vaguely aware of Argentine culture, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to see a tango singer, a gaucho (cowboy) or a fútbol (soccer) player in an Argentine film. But in keeping with the modern trend, none of the films on this list rely on Argentine-specific cultural references. Their themes, characters and content are accessible to virtually anyone; indeed, the Spanish language is the only common trait they share.
And luckily for all you non-Spanish speakers out there (c’mon, get with the program!), each of the films on this list are available for your watching pleasure on Netflix, complete with English subtitles.
Much easier on your wallet than those films in commercial theaters, with their pesky, ever-increasing movie ticket prices.
1. El aura (The Aura), 2009
Directed by the late Fabián Bielinsky, this thriller film features well-known Argentine actor Ricardo Darín, who played the lead role in Argentina’s 2009 Oscar-winner, El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in their Eyes). By the way, if you haven’t seen that one, I highly recommend it- it's also available on Netflix.. Think Silence of the Lambs meets The Notebook.
El aura follows the odd rural journey of Esteban Espinosa, a quiet, meticulous taxidermist who also happens to be epileptic. Esteban fantasizes about carrying out the perfect bank robbery. His photographic memory and strict attention to detail make him an ideal candidate for committing a crime.
However, Esteban doesn’t have any cruel intentions toward others; no overarching, evil plan. He seems to be interested in committing a crime strictly for the hell of it, for the sake of proving that he can fool the powers-that-be.
During his epileptic attacks, Esteban experiences an awe-inducing kind of mental awareness, which may partially explain his photographic memory. That aids him when he does eventually come face-to-face with a dangerous situation, involving murder, heist and a whole lot of strategic planning.
Ironically, Esteban doesn’t ever try to commit a crime like he imagined he would; rather, he falls naturally into the situation, and the outcome is nothing short of fascinating.
2. El niño pez (The Fish Child), 2009
Directed by Lucía Puenzo, El niño pez, based on the novel, tells the tragic love story of a rather unlikely pair. Lala (Inés Efron), a privileged youth living in an expensive neighborhood of Buenos Aires, is madly in love with her family’s maid, Ailín (Mariela Vitale), an immigrant from Paraguay. Ailín loves her back — sort of.
Though she seems to care deeply for Lala, Ailín is the definition of a wayward soul, often flirting with girls, boys ... and Lala’s own father, a judge.
The two girls map out the details for their escape to Ailín’s quiet hometown, located next to a lake with a mysterious legend. But Lala’s jealousy threatens to interfere with their romantic getaway plan. This captivating story has got it all: drama, crime and, of course ...
This film was released at a particularly relevant moment, just one year before Argentina officially legalized same-sex marriage. Although support for gay rights had been gradually rising, strong opposition from conservative groups meant that same-sex relationships were not (and still are not) universally accepted in Argentina. Puenzo is clearly interested in LGBT politics; her first film, XXY, also stars Efron who plays a transgender individual.
3. Un oso rojo (A Red Bear), 2002
Like in many other Argentine films, looks can be deceiving in this inversion of the classic crime genre, directed by Israel Adrián Caetano. Protagonist “Oso,” (Julio Chávez) released from a 7-year stint in jail, returns home, looking forward to spending time with his daughter, Alicia (Agostina Lage). She was just a year old when he was convicted, so she doesn’t know him.
But Oso soon learns that his wife, Natalia (Soledad Villamil, from El secreto de sus ojos), is living with another man ... who happens to be an imbecile and a gambling addict who’s endangering his family by consistently losing big chunks of money.
Despite Oso’s criminal history, which includes some violence, Oso’s reaction to this unpleasant situation doesn’t include crime. On the contrary, he comports himself with dignity and composure as he attempts to disentangle his family — particularly his daughter — from the clutches of Sergio, his wife’s new lover.
Such disentanglement doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating Sergio from the picture. Oso is able to cast his romantic jealousy and personal disgust with Sergio aside, for the benefit of his daughter, his wife and his relationship with both of them. Hey, true love can conquer all!
These three films were widely advertised and distributed, and for that reason they are part of the lucky few Argentine films available to watch on Netflix.
If I could, I’d recommend a slew of other, more obscure Argentine films, but unfortunately, most of them aren’t widely available for our viewing pleasure in the U.S. Hopefully this will change as Argentine film culture continues to disseminate throughout the world.
In the meantime, let me know if you are interested in seeing more Argentine films. I’d be happy to forward you a personal copy of an especially cool one, like the absurdist drama Castro (Alejo Moguillansky, 2009) or the hilarious mockumentary Balnearios (Sunbathers) (Mariano Llinás, 2002).
P.S. — If you happen to have seen one or all of these films, I apologize for assuming their obscurity ... and commend you for your good taste! ¡Que buena onda!