Goodbye to All That

A new wave of Latin cinema says so long to the Left

Aside from being an at-times heartbreaking meditation on the appeal of the American Dream, Balseros also serves up one of the most honest looks yet at the reality of modern Cuban society. Footage of Fidel Castro leading a 1994 "Socialism or Death!" concert rally -- with thousands raucously cheering el jefe and a propulsive salsa band -- is juxtaposed with a group of hopeful rafters on the other side of Havana. There, the ones about to take to the sea load their homemade boat onto a large truck. For the $30 going rate, they'll all get a ride to the shore.

Yet this operation is hardly clandestine: The entire neighborhood comes out to cheer their departure, and as the truck roars off across town, a fleet of bicyclists trail joyously behind it. Obviously, behind the façade of state-managed rallies lie some very different opinions on socialism. It's a lesson that shouldn't be lost on those now basing their opposition to a war with Iraq on dire forecasts of the "Arab street" reaction.

More unmaskings were displayed in Argentine director Pablo Trapero's El Bonaerense, a gorgeously filmed portrait of a country bumpkin who joins the infamous Buenos Aires police force. An officer on the take is hardly a novel subject, but Trapero's sympathy for his all-too-human characters is -- especially when he shows them suffering against paychecks that never arrive, a mayor who refuses to budget gasoline for their patrol cars, and an equally amoral populace.

Javier Bardem and Laura Morante in The Dancer Upstairs
Javier Bardem and Laura Morante in The Dancer Upstairs

"It's a big contradiction," Trapero told Kulchur, "but Argentina's bad economy and the political mess has actually been good for the arts. It's brewing a whole new wave of creativity." He pointed to Lucrecia Martel and her La Ciénaga as an example. Martel's damning film fingered the Argentine elite's own malaise and decadence for their society's travails -- not the International Monetary Fund. And lest anyone miss the symbolism as Martel's wealthy family members drunkenly stagger around their countryside estate, it's the "gringo doctor" they turn their noses at who repeatedly, and thanklessly, tends to their bloody gashes as they clumsily knock over their wine and fall into the shards of broken glass.

When La Ciénaga played here at Coral Gables's Absinthe House in November 2001, it was met with more than a few angry walkouts from Argentineans who considered its message insulting, if not downright unpatriotic.

What a difference a year makes. In the wake of Argentina's December 2001 economic implosion, its stream of Miami-bound emigrants has become a flood. Even the Argentine consul concedes the true number of exiles here is five times the "official" census figure of 19,000 -- many of whom enthusiastically applauded the festival's packed North Miami Beach screening of El Bonaerense, uncomfortable lessons and all.

Despite becoming one of last year's biggest hits in Argentina, El Bonaerense remains undistributed in the U.S., and as one patron explained to Kulchur in the lobby afterward, he doesn't expect that status to change -- though not because the film is poor. This former Argentine police officer could attest to the picture's accuracy. But, he explained with a laugh, Americans were blasé about police corruption. Argentineans on the other hand, for all their professed worldliness, were still waking up to reality. Our ex-officer had a more pressing matter, though. He and his friends had heard the buzz on La Ciénaga. Could Kulchur get them a video copy?

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