ARGENTINA: Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, 2014)

by Owen McCoy

Please watch the video before reading the crafter statement.  Thank you.

Being tasked to choose one piece of Argentinian cinema from the last eighteen years and create a video essay based on that film was a daunting task.  With The Secret in Their Eyes (2009), Nine Queens (2000), Son of the Bride (2001), and Wild Tales (2014) coming to mind immediately as quintessential Argentinian films, I knew it would be difficult to zero in on just one.  Ultimately, I settled on Writer/Director Damián Szifron’s six-short anthology, titled Wild Tales, with its themes of love, poverty, family, and revenge because I wanted to look at how these universal themes better explain the commercial success of the film.  Wild Tales opened on May 17, 2014 at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, and the film was eventually nominated to compete for Cannes’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or.  The film was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.

In her book Cinema and Nation, Mette Hjort expands on what she calls “perennial themes” (105).  She argues that, “perennial themes bring into focus subject matter that resonates across historical and cultural boundaries” (106).  Wild Tales is filled with these perennial themes, but I have chosen three that I think are the most pervasive.  These themes of how people’s lives are affected by economic crises, poverty, and forces beyond their control are present in the shorts titled “Las ratas,” “El más fuerte,” and “Bombita.”

“Las ratas” begins with a waitress seating a man in a roadside diner.  The waitress seems uncomfortable around the man, and we later learn that the man is a loan shark who ruined the lives of her parents.  A native Argentinian would be reminded of the 2001 financial crisis that left a permanent mark on the nation’s economy.  Many North American viewers would also empathize with the waitress, but with relation to a different economic crisis.  The Big Short (2015) details the 2008 American stock market crash that resulted from an overinflated housing market.  In the selected scene, two employees of a hedge fund have been surveying homeowners who are delinquent on their payments.  The man who answers the door is a renter who slowly realizes that due to his landlord’s delinquency, he may be evicted from his home.  American viewers of “Las ratas,” would be able to sympathize with the waitress, much like Argentinian viewers would.  The difference between the two viewers is their historical context.

“El más fuerte” tells the story of a man in an expensive car and another man in a not-so-nice car.  Diego, the man in the expensive car, says some choice words to the other man, Mario.  Diego’s car blows a tire, and he is forced to pullover further down the road.  Mario catches up to Diego and decides to release some of his anger on the trapped Diego.  Poverty is certainly not an uncommon theme in Argentinian cinema, and this is detailed by Clara Garavelli in “Post-crisis Argentine films: De-localizing daily life through the lens of Jorge Gaggero.”  Garavelli goes into detail about how, “the activities of daily life, generally place-and-class-bound, are represented in these films as unstable categories that shift considerably after the events of December 2001” (35).  The shared Argentinian experience of the 2001 crisis is frequently drawn upon through the prevalence of poverty in Argentinian cinema, such as in Wild Tales.  Though poverty exists around the world, your experience with it undoubtedly is influenced by your culture of origin.  City of God (2002), a film from the nearby country of Brazil, tells the story of the people living in a favela, or slum, outside of Rio de Janeiro called City of God.  The poverty displayed in City of God is much more extreme than that depicted in Wild Tales.  In City of God, the boys remark that their favela is having electricity installed, and in Wild Tales, the more impoverished man is still able to own and operate a car.  While the theme of poverty in perennial, how it looks varies depending on what historical and cultural context a viewer has developed.

“Bombita” tells the story of Simón, a explosives specialist who works for the local government.  While picking up a cake for his daughter’s birthday, Simón discovers that the city has towed his car and issued him a parking ticket.  Simón believes he should not have been ticketed, and he proceeds to the toll collection booth to plead his case.  The man at the payment booth does not provide much help, and Simón just gets progressively angrier.  Simón misses his daughter’s birthday because of the ticket, and, eventually, all his problems with the government lead to Simón’s wife filing for a divorce.  The prevalent theme in “Bombita” is forces beyond people’s control making their lives difficult, a theme also explored in the opening scene of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).  In this scene, we see János performing a poem about the total eclipse of the sun with drunken bar patrons revolving around one man standing in the center who represents the sun.  Writer/Director Béla Tarr, “has resisted all attempts to persuade him to say what his films mean, and everything in Werckmeister Harmonies can be read as a metaphor for something or other” (The Guardian).  This scene exemplifies how people have little to no control over their miserable lives and are just going through the motions.  The common theme between these two films is helplessness and the inability to improve one’s own situation.

The perennial themes of how people’s lives are affected by economic crises, poverty, and forces beyond one’s control in Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales are depicted in other films from around the globe, and these films can be understood from various points of view, even if the viewers have developed in a different historical and cultural context.

Works Cited

  • Garavelli, Clara. “Post-crisis Argentine films: De-localizing daily life through the lens of Jorge Gaggero.” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas, doi:10.1386/shci.7.1.35_1. Accessed 14 Nov. 2018.
  • Hjort, Mette, and Scott MacKenzie. “Themes of Nation.” Cinema and Nation, pp. 103-17.
  • Why Béla Tarr’s movie Werckmeister Harmonies is a masterpiece.” The Guardian, 18 Apr. 2003.

Additional Citations from Video Essay

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