Following on from last week’s look at a Brazilian film classic, I wanted to stick with film for a while longer as we continue our exploration of the very best crime fiction stories from World Cup-winning nations. Today I would like to look at a film which is one of my favourites, from any genre. It is classic crime fiction fodder, featuring a scam, honour and dishonour among thieves, and an ending that makes you doff your cap no matter how many times you watch it. It also has the very highest of honours. Not an Academy Award, but both a Hollywood and a Bollywood remake. Today, I give you Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens), an Argentinian classic from 2000.
Directed by Fabián Bielinsky and starring, amongst others, Ricardo Darin, Nine Queens represents the very best of Argentinian film-making. The film was astonishingly successful, winning over 20 awards and showing Hollywood that it did not have a monopoly on slick, attractive storytelling. I won’t spoil the plot except to say that it focuses on two grifters who meet and stumble across an idea for the con of a lifetime. What follows is part crime fiction, part social commentary and part blueprint for Latin American film-making. Crime fiction in the sense that the rest of the film tells the story up to and including the execution of the con and then its aftermath. Social commentary in the sense that whilst the con could, in effect, take place anywhere in the world, the setting of Buenos Aires lends a documentary style to the story. As a blueprint for Latin American film-makers, it showed how non-Hollywood films could achieve success on a massive scale and still retain a palpable sense of being Latin American.
On paper, Nine Queens reads as a Hollywood story told in Spanish. It has action, suspense, a clever plot, well-developed characters and a great twist, all part of the bedrock of classic Hollywood crime fiction. If this were true though, and it really was that easy then cinemas would be full of films of this nature, that nature being, in effect, Hollywood fodder masquerading as local art house productions with subtitles. Guaranteed box office, surely? Except that nothing is guaranteed in film, and thankfully Nine Queens isn’t masquerading as anything. Like the best novela negras it reveals a great deal about its setting and the film is profoundly Argentinian if you look at it closely. The film is full of characters and scenes which give an insight into Argentina at the turn of the 21st century. Corruption is endemic, not just among thieves, but public servants and businessmen. Money and sex will buy you anything and everybody has a price. If you feel that this presents an unfavourable view of Buenos Aires and of Argentina as a whole then you would be correct. What Fabián Bielinsky did though was produce something that had incredible prescience when it came to looking at what was happening to the country. The film features a major bank closure fully a year before the widespread economic collapse occurred for real in Argentina in 2001. It rages against the lack of a competent police force, something which drives thieves to seek their own sense of retribution and justice. This manifested itself for real in street demonstrations on a massive scale when the public blamed politicians and bankers for economic meltdown and were then appalled when nothing could be done to punish those seemingly responsible. Whilst the setting for Nine Queens could be anywhere in the sense that the use of large luxury hotels, internationally recognisable brands and logos all give the film universal appeal, it is impossible to accuse the production of betraying its actual setting just to secure commercial success. The film is full of metaphors of Argentinian society as it was in 2000, and certainly as it would be in 2001. It is, at heart, a crime fiction story, and fundamentally an Argentinian one. When interviewed about the film Fabián Bielinsky said this,
What you see in that film, the animosity and the deception – all of that just deepened and exploded. I was just observing the zeitgeist…A mood that everybody’s a liar, everybody’s cheating you.
That is modesty taken to new levels. What Fabián Bielinsky did was create a film that blended the best of both Argentine and Hollywood film-making traditions. For the foreseeable future, quite possibly forever, the large scale commercial success of local productions versus Hollywood output will be off-balance. Every once in a while though a production like Nine Queens provides a stark reminder that good storytelling is an art, not a formula. The Hollywood and Bollywood remakes (Criminal, 2004, and Bluffmaster, 2005) followed a formula. You don’t need to be a con artist to spot the fakes.