ARGENTINA, documentary, not rated, in Spanish with English subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
As the master grows older, he simplifies. The venerable Spanish director Carlos Saura (Tango, 1998) is now in his mid-eighties, and his recent movies focus simply on music, in dance and song, without narrative, explanation, or context. In Flamenco, Flamenco (2010) he gave us a series of flamenco vocals and dances, all performed on a sound stage in Seville’s Expo ’92 pavilion. With Argentina he has moved his operation to that country, but again the action is hermetically sealed within a large studio identified at the end as the Barn of La Boca, in Buenos Aires. It offers no city, no pampas, no mountains, no amber waves of grain. Through the opening credits the scene is set, the lights are hung, and then the music starts.
This is a mood piece, and it requires that its audience come in the proper mood. It’s a survey of Argentine folk-music traditions, but not a survey course: There’s scarcely a word of explanation beyond the superimposed names of the forms at the start of each number: vidala, zamba, chacarena
doble, and so on. The music begins with a pianist giving us a piece identified as bailecito. The camera then pans to a backlit screen the color of a tequila sunrise, on which we see the silhouetted forms of a number of musicians who stroll out front and give us the most folkie of the numbers, a baguala, which begins with an old man playing a mournful note on a cattle horn. Drummers join in, then singers, old and young. And then, without transition, we’re onto the next offering, a zamba, a song of war sung by a man and a woman in front of a movie screen on which a battle scene plays. The songs are all in Spanish, but the film (unlike
Flamenco, Flamenco) offers English subtitles for the lyrics. There’s some variety to Saura’s visuals but plenty of repetition as well; there’s a lot of rear projection, a lot of setups of people emerging from silhouette behind a screen. None of that will matter much. You’re either caught up in the performances or you’re not.
The movie pays homage to a couple of legendary figures. In the “Homenaje a Mercedes Sosa” section, we see a classroom of white-coated schoolchildren watching black-and-white footage of Sosa singing on a triptych of screens. Some of the kids begin tapping their desks, clapping to the rhythm, even singing along. It’s one of the film’s most engaging moments. Another is a stunning bit of lightning-fast, rhythmic ropetwirling by two men in a malambo.
The only explanation of the music and its origins comes in an opening title card that describes how the roots of these Argentine musical forms were spread by the muleteers who traveled the country’s mountains and trails transporting goods. The beauty of Saura’s movie is in its preservation of these traditional songs and dances of nostalgia, longing, homecoming, brotherhood, love, and death. There’s even a little social commentary in a song that speculates that God may or may not hear our prayers, but He certainly sits at the owners’ table. — Jonathan Richards
Mood music — and dance