Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nueve reinas [Nine Queens] Movie Review: Argentine Mamet

One of my favorite sub-genres is the heist film. A common subset of that is the grifter film, which holds a place dear to my heart. Often the two are intertwined as in Ocean’s 11 or Heist by David Mamet, the master of the grifter genre. The Argentine film Nueve Reinas is a well-studied knock-off of Mamet’s films.

I’m beginning to develop a great appreciation for Argentine cinema, which continues an output of competently crafted and entertaining genre films (somehow always starring Ricardo Darín), the kind of well-made, well-written and popular fare Hollywood used to do regularly before scripts became a clothesline for special effects.

Writer-director Fabián Bielinsky crafts a plot that is neither groundbreaking nor amazing, but it’s tightly written and doesn’t pander. As an audience member walking into a grifter plot, you have to know that not everything is as it seems. It’s been this way at least since The Sting in 1973. The joy is in searching for the clues that will lead you to the conclusion. Bielinsky conceals them pretty well, perhaps so well that it’s actually not possible to guess at it, though I had two theories mulling around before settling on the more obvious one that turned out to be wrong. And I’m thankful for that because the ending I was leaning towards would have been totally unsatisfying.

Bielinsky opts for the sentimental result, which normally I would scoff at as con artists and grifters have to have a winner-take-all attitude and leave no room for feelings, but he makes it work by constantly throwing misdirection at you. A director of a grifter film has to be a magician – adept at sleight-of-hand and totally in control at all times. Bielinsky is obviously skillful enough in both areas to lead you down the wrong path.

The film opens with a young con artist named Juan (Gastón Pauls) pulling off an amateur con in a service station, then getting caught when he attempts it a second time. He’s saved by Marcos (Darín), another con artist who happens to be hanging out in the store. If this setup doesn’t immediately strike you as suspicious then I would charge that you haven’t seen enough grifter films.

It’s no long before Marcos and Juan agree to work together for a day to each other’s mutual benefit – Marcos can’t work without a partner (and his has recently disappeared) and Juan needs to raise 70,000 pesos to save his ailing father. A call from Marcos’s sister, a respectable hotel concierge, leads him to meet with an old counterfeiter who has a line on a possible high-yield sale of some very rare stamps from Weimar Germany (the titular Nine Queens). I don’t want to reveal any more details except to say that the rest of the film involves laying out the con to play on a wealthy Spanish buyer who won’t have time to verify their authenticity in a lab before leaving the country the next morning.

Pauls is good in the role of the youthful Juan. His boyish looks imbue him with innocence while his smooth talking casts suspicion over him. However, it’s Darín who steals the film. I’ve seen three of his films now and he’s like a chameleon that changes its outward appearance while remaining completely recognizable. There’s his forlorn and dedicated investigator in El secreto de sus ojos, the restaurant owner and loving son of El hijo de la novia and now Marcos, a sleazy louse, a criminal of the lowest moral order who lacks the scruples to leave off screwing over his own family. How can Juan trust him as the day progresses and he learns more about his true colors?

I’m not entirely convinced of the initial setup of the long game of the con. If you think back to the way the grifter hooks his mark, it’s not certain enough. And as I’ve learned from better films of this genre, hooking the mark absolutely must be a sure bet. In the end the machinations of the con and the plot all come together full circle and all the minor details get wrapped up in a tidy little package (almost with a bow on top) to explain how it all worked. What Bielinsky does well is in leaving it opaque enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s being spoon-fed, which has the effect of making you feel like you’re intelligent enough to piece it together. Treating audiences with respect and intelligence – that’s something that gets lost in Hollywood.

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