Seen as part of The Film Foundation’s ‘Restoration Screening Room’: Prisioneros de la tierra/Prisoners of the Earth (Mario Soffici, Argentina, 1939) is a melodrama that vividly evokes emotions but channels them so the film also acts as a social critique of colonialism, exploitative employment practices, the treatment of indigenous peoples by foreign capital, class and ethnicity. A revelation that encourages revolution or at least warns of uprisings. A film that generally tops the charts of best films ever made in Argentina. We discuss all this and more in the accompanying podcast:
A superb noir, fast-moving, by someone who’s seen and loved all the 30s Warners gangster films; and knows and can deploy every stylistic device:
chase scenes that turn into newspaper headlines:
voice-over montages that focus on the hero and instigate the rationale for a crime:
dream montages that show the sexy lure of what the culture deprives ordinary people of:
We also get flashbacks to childhood, prison escapes, etc. It’s all here but now set in Buenos Aires and the surrounding countryside in Argentina. And much as I love Hollywood, the underside of its imperialism is that it deprived us of many sights and sounds seen here, many films such as this one.
The film is based on two separate real-life events dramatised together: An employee bilking his workplace of half a million pesos and a prison escape. José Moran (Jorge Salcedo) likes the good things in life, nice suits, nightclubs, things and places he can’t afford. He’s in love with a young student who loves him back; they once went around shopping for bedroom sets they’d buy after they got married. But he’s given up now. He’s got a bit of gambling problem, is only receiving 150 of his 250 monthly salary because he’s already paying off advances; money lenders are after him; he can barely afford to support his mother and his younger brother on what he takes home. He’s already seeing his illusions ground down they after day – it’s what killed his father – and once he realises that the maximum sentence for stealing is sixty years and that legally there’s no difference whether you take 1000 pesos are 500, 000, he does the math. It would take him 166 years to earn 500, 000. So what if he has to sacrifice 6 years of prison in order to get it? It’s less than the life the job is robbing him of.
It’s a brilliant logic in the film. But since the film starts with an unsuccessful escape, we also know that our hero’s every attempt to save himself will end in failure. It’s another brilliant element of the film; how the beginning sets up failure in every attempt at escape or survival. Apenas un delincuente is about a non-conformist, a man at odds with the culture around him, who schemes, resists, fails; his life a feverish dreams of a life the culture won’t permit him to have.
The film dynamically sets up its themes. Life in the big city which has everything but not for everybody. Male pride versus family shame. A workplace whose regimentation is filmed not too differently than the prison. The hero sees himself as no better than a slave and is driven by a kind of rage which the film suggests is also a kind of sexual frustration; the good university lawyer who loves him but whom he can’t afford to marry; the provocative dancing girls on display that he doesn’t have money to have. The film gets its title from the last line of the film, José wasn’t a criminal, he was barely a delinquent, an ordinary young man, maybe a bit selfish and impatient, someone who wanted too much too fast. But the implication here is also that the problem is a system that promises much more than it can deliver to so many young men like José. All of this is brilliantly visualised, in angles and shapes that cage and enclose, with tantalising images of the high life, rendered even more alive by being shaped via Jose’s bitter gaze. Though the film does not have a documentary feel — it’s too fast moving for that – it was ostensibly all filmed in real locations; and it does represent and evoke what Buenos Aires was like in that period; and also through the neighbourhoods, rooms, décor; a document of the ways of life available to people then. It’s the intersection of document and exciting noir elements that help make the film great. And great it undeniably is.
Ehsan Khoshbakht writes tellingly in the Ritrovato catalogue: ‘Though American-style gangster films had existed in Argentine cinema as early as 1937, this was not a pastiche but an attack on the idea of economic progress under President Juan Perón….. Apenas un delincuente could only be realised at all because of the interventionist politics of the Perón government. Ironically it was the US that contributed to the end of cinema’s golden age by imposing a politically motivated film-stock embargo, forcing Fregonese back to drift back to the place where he had failed before; this time, in a double irony, to make a film called One Way Street.(pp.262-263)
Part of the cycle of Hugo Fregonese films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2022
If you speak Spanish, this is a very informative review of the film, linking it to Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Nueve reinas (Fabián Bielinsky, 2000)
and two discussions from the Filmoteca in Argentina that may also be of interest:
…this one focussing on how the film was restored:
The film itself can be seen on youtube here in a not too bad copy:
A film that begins as a slacker sex farce and develops into a poetic dramatisation of changing desires. Bruno (Manuel Vignau) regrets dumping his girlfriend (Mercedes Quinteros) and wants to win her back. She’s now got a new boyfriend, Pablo (Lucas Ferraro) and whilst continuing to shag Bruno on the side claims no desire to get back together with him. Bruno hears from one of Pablo’s friends that he’s known to have expressed an interest in men and decides to seduce him in order to break up their relationship and win back his girlfriend. You can guess how it will end.
One of the pleasures of watching foreign films is to learn about other cultures. Here the bodies, faces, flats, utensils; the ways of being; the spaces people inhabit and the norms of the culture in which the protagonists dance their game of seduction; all seem strange and appealing to me.
The film depicts an interesting tension. The protagonists watch TV, have sleepovers, talk about treasured childhood toys, they get to know one another and in doing so discover feelings for each other they didn’t know they had in them. Dramatically, the physical dimension of desire in the film is always blocked, sometimes literally as when half-way through the film, Bruno and Pablo are sleeping together, Pablo goes to cuddle up with Bruno in the night, and Bruno’s arm rises up like a shot to block him. The film seems to take place in a world of feeling — confusing, unexpected, troubling — where homosexual desire is seen as burgeoning but with no release. Characters are confused by their own feelings, uncertain of the feelings and motives of the other, scared to express for real what has heretofore only been expressed as a joke. It’s very beautifully done.
The formal aspects of the film tell a different story. one that is in productive tension with what we are shown. The camera lingers on these young men’s faces, finding beauty in a glance, a gesture, a way of speaking. The camera is often fixed so that we first see characters from their crotches or bums before they sit down so we can get a big close-up their faces. The camera is often placed low so that we get particularly sexualised views of the characters bodies. And yet it’s only a look at. The faces and bodies themselves are not fetishised by make-up, lighting or lenses. It’s almost as if the rapt attenuation of desire inherent in this particular way of filming sexualises the relationship in a way the protagonists restrain themselves from until the end.
In attitude, if not in looks, Bruno is like John Malkovich’s Viscomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, a better looking but equally charming sexual mercenary who ends up hoisted on his own petard. However, the filming of it reminded me of Ozu or Takeshi Kitano. Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.
The characters speak of feeling; the use of the camera speaks of sex; the editing of that deeply felt but as yet unresolved. The combination spoke to me of a sexual awakening with all the urgency, hesitation, confusion, humour and embarrassment one remembers from life.
. And I can see why to an extent: there’s a shared theme of sexual awakening here, and with a much more complex rendering of the spectrum of sexuality than in most movies (and one that Call Me By Your Name still hasn’t been given credit for). But the styles are very different.
Plan B is slower, more meditative, with leisurely editing, sparse shots composition, terrible music, and many shots where the audience is only half informed and where what the characters are reading or even saying to each other remains unheard by us. It’s a film with mystery, beauty and feeling; all achieved with the simplicity one has to be very skilled in order to achieve. I look forward to seeing the rest of Berger’s oeuvre.