Within film criticism, there is a school of thought that establishes the director as the maximum, most important vision within the creation of a movie; that is to say, a movie is the artistic representation of the director’s sensibilities, and all other crew members work in subservience to that specific vision. The auteur theory, as posited by journalists (and later filmmakers) for France’s Cahiers du Cinemá in the 1950s, asserts that the most artistically successful films are those that carry the unmistakable personal stamp of the director, aesthetically, thematically, narratively, etc. The more a film resembles the director’s vision, the more cinematically successful it will be.
It’s a theory that, in this monochrome age of largely interchangeable marquee films with very little in the way of a unified artistic identity, seems to have been pushed largely by the wayside. However, there are still some directors whose artistic voices are unmistakable, managing to make themselves felt through their work.
A decade ago, Argentine director Juan José Campanella’s film El Secreto de Sus Ojos broke through a barrier that had for years felt unassailable, becoming the second Argentine film to ever win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture. It was also a smash box-office success, eventually becoming the second highest-grossing film in Argentine history. Everything seemed to be set up for Campanella to become the most important voice in Argentine film. However, in the decade that followed, he only directed one more feature, 2013’s underwhelming animated movie Metegol (Underdogs). For the following years, Campanella focused on TV projects, and anticipation began building for what would be his next project.
Well, Campanella’s return to live-action film is finally here in the form of El Cuento de Las Comadrejas, a pitch-black comedy that seems poised to become a new smash success in the director’s oeuvre, carrying his unmistakable mark while also brimming with star power and commercial appeal.
A remake of José Martinez Suarez’s seminal 1970s romp Los Muchachos de Antes No Usaban Arsénico, Campanella’s new film functions as both a satire and a deeply affectionate tribute to the heyday of Argentine film, as it is drenched in nostalgia and yearning for a bygone era. This is present both textually (the main character, played by the great dame of Argentine cinema Graciela Borges, is perpetually locked in a state of remember-when) and subtextually (as the film itself — in everything from its conception to its execution — seems to be looking backwards). Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, this film also serves to re-assert Campanella’s status as a vital and important voice in the country’s current cultural landscape.
El Cuento de Las Comadrejas follows the story of Mara Ordaz (Graciela Borges), a fading film star from a bygone era who lives in an enormous country house that serves as a tribute to her past career. She lives with her husband Pedro (Luis Brandoni), a former actor who never achieved much in the way of commercial success, as well as two close friends: Norberto (Oscar Martinez) and Martín (Marcos Mundstock), a former director and screenwriter, respectively. The four of them live a comfortable if secluded and increasingly turbulent life in Mara’s palatial estate, becoming an unconventional family unit (much of the film’s appeal is in the effortless chemistry between these characters).
However, their lives will soon be interrupted by the arrival of two young characters: Francisco and Bárbara, who set their sights on this valuable piece of real estate and attempt to convince Mara that moving back to the city to revive her old career – thus breaking up this unusual family unit – is what’s best for her. This is the source for most of the film’s dramatic tension, as old resentments are then brought to the fore.
There’s a lot to love about the film, not the least of which is its sumptuous production design, which deliberately harkens back to the golden age of film. There is a very real sense of theatricality in the proceedings – and I don’t mean just in the performances (though there are a lot of histrionics going on), but also in the way the film is decorated, designed, composed and blocked. This is also evident in the way much of the story takes place in Mara’s estate; with some tweaks, this could have very easily been a single-location stage play. However, Campanella’s sharp directorial eye is used to great effect, and his choices in composition and where to let the camera linger are used as effectively here as they were in the headier drama El Secreto de Sus Ojos.
There is a certain playful bitterness permeating the proceedings that is absolutely delightful to dive into as a viewer. The easy banter between the main cast members makes their decades-long relationship feel real and truly lived-in, which is vital for a film like this. I would point this out as one of the film’s key strengths, and the main reason why one sits through some of the more punishing stretches.
El Cuento de Las Comadrejas does have a few problems; mainly, there are several moments in the script that come off as excessively labored and unnatural; much of Graciela Borges’s dialog feels very much “recited” in a way that can seem a bit distracting, and there is a grating wordiness that pops up every once in a while, where the emphasis seemed to have been placed on coming up with quotable quips rather than a convincing piece of dialog. Additionally, the film features moments where its drama feels forced into an arc, and there is a bit of a rushed scramble towards a resolution. However, these are not deal-breakers, and don’t detract from the film’s considerable pleasures.
All in all, Campanella’s return to theaters is a wickedly funny, incessantly charming movie-watching experience. It doesn’t reach the highs of El Secreto de Sus Ojos, but of course, it’s also not reaching for them. Though they are completely different films, there is enough of Campanella’s idiosyncratic directorial style poking through to call him a true auteur of Argentine cinema. My main hope going forward is that it doesn’t take another ten years for him to deliver another film like this, and that this movie (and the positive response it’s elicited) reinvigorates his love for storytelling. We could use more voices like his.
El Cuento de Las Comadrejas is currently in theaters all over the country.