This year’s Latinbeat Film Festival is a vivid reminder that Jewish filmmakers have been at the heart of the New Argentine Cinema for all of its roughly two decades of existence. Among the five new Argentine films playing the event, which opens on Aug. 10, are “Querida Voy a Comprar Cigarillos y Vuelvo,” directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, and “No Return,” directed by Miguel Cohan. You can add their names to a roster of festival veterans that already includes Martin Rejtman, Daniel Burman and Diego Lerman, among others. (You can also throw in Daniel Hendler, an actor familiar from his lead roles in several of Burman’s films; his feature directorial debut, “Norberto’s Deadline,” made in Uruguay, is also in the festival.)
Although it is practically impossible to pin down the common threads that run through a tapestry as complicated and diffuse as the “new Argentine cinema,” a certain dry, off-the-wall humor is indisputably one of them. The novelist Alberto Laiseca, who wrote the story for “Querida” and who narrates the film, refers to his own style as “realismo delirante” (delirious realism), a phrase that certainly applies to this movie.
“Querida Voy a Comprar Cigarillos y Vuelvo” (“Darling, I’m going out to buy cigarettes and I’ll be right back,” a key phrase in the film) starts with an itinerant trader in medieval Morocco (Eusebio Poncela) who is struck twice by lightning and, as a result, killed and revived with strange powers including immortality.
Moments later, we see him as a sardonic stranger in a pink polo shirt and backpack, wandering into a down-at-the-heels café where he finds Ernesto (Emilio Disi), a 63-year-old failure, and offers him the opportunity to make a million dollars. All he has to do is go back in time to an earlier period of his life and relive his past.
This wry, bizarre tale is told in a mixture of mordant tones, from Laiseca’s profane narration, which is aided immeasurably by his deadpan growl and his glowering on-camera presence (he looks like Ted Levine’s older brother), to the sad-sack Wile E. Coyote features of Disi, whose very attempt to reinvent himself fails in new and more alarming ways. Cohn and Duprat, whose previous film, “The Man Next Door,” was a hit at last year’s Sundance Festival, treat this material with an underplayed, misanthropic sarcasm, and the result is tart and very funny, sort of Kafka-with-pratfalls in a tone that is unmistakably post-World War II Jewish (right down to a rather crass metaphor involving concentration camp).
Recent Argentine films have included a number of deftly made thrillers with a strong moral center, and Miguel Cohan’s “No Return” fits nicely into that group. Given that Cohan, for whom this film is a feature-directing debut, worked as an assistant to the veteran director Miguel Pineyro on films like “Burnt Money” and “The Method,” his choice of genre is not surprising. The surprise is Cohan’s sure touch with a complex narrative structure that involves multiple plot lines converging, literally, in a fatal accident.
It’s a collision that involves a spoiled young engineering student and his best friend, a struggling stand-up comic and ventriloquist and a bicycle-riding tattoo artist. By the time the film is over, their lives have been destroyed, their families permanently traumatized and their understanding of Argentine society turned inside out. Cohan adroitly mixes long takes and quick cutting à la Hitchcock (and Fernando Pardo’s score feels a lot like the best of Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitch) to create a portrait of a society in which self-interest, greed and corruption trump justice every time. The anger underlying this vision prevents the film from becoming merely another cynical crime story. At the same time the deeply humanist concerns of the filmmaker — culminating in a devastating last shot juxtaposed with the movie’s title — raises “No Return” above the run-of-the-mill. Think of it as Kafka without pratfalls, if you will.
The 12th annual Latinbeat Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, will present four U.S. premieres (including “Querida Voy a Comprar Cigarillos Y Vuelvo”). It begins on Wednesday, Aug. 10 at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information go to www.filmlinc.com.