Nine Queens (Nueve reinas) (Argentina, 2000) *** 1/2
Written and directed by Fabian Bielinsky. Photography, Marcelo Camorino. Editing, Sergio Zottola. Art direction, Marcelo Salvioli. Music, Cesar Lerner. Executive producer, Pablo Bossi. Managing producer, Cecilia Bossi. Cast: Gaston Pauls, Ricardo Darin, Leticia Bredice, Tomas Fonzi, et al. A Sony Classics release. In Spanish with subtitles. 114 minutes. R (language) At the New Art Theatre.
If there existed a prize called "The Alfred Award," is might very well go to "Nine Queens." Not that it is a clone of the inimitable Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers, but because there is in it a great deal of King Alfred's "clean" and clever story-telling and rich characterizations.
It is a movie about con men or swindlers or grifters or cheats or hustlers or anything you choose to call it along those lines. As such, it adds to its Hitchcockness sure-fire elements of some of the better works within the "scam genre." David Mamet's come to mind right away, but this is partly because his movies are rather recent and familiar. Any film historian could come up with items going way, way back.
In a Buenos Aires convenience store, twenty-something, nice-and-clean-looking Juan (Gaston Pauls) pulls on the cashier the venerable scam of paper-money switcheroo. When the relief cashier appears, Juan tries to repeat the operation but gets into trouble this time. He is rescued by forty-ish, Mephistophelian-looking Marcos (Ricardo Darin) in ways I cannot reveal.
Plot-telling is a disservice to audiences, indeed a criminal acts in the case of movies hinging on surprises. Briefly, in the splendidly written and played scenes which follow, Marcos is reveale as a con man who has lost his accomplice and needs a new one. He offers the job to a very reluctant Juan.
Following a fairly friendly duel of arguments as well as mutual, fascinating and delicious demonstrations of their respective talents, the two team up. The pickings are modest, but eventually the new partners hit upon a scheme way, way larger than the usual penny ante games. We're not talking devaluated pesos here, bur half-a-million U.S. dollars.
This major undertaking involves, both centrally and marginally, a large gallery of thieves, con men, a talented forger almost on his deathbed. It is a pot-pourri of shady types, many of them unexpected yet credible. Then the focus moves to a wealthy, canny mega-crook, a Spaniard being deported within 24 hours. Crooks vs. crooks is one of the most satisfactory experiences in film-watching. Perhaps you remember that old New Yorker cartoon of a line of fish in which the largest one eats the next in size, and so on down to the smallest fry.
Again, I must not let the cat out of the bag, and, believe me, there are plenty of cats. Everyone around is a crook. I think of the World War I recruiting poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying "I Want You." Here something like it would tell the viewers "You Too are Crooks."
The movie, made in 2000, is extremely topical in 2002 given the flood of financial scandals by robber barons. It was already topical in Argentina. Sly allusions as well as specific references to the country's political/social/economic malfeasances are there for the choosing. But you don't have to know about them to understand the film.
The only two things I can reveal are: 1) that the title refers to a set of nine, most valuable postage-stamps issued in 1920 by the Weimar Republic; 2) that the story has a twist which reminds me strongly of Stanley Kubrick's early, splendid heist-movie "The Killing."
Shot in Buenos Aires, the film makes excellent use of genuine places (streets, shops, houses, etc.) which, save for a luxurious Hilton hotel (the setting for many sequences) are not a bit like the familiar, touristic views of the city's beautiful areas, or like the less central music-and-dance establishments where the sexy, partly bordello-born tango, was born.
At first sight, parts of the story may feel improbable. But you let it wash over you and are soon taken in, conned by the smoothness, tempo and diversity of the developments, the long game of criminal chess. On second thought, even less holds water. But by then you appreciate even more how you were scammed. And perhaps you'll wish that all teachers and students were as interesting and talented as the main characters on the screen.
Writer-director Fabian Bialinsky is a true-blue cinephile who loves narrative film, a strong story-line, and suspense. Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Wilder are among those who gave him "the most pleasure." That's an important statement since it subsumes the influence of American cinema rather than European. This, in a country which, culturally and artistically has traditionally turned to the Old World for inspiration, where Buenos Aires is, for the locals, the Paris of Latin America.
"Nine Queens" is Bielinsky's first feature. He graduated from Argentina's National Cinematographic Institute, has made several short movies, been an assistant director for hundreds of commercials as well as for some features, and has taught film in his Alma Mater.
At the Argentinean Film Critics' Awards, "Nine Queens" was nominated in ten categories, won in seven: Film, Screenplay, Director, Cinematography, Editing, Actor (Ricardo Darin), Supporting Actress. More prizes came at several festivals in Latin America, France and elsewhere.
The movie's subtitles are excellent, large and clear. My one irritation came when they said "between you and I." It's "between you and me" stupid!