“9 Queens” and Argentine national identity

By Shane Cassidy 

By the late 1990’s, Argentina had become a country so straddled with debt due to the mistreatment of the economy by so many that had gone before it that this irrefutably disrupted and permanently altered Argentina’s national identity. National identity is the result of various different external factors such as the sharing of history and tradition with others to national symbols such as flag or anthem. Those who have now lived through and experienced Argentina’s crises have undoubtedly had their national identity altered. Following the end of the ‘Dirty War’ and the emergence of democratic politics in Argentina in the 1980’s, a new national identity has naturally emerged with the heavy weight of history inevitably ingrained in Argentinean psyche. The sight of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is enough to remind Argentineans of their dark history and the damages an unregulated, un-checked power can do. With that in mind, Argentina has since gone on to experience a different type of abuse at the hands of their leaders and this time through economic methods. Fabián Bielinsky, through his film ‘9 Queens’, attempts to portray this new society and shared national identity while also showing the affects it has had on a larger scale.

9 Queens focuses on two con men, Juan and Marcos who meet when Marcos comes to Juan’s assistance when a scam goes wrong at a petrol station and convinces him to work with him for the day. Marco is the more experienced of the two who will go to whatever lengths for the con, while Juan appears to be the beginner, an innocent with more noble reasons for pulling tricks and scams. In effect, his elderly father is in prison and he needs to earn enough money to bribe the judge. Ultimately they stumble upon a scam to sell counterfeit stamps to a businessman, Esteban Vidal Gandolfo, who is leaving the country the next day. Over the course of the film a web of intrigue and deceit is woven as all the characters appear to have ulterior motives. The film opens with the scene of a simple yet highly evocative and powerful image. Our protagonist Juan, crafty, smooth and clever cons a simple, hard-working and honest cashier out of money in her till. This is a microcosm for Argentinean society in general. A largely corrupt government taking advantage of decent, hardworking citizens for their own benefit. This scene is replicated many times throughout the film, the waiter in the restaurant, the unsuspecting old lady deceived into believing she is helping her nephew to repair his car, the news kiosk where Marcos gets his newspaper for free, the old lady in the lift. The film is an accurate depiction of the extent of present day Argentine society is. Corruption is closely woven into the fabric of society that it is no longer surprising to hear of those who have swindled the books or attempted to steal for their own gain.

A mentality of self-entitlement pervades the film and throughout we encounter many characters adamant in the belief that they are not only entitled but also deserving in whatever they can get. There exists also a delusionary aspect to their attitudes as, although they are all in one way or another caught up in criminal activity, they all state that they are not personally a thief or a crook. This idea that it is every man for himself and ones only concern is profiting by whatever means necessary. When the two protagonists are sitting in a café, Washington, a petty thief and stolen goods salesman attempts to peddle some of his goods. Juan turns to him eventually and enquires about the possibility of acquiring a gun to which Washington recoils in horror and insists that he is not a crook. The irony in the scene is evident in itself but it highlights the extent to which Argentina’s attitude towards crime and theft has been readjusted. What is clear from the film is that corruption has affected every level of society and even policemen are presented as opportunists looking to earn some more money as is seen in the scene where Marcos pays a police colleague to pretend to arrest him to trick Gandolfo into believing his story about the stamps is legitimate.

The brilliant Ricardo Darín plays the character of ‘Marcos’ and his is a portrayal of man caught up in modern day, corrupt, Argentinean society. He represents the mentality of so many of his fellow Argentineans. He has delusions of grandeur and views himself as above the status of a thief when he remarks to Juan, “¿Se cree que soy un ladrón? Yo no matar a personas. No utilizo una pieza. Nadie puede hacer eso.” He is out for himself, even going so far as to tricking his family out of their inheritance and Marcos doesn’t feel remorse for his actions. He believes that he has seen an opportunity and seized it and that he is deserving of it, he unrepentantly says “Vi una oportunidad y me agarró”. Marcos typifies a disillusioned, disconnected, modern-day citizen. When he meets his sister in her workplace he questions her marital and family status. This is a clear indicator that he does not stay in contact and does not display any interest in the lives of his sister or younger brother ‘Federico’. He also shows his lack of respect for elders and Sandro in particular when Sandro is attempting to explain what happened, Marcos interrupts and says disrespectfully “that’s when you blew your fuse”. Marcos is even willing to prostitute his sister to satisfy his insatiable thirst for money and greed. Even after the supposed act o f sleeping with Gandolfo is completed, Marcos rushes to his sister only to grab the suitcase enquiring about the money and showing absolutely no regard for his sisters well-being.

Marcos appears to care little but for the materialistic and monetary gains. He is clearly void of any admirable traits or scruples and only assists Juan at the beginning of the film as he needs someone to help him perform scams. In one scene he remarks to Juan, “Santos no hay, lo que hay son tarifas diferentes” and then he later remarks to Juan “putos no faltan, lo que faltan son inversores”. These two statements allow an insight into the workings of Marcos’ mind. He is motivated purely by his own profit and interest. It is a combination of his blind greed and inability to care for others which inevitably leads to the downfall of Marcos and this can be equally applied to the Argentine banks and society in general. Bielinsky cleverly juxtaposes Juan against that of Marcos so even though Juan is seen as a trickster, he is one troubled by a conscience and guilt. He is ultimately vindicated in his actions as he is assisting his lover Valeria to regain control of her inheritance. The relationship between the two main characters shows this clash of conscience and values in modern day Argentine society.

“Este país se va al infierno” (Marcos, Nueve Reinas)

By all accounts, the distrust levelled at banks reached a plateau by the turn of the century, most noticeably with the Cacerolazo’s[1]protests which involve the banging of pots and pans and made famous in Argentina. The reference to the banks and financial systems and the impact they have had in Argentina was therefore inevitable especially when Argentina experienced such economic and social turbulence along with massive financial loss at the hands of the banks. Bielinsky references them in several scenes and his reasoning for this is two-fold: firstly he wishes to highlight their recklessness and his second motivation is to present his audience with a deeper understanding of how the situation with the banks could have developed to such a stage. The audience witnesses Gandolfo in his hotel room, engaged in a rigorous debate about the price of shares. It is only with understanding of the impending financial crisis that is clear that he is wishing to quickly offload his shares and save as much money as possible from the inevitable loss and impending run on the banks. In another scene where the stamp expert attempts to extort a percentage of the takings for himself. Juan remarks to Marcos that he is “handing out too much shares”. This latter remark is subtle allusion to the banks and the way in which they banked so senselessly as to leave Argentinean society facing an economic emergency. As of May 2011 approximately two-thirds of Argentinean bank accounts are in short-term deposit accounts with banks also very wary of long term loans[2]. It is a curious that if one of the things that unties national identity is a shared past and similar mentality then a whole psyche of mistrust and suspicion has since developed into national identity in Argentina. Argentinean society is caught in this complex scenario where they are unsure and deeply suspicious of all types of government and understandably so. They have experienced and witnessed at first hand the atrocities performed by the military Junta in the 1970’s and equally they have seen the total financial destruction of their country and the wrecking of their currency by the corrupt elite in a ‘democratic’ government during the 1980’s and 90’s. Naturally and unsurprisingly a deep distrust has developed and it this can be witnessed by the manifestation of the idea of cautiousness towards the banks. The final irony is that Gandolfo pays Marcos and Juan by a cashier’s cheque which is certified by a bank but little do the characters know that this means very little given the country’s economic difficulty.

Bielinsky cleverly disguises the real motives of both characters throughout the film and this naturally leads to a development of mistrust and suspicion on both characters sides but also from the audience. The audience gets a disorientating sense of not knowing exactly what is going on while also experiencing the feeling that they are being duped or conned. This was a reality for Argentine society, especially in the 90’s and early 2000’s where Argentina’s economy and government was awash with corruption and manipulation. At every turn in the film, a new deceit appears to be uncovered and the narrative is constructed in such a way as to prevent the audience from ascertaining who exactly is involved with who. The film’s opening scene involves an act of deceit by Juan and is quickly followed by Marcos deceiving the petrol station employees to aid Juan. Marcos’ life has been a life of fraud and crafty dealing. He has tricked his siblings out of their inheritance and throughout the film he is unaware that everyone he encounters is involved in the ultimate act of misrepresentation in order to regain Valeria’s rightful inheritance. Even when Juan goes to visit his father in prison, his father is not only fooled by his son’s faux-innocence but also the card game which Juan’s father plays while Juan visits him is one of sleight of hand and trickery.

It is also through this use of characters that Bielinski also depicts Argentina in its multicultural, diverse way. Argentina, home to so many immigrants from all over the world is a melting pot of different cultural backgrounds and customs. Although largely Catholic, Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in South America and this Jewish presence in society is also referred to in the film. Bielinsky himself of Jewish descent, depicts a whole area of Buenos Aries as being a Jewish area simply from the implied manner in which Juan states that his mother is from Entre Ríos, a predominantly Jewish area in Buenos Aries[3]. Bielinsky is attempting to show more than just one face of Argentinean society to his audience and wishes to reflect the vibrant, diverse culture which exists within Argentina. It is also pertinent as it displays and acknowledges the existence of a vibrant Jewish population because, despite Jewish people in Argentina representing only 1% of Argentinean population, 10% of all victims were Jewish during the ‘Dirty War’ from 1976-83[4].

Bielinsky makes clever use of his characters in order to represent Argentine national identity in a new light. Although he depicts his characters as deceitful, suspicious and untrustworthy it is never done to portray Argentineans in a harsh light. On the contrary, it is Argentinean society, reflected through Juan and his hopeful ending which encapsulates the goodness of Argentina and it’s society. However, as in every society, an ill prevails in the form of con artists and thieves, be it on a small level or a large financial institutional level. Argentina has experienced great change over the last 30 years and naturally their psyche and perspective will have been altered.

References

[1] http://www.cacerolazo.com

[3] FALICOV, T, The Cinematic Tango: contemporary Argentine film, Wallflower Press, 2007

[4] http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Argentina_STATUS.html

Bibliography

FALICOV, T, The Cinematic Tango: contemporary Argentine film, Wallflower Press, 2007

REIN, R, Argentine Jews or Jewish Argentines?: essays on ethnicity, identity, and diaspora, Brill, 2010

SHAW, D, Contemporary Latin American cinema: breaking into the global market, Rowman and Littlefield, 2007

Nueve Reinas, 2000, Bielinsky, F, Argentina. Buena Vista International (film)

http://www.cacerolazo.com/

http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Argentina_STATUS.html

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0517/1224297118048.html

By Shane Cassidy

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