by Benjamín Harguindey
Review of Death in Buenos Aires (Muerte en Buenos Aires, 2014) directed by Natalia Meta. Argentina.
The early months of 2014 saw one of the biggest publicity campaigns the city of Buenos Aires has ever seen for a local movie, fittingly called Death in Buenos Aires. A campaign as intense as it was sudden, so overwhelming that most critics noted it in their reviews – if only to contrast it with the ensuing disappointment that was the actual movie.
What conjured all that sound and fury? Argentine flicks rarely feature such opulent displays of self-promotion. The country’s biggest draws are actors Ricardo Darín and Guillermo Francella, usually coupled with directors like Juan José Campanella or Pablo Trapero. The movie instead featured Demián Bichir – a Mexican actor coming in hot from a recent Oscar nomination but relatively unknown in Argentina – and Chino Darín (son of Ricardo, in his leading debut).
And then there’s the debutant director, one Natalia Meta, whose identity was the subject of much speculation at the time. To date she has conceded to two interviews: a radio interview (in which she flat out refuses to give her middle name in a strange bid for anonymity) and a lonely TV spot. She explains that her screenplay was turned down by every director she approached, and in the end reluctantly took the directorial mantle, creating her own production studio and fueling the whole project herself.
Money is the key factor here – Death in Buenos Aires sports the enviable production budget of $26,000,000, relatively low by Hollywood standards but comparatively high in a country where a feature-length movie averages a fifth or a fourth of that. How does a 40-something first-time director with no previous education or experience come up with a quarter of a hundred million dollars without the benefit of a co-production deal (look towards Spain if any other Argentine movie has that kind of dosh)?
As it turns out, Natalia Meta is evidently Natalia Olga Meta, heir to the Banco Industrial fortune (which sold out for a nine figure number back in 2011). Apparently she used her cut to privately finance this fantasy of hers, come hell or high water. Does this exposé sound a little off-topic? This is less a personal attack and more of an effort to understand why every frame of Death in Buenos Aires is fraught with such noveau riche sensibility. One thing is for certain: the movie is all money and enthusiasm and has nothing resembling artistic craft or actual competence.
The movie is a murder mystery set in ’80s Buenos Aires – not a very good one, because the very first image gives away the murderer. And even if it didn’t, even if you chose to give the movie the benefit of the doubt, the movie only ever comes up with two suspects. One of them is the drag queen Inspector Chávez (Bichir) and Officer Gómez (Darín) investigate throughout the whole movie. Reader, if you’ve seen a police procedural in your life, you know he’s not the culprit. And if you’ve seen a movie, any movie, you also know who the real culprit is.
So the whole crime aspect goes out the window even before the title drops. We’re left with the romantic aspect of the story, which pairs Chávez and Gómez and toys with a will-they-or-won’t-they arc. More specifically it toys with the notion that the young sultry Gómez may be gay, and the older Chávez – trapped in a sexless marriage – may have the hots for him. Interestingly enough this is another mystery spoiled by the beginning scene, or for that matter in the two interviews the director gave, in which she snidely remarks that “If Brokeback Mountain ever happened in Buenos Aires, it’d be between cops“. Uh, spoiler alert?
And now we’re two down: a murder mystery that isn’t much of a mystery, and a romantic plot that is so obviously there that all the fake outs (Gómez has a fiancée) and bait ‘n switch (a scene where Gómez comes onto Chávez is revealed to be a farce) fall flat. Meta obviously knows the ropes of the genre – how you’re supposed to tease the audience, employ red herrings and so on – but can’t work any of them without being extremely loud and incredibly obvious.
There’s a penchant for over-the-top displays of flashy exotism, telltale marks of the “let’s throw money at this” School of Filmmaking, such as the sequence in which a harras of horses stampedes down a deserted avenue at nighttime. The movie’s riddled with such frivolities. And yet they fit rather well with the tacky, neon-tinted aesthetic the movie’s going for as it attempts to channel the glitzy underground of homosexual ‘renaissance’ in a Buenos Aires finally free of the yoke of military fascism. Think Cruising (1980), itself not a very good movie, but worse.
You can say that much for the movie, that some polish has gone into dressing up the period. But then the acting and the use of the characters is so tone deaf that the actors might as well be playing dress up. There’s the Police Commissioner (Hugo Arana), a caricature somewhere between Chief Wiggum and Bumblebee Man who implausibly hangs out with our heroes during stakeouts. There’s the sexy Dolores (Mónica Antonópulos), supposedly an officer of the law, looking like a prostitute set loose at the police station. Luisa Kuliok is given top billing as the victim’s sister and proposed as a suspect early on, but the movie completely forgets about her. And Bichir, great actor that he may be, never sounds convincing as a porteño, mumbling most of his dialogue in an attempt to mask the accent.
Death in Buenos Aires is such a pointless movie. It’s riddled with stupid clichés, lacks any kind of tension on any level and everything in it is too dumb or contrived to engage the viewer – you just watch it unfold at arm’s length, either sad or bemused by its spectacular ineptitude. A lot of money has gone into it and for what it’s worth it has an impressive production design to show for it. But it’s as if the director either wasn’t interested or wasn’t skilled enough to handle everything else with sense or coherence.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).