Friday, April 17, 2009

PIZZA, BEER AND SMOKES (Pizza, Birra, Faso, 1998)

That's what a life of crime would get you, at least if you were a young punk at the bottom of the pecking order in 1990s Buenos Aires, the milieu portrayed in this low-budget collaboration between Israel Adrian Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro. It's reported to have been a very popular and profitable film on its home ground, but it never had a theatrical release in the U.S. That's odd considering how films like Amores Perros and City of God went over with the art-house crowd hereabouts, but perhaps this effort wasn't violent enough or narratively creative enough to compare with those influential films -- or maybe it simply came out too soon. Nevertheless, my mandate to explore as wide a wild world of cinema as possible made this a necessary stop when I saw the title at the Albany Public Library.

We start right in with a carjacking as two kids force a taxicab passenger to pull his pants down so they can rifle his pockets while the cabbie drives helplessly. The action is interrupted by a traffic jam. One of our carjackers comes down with a bit of road rage when another cabbie starts yelling in his direction, so he steps out of the commandeered vehicle and shoots out one of the offending cab's tires. Back in motion, they dump the passenger out at an on-ramp, his pants still down. The cab continues to an isolated location, then stops. The kids and the cabbie get out, and the cabbie starts kicking the hot-tempered one in the butt. He's their boss, you see; he sets up passengers for them to rob and takes the lion's share of the loot. But the kids are tired of the arrangement. They don't make enough money, and one of the gang, Cordobes, has a pregnant girlfriend.

It soon becomes a very familiar story. The kids --Metabom, Frula and asthmatic Pablo -- dream of the big score that will move them up in the world, with Cordobes particularly looking to give his baby something to start with in life. On their own they do petty crimes: robbing a legless guitarist of his busking revenue or starting fights in an employment line so they can pick pockets. But they need someone to set up a big score for them.

They think they have their man in Ruben, who hooks them up with guns ("One of these rods doesn't work, I don't know which") and a '71 Ford Fairlane to knock over an allegedly trendy restaurant. But the restaurant is overrated and the getaway car breaks down. Fortunately, a cop who happens on the scene is happy to take a bribe and ignore events. But Ruben rips them off worse than their old boss. Their last chance, it seems, is to hit a dance club. From there Cordobes hopes to elope with Sandra and start a new life. Will he make it? Yes and no....

Pizza, Beer and Smokes is the sort of film we've seen all over the world, and isn't a particularly distinctive example of the genre. After seeing it, I can see why it might not have seemed exportable. It is less a self-conscious portrait of crime and poverty in Buenos Aires or the sort of film that an American audience might consider enlightening than a straightforward reenactment of the youth-crime genre in an Argentine setting. Inevitably it would mean more to an Argentine audience than for foreigners, who might be frustrated by the fact that it isn't really "about" Argentina. That doesn't mean it lacks local color. One of the most entertaining bits is the kids' discussion of an obelisk that dominates their part of town.

It is The Obelisk of Buenos Aires, erected in 1936 to mark the city's 400th anniversary. It had seen better times by 1998, and has seen better since. At one point the kids break into it and climb to the top. Earlier, they discuss its sexual symbolism. Unfortunately, I don't remember which characters were talking.

A. I once knew a chick who got horny with the obelisk.
B. What do you mean, horny?
A. I don't know. She said it was like a huge penis which captured all the dick waves in the city.
B. That friend of yours was a bit of a whore.
A. Whore? I dated her two years.
B. Like I said.

That might not be an accurate translation, since misspellings and other slips abound in the English subtitles. But somehow that didn't seem inappropriate for this sketch of gutter life. If you've liked this sort of thing from other countries, you'll probably like it from Argentina as long as you appreciate the modesty of the project. For my part, I'll be looking for more Argentine films that might give me a better sense of the nation's cinematic culture.

Here's an untranslated trailer that gives some of the flavor of Pizza, Beer and Smokes.

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