Monday, October 31, 2011

Philately as self-abuse

Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) 2000 Argentina (114 minutes) written and directed by Fabian Bielinsky.
This Mametesque caper set in Buenos Aires involves a pair of con men trying to sell a counterfeit block of nine rare and valuable postage stamps—the ‘Nine Queens’ of the title—to a wealthy but shady Spanish collector.
First we meet Juan (Gastón Pauls), a friendly, nice-looking young guy, trying to pull a bill-change swindle on homely clerks twice in the same convenience store, before and right after they change shifts. 
Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a con man with big ideas and money problems, happens to be in the store and watches this play go down with amusement as he eats a hot dog. Kid’s stuff, but he likes the kid and needs a partner.
Darin may be best known to the English-speaking world for his starring role in The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), the 2010 Oscar-winning best foreign film from Argentina, in which he played a judge’s clerk haunted by the unsolved brutal murder of a young wife and chagrined by his long unrequited love for the judge’s law clerk.
Juan spends the morning with the older and wiser Marcos, telling stories and bonding as they improvise retail scams strolling through downtown Buenos Aires. In a memorable sequence of shots, Marcos points out more than a dozen different street operators.
Marcos is not popular among his associates in the Buenos Aires underworld. He also has difficulties with his sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice), who leads a straight life climbing a chain hotel management ladder. The fire in Valeria’s eyes comes from her conviction that Marcos cheated her and Federico (Tomás Fonzi), their kid brother who idolizes Marcos, out of their shares in their Italian grandparents’ estate. 
‘Technically, one could say I unilaterally readjusted dividends,’ is the way the self-centered Marcos tries to explain what happened.
Marcos gets an angry midday telephone call from Valeria, who complains that one of his ‘associates’ has embarrassed her by turning up at her place of work looking for Marcos and had a medical emergency. 
The associate, Sandler (Oscar Nuñez), apparently on his last legs, is a master counterfeiter. He gasps to Marcos that he has made ‘mi mejor trabajo’—the masterpiece of his career—a block of nine rare and valuable German Weimar era stamps known as ‘The Nine Queens’. Sandler tells Marcos that he made his copy from a set of originals owned by his wealthy sister Berta (Elsa Berenguer) and believes he can sell the stamps to a guest at the hotel, Esteban Vidal Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal), a wealthy Spanish entrepreneur. But there are some hitches.
Gandolfo appears to be under a kind of house arrest at the hotel awaiting deportation to Venezuela the next day, evidently due to questionable business activities in Argentina. Sandler, a specialist, not a front man, contacts Marcos because he needs a professional he knows to make the sale happen within 24 hours.
Marcos knows that Sandler is asking him only because he is desperate—they have a history—so Marcos makes the ailing old man agree to give him most of the take, and then settles on a fifty-fifty split with Juan. ‘This is something you could wait for your entire life and never happen to you. One in a million,’ he tells Juan more than once.
And then masterpiece gets jacked in broad daylight on the streets.
These are the main moving parts that set in motion this elaborate game of three-card monte. The rest is a wild ride peopled with an entertaining array of character actors: barman Anibal (Jorge Noya), Mrs. Sandler (Celia Juárez), Sandler’s rich sister Berta and her Fabio-like boy toy (Carlos Falcone), Gandolfo and his double dealing ‘stamp expert’ Washington (Alejandro Awada), among others.
 The key to keeping track of which is the red card—or whether there even is one—is not to suspend disbelief for one second from start to finish. For instance, what the devil is a queen doing on Weimar stamps?
It is the kind of story David Mamet might love because it comes down to justice. But Fabian Bielinsky’s screenplay and direction have a Latin lightness, warmth and fun lacking in Mamet’s stylistically muscular forensic architecture.
Justice is served with a garnish au Tarantino (or John Waters) when Juan at last remembers the campy Italian pop tune (Il ballo del mattone/The brick dance) from his childhood that no one he asks throughout the film seems to know.

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