Imagining Argentina (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Imagining Argentina was the laughingstock of the 2003 Venice film festival.

Under the right circumstances, I suppose I might enjoy a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas, but in this case, I have to say those Italians are cold. I may be jaded and world-weary, but I think I might be considered perky and ingenuous enough to host a morning talk show in Italy. They were laughing and jeering out loud at this film, and it's a heartfelt tale about human rights abuses in Argentina in the late 70s, specifically about the 30,000 people who simply disappeared without any explanation and without ever having resurfaced. The writer-director, Christopher Hampton, adapted the story from a novel about a children's theatre director (Banderas) whose journalist wife (Thompson, with an Argentine accent) writes about the string of disappearances, and then ends up disappearing herself. The film includes fairly graphic depictions of political torture, including rape.

So why was the audience laughing at such a tragic subject? Two main reasons:

1. Rather than staying within the boundaries of realism, the movie turns the situation into a supernatural genre film when Banderas inexplicably develops the gift of second sight. Many critics felt that the occult gimmick and its attendant problems trivialized a serious subject. Banderas is able to hold seances and tell people what happened to their loved ones who have disappeared. Moreover, the visions were not completely straightforward, but also included confusing and recurring symbolic elements like owls and flamingos and jai-alai players and Don Johnson. Or maybe he was just dreaming of moving to Miami, like all other Latin Americans. At any rate, how wonderful it would be if we all could use our mystical gifts and super-powers to combat evil dictatorships.

2. The audience hooted when they saw Banderas moodily strumming his guitar in scenes intercut with political torture and rape. Present in that audience was David Gritten, a film critic from the UK, who wrote: "There was loud booing, and the Italians love to boo anyway, but this really was the worst I've ever heard. The problem was that Banderas strumming the guitar looked so anti-climactic. Another film with Banderas in it had just been released in Venice, Once Upon A Time In Mexico, in which he plays a guitar-playing mariachi, so it rather looked as if here was El Mariachi again, strolling into this dreadful scene of human rights abuses."

Look, I don't have any problem seeing that the two elements enumerated above ruined the dramatic impact of the film. I can certainly agree with the critics' having written about the film with derision, because I would have done the same. I'm just as cynical as those critics when it comes to an inappropriate use of magical realism, as evidenced by what I wrote ten years ago in "The Scoopian Unities"

"I know they give all kinds of Nobel Prizes to people who write Magical Realism. Now that I've admitted that, if you write a gritty John Steinbeck piece for an hour and a half, and then in the last ten minutes the hero escapes his life by sprouting wings and flying away from the cannery, or if the hero makes the evil slave-driving boss into a nice man by cooking him a meal salted with the workers' tears, I'll have to send your home address to Hannibal Lecter."

Those supernatural elements which may have worked in the novel simply didn't work in this film. Imagining Argentina might have been a pretty good movie without the clairvoyance, because the first few minutes of the film are quite effective, but then Superman showed up from Krypton with his super-powers and made the film totally hokey.

I've also made the point many times that a serious subject should not automatically guarantee podium time at award season. Just because you write about AIDS or the holocaust or the political torture of children, you don't get a "get out of criticism free" card. The critics should  be praised for managing to refrain from knee-jerk praise for a film with such weighty themes, and I can certainly understand the harsh words which were written about this film.

But I can't understand booing and jeering at the premiere. C'mon, this wasn't an ego project like Swept Away. The director is a filmmaker who tried to make a compassionate movie, but simply failed in artistic judgment. In addition to the director, Emma Thompson was in that audience. She produced this film, believed in it, and threw her life and reputation into it. She didn't do that for the money, but because she felt the film had something important to say.

And I certainly can't understand laughter while people are being tortured and a little girl is being raped, no matter how badly the director fucked up the editing.

As I said, those Italians are some cold-ass mofos.



  • No features
  • the transfer is widescreen, anamorphically enhanced, and looks great!



Emma Thompson exposes her right breast in a sex scene with Antonio Banderas.

The Critics Vote ...

  • BBC 2/5

The People Vote ...

  • No theatrical release in the USA
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C-. Despite the derision it received at Venice, it is not an abomination. Many people find it touching, and it is rated a respectable 6.0 at IMDb. It is a heartfelt and well-intentioned film which simply exhibits some dreadful lapses in artistic judgment.

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