Tuesday, August 24, 2010

104. The late Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky’s “El Aura” (The Aura) (2005): A mind–bending thriller that takes you beyond guns, women and lucre

Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky (1959-2006) died months after making The Aura following a heart attack at the age of 47. The Aura was his second feature film. His first feature film was Nine Queens. Incredibly, the two feature films together have picked up at least 30 awards worldwide.

If Bielinsky were alive and making movies, he could well have been the toast of cineastes today. But most of all, Bielinsky’s two movie career is unusual because both films were based his own original screenplays, not a mere adaptation of a novel, story, or play and not even based on actual events. I stumbled on these two interesting films at a minor film festival amongst some 50 odd international films on show, organized in Trivandrum, India, the organizers of which did not realize what they had inadvertently accomplished! They were showing a Bielinsky retrospective without trumpeting that fact.

While Nine Queens, the first feature film of Bielinsky, recalls the humour and thrills of the original The Italian Job (1969) with Michael Caine and Noel Coward that took a swipe at the emerging civic problem of traffic jams, Bielinsky’s script captured the cancer of Argentine societal malaise of scams with a twinkle in his eye. Here was a thriller that entertained not just Argentinean audiences but festival audiences worldwide, while it dissected the cadaver of the social maggots of Argentina on the sly. (The title, Nine Queens, refers to a set of rare stamps around which the film’s main plot revolves.)

The second Bielinsky film The Aura takes a quantum jump in sophistication of plot development, social criticism, riveting performances, and entertainment that makes films such as Memento look flashy and somewhat juvenile. Both the Bielinsky films have the incredibly talented Argentine actor Ricardo Darin, portraying characters that are distinctly different in moods and actions.

The Aura encourages the viewer to turn detective. Bielinsky begins and ends The Aura a psychological noir thriller, a caper, and a epileptic’s take on marriages (his own and another’s) sandwiched between two scenes of a talented taxidermist at work in his studio. Yes, the film is about an epileptic. An epileptic taxidermist, to be precise. What Bielinsky insinuates is that a taxidermist deals with the dead and makes the stuffed animals come alive for us who love to recall the fauna that habits or habited this planet. A taxidermist naturally has to observe the details of the animal or bird and, if possible, imagine their movements and looks, to make his products life-like for us to enjoy in a museum or home. And what if the taxidermist who is trained to work on noting details of life has the gift of a photographic memory to boot? Would such a talented individual be making a living, stuffing dead animal carcasses?

Bielinsky’s The Aura takes you on roller-coaster ride of an animal hunting expedition in the Patagonian forests, dead bodies, man and animal bonding, abuse of wives/women, wives leaving their husbands, thugs who kill for money, talented kids who can draw detailed pictures, and finally planning the perfect crime. Bielinsky’s script has a moralistic vein as well. Early in the film, there is mention of the epileptic taxidermist’s wife leaving him. Yet there is no rancour for the man towards the female species, he actually helps a woman flee a no-win situation of exploitation and fear. For Bielinsky’s complex script the bonding between dog and man is more stable and enduring than that of a man and a woman.

That epilepsy is central to the development of the plot is not without meaning. Bielinsky is not the first creative artist to find the subject useful to weave a great tale: Fyodor Dostoevesky (The Idiot) and Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks) probably lit the path for Bielinsky to tread in this film. An epileptic fit becomes a useful point for the plot to use as reference to the past and future. Belinsky uses the event once early in the film and another much later in the film. And interestingly both events have diametrically opposing roles with time in relation to the plot development. The first event in front of a cash teller machine cannot be easily defined by time in relation to the plot, at least by the time the movie ends. The second event is more finite and seems to fit into the plot. But which is real and which is not? Is an epileptic fit a convenient moment of epiphany for creative novelists and scriptwriters?

Bielinsky does not limit the film to entertainment associated with a heist. Michael Mann’s Heat was a rare Hollywood movie that combined an action movie with complex character developments, marital relationships, and alter egos. Bielinsky’s film goes a step further than Michael Mann’s commendable effort. Bielinsky makes the viewer to rewind the images he has relished earlier in the film to figure out what was real and what was unreal. In fact, the delectable movie provides two distinct story lines parallel to each other. It is left to the viewer to figure out which was real. And you will realize that the director carefully leaves behind clues that could bolster either theory. That’s amazing cinema of a novel variety.

Bielinsky’s cinema seems to mirror the social fabric of Argentina, deliberately or unconsciously. While Nine Queens had looked at scams big and small, The Aura looks at taxidermy where the dead is made to look alive. Social analogies are inferred, though not stated. Crime and easy money seem to be omnipresent in his scripts, though critical of their power over the average citizen. The importance of the life-like eye in the stuffed animal goes beyond verisimilitude in this film. It is a metaphor that becomes evident as the film progresses.

To talk of the plot of The Aura will not do justice to this remarkable film. The bulwark of the film was the almost dead-pan yet sophisticated top notch performance by actor Ricardo Darin. His performance in this film, much superior to a very good one in Nine Queens, combines elements of a sick man, a very quick witted man, a very observant man, and a man who appreciates love and cannot bring himself to pull the trigger to kill even an animal. You think at times that Darin is portraying a dour, colourless character. Yet the ability of the thespian in combining several other aspects of the character without having to shout or cry, which an Al Pacino, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando would resort to, is nothing short of amazing. It is as much an actor’s film as it is a director’s film.

Similarly, several other facets of the film are extremely praiseworthy. One such facet is the music of Lucio Godoy that provides an excellent foil to build the mood as the plot develops. The director ensures that the lovely music does not occupy the centre stage at any point. The cinematography (Checco Varese) and the art direction (Mercedes Alfonsin) are elements that are so crucial in making the film so meaningful and complete. Each detail shown in the film provides clues for the viewer to decide which of the two equally radical options the film offers is to be chosen as the real tale.

At a stage when Argentine cinema is making waves having won the 2010 Best Foreign Film Oscar for another Argentine film with Ricardo Darin titled The Secret in Their Eyes, the absence of Bielinsky is unfortunate. Had Bielinsky been alive today, world cinema would have been richer for it, especially as he seemed to be a director, like Krzysztof Kieslowski, rapidly honing his skills with each film.


Maxi said...

now in my wish list .. 9 queens is superb

Callezee said...

Your passion for not cinemas, but appraising the directors is highly appreciatable. Good post of films, I have book marked your post

rahul m said...

this is fantastic movie,very moody atmospheric thriller cum character study ,i think melville would have been proud to c it,

nd ur review is also good ,sadly director died so soon only at 47 but he has made 2 gems which movie lovers all over the world ll never forget