Argentine movies trade high gloss for introspection

The Gaumont Theater in downtown Buenos Aires has become a virtual classroom for modern Argentine history. The marquee says it all. Now showing: "Memoria del Saqueo" ("Memory of a Robbery"), a forensic deconstruction of Argentina's history since the 1976 coup; "Nietos" ("Grandchildren"), about the lives of babies kidnapped by the military government and put up for illegal adoption; and "El Tren Blanco" ("The White Train"), a documentary that looks at the lives of people forced to sort through rubbish after losing their jobs.

These documentaries and gritty dramas are a far cry from the 1990s, when movies reflected Argentina's carefree spending days, dazzling viewers with the latest high-gloss special effects.

Today's sober Argentine cinema has traded escapism for self-examination. Many new movies here - along with a slew of new books and lively debates in newspapers - reveal a more introspective society, one coming to terms with one of the most traumatic periods in its history, when the population rose up against the political class 2-1/2 years ago, forcing presidents from office as the economy went into a tailspin.

"For most of the 1990s, when there was the success of the [free-market] economic model, all that directors dreamed about doing was fictional cinema, with the latest technology," says acclaimed filmmaker Fernando Solanas, who directed "Memoria del Saqueo." Mr. Solanas made his name as a documentarian in the 1960s, but by the 1990s was making dramas. He sees his return to documentaries as a response to the crisis of 2001. "I feel the need to reflect on our historical memory," he says.

The Argentina of today is very different from that of the 1990s, dominated by neoliberal"orthodoxy - privatization and tighter fiscal policy - which tantalized the country with the possibility of joining the ranks of developed nations. That changed at the end of 2001, when a succession of five presidents came and went, and the country teetered on the brink of collapse under the weight of its massive debt load.

Now that Argentina is getting back on its feet, pop culture is trying to make sense of what went wrong and where to go from here. "In the early 1990s we had a cinema that did not speak to Argentines' reality in any way," says Javier Porta Fouz, a film critic with the magazine El Amante. "Now there is an Argentine cinema that looks at Argentine reality."

The current intellectual climate has also changed dramatically. In Buenos Aires, the 1990s are remembered as the "pizza and champagne" years, as everyone scrambled to enjoy the good life.

During that decade "the field of ideological discussion was abandoned. There existed a general impression that there was only one truth in politics, economics, and philosophy," notes Hugo Caligaris, an editor at La Nación newspaper.

But this "one truth" - market-based economics - and in particular Argentina's application of it, had flaws. They were brutally exposed by a series of external shocks, starting with the Asian financial crisis in 1997, which by 1998 had pitched the country into recession and started it on the road to political and economic meltdown in December 2001.

Now there is a sense of ideas and orthodoxies being open for debate. President Nestor Kirchner, about to celebrate one year in office, regularly attacks big business, and Argentine officials now have an icy relationship with their former mentors at the International Monetary Fund, which had Argentina on a tight fiscal leash. Many again talk of Argentina finding its own path, recalling the ambitions of former strongman Juan Perón, who sought to steer a course between communism and US capitalism in the early cold war.

La Nación is in the midst of "Intellectuals and the Country Today." a series of interviews with leading thinkers from across Argentina's political, social, and economic spectrum. It is generating debate and controversy since it started last August. The series kicked off by interviewing Juan José Sebreli, one of Argentina's bestselling political thinkers. His most recent book, "Criticism of Argentine Political Ideas," appeared less than a year after the crisis of December 2001 and quickly ran through five editions.

"Since the crisis we are seeing the success of books that offer a more profound debate about political and social ideas," says Carolina Schinelli of Editorial Sudamericana, a publishing company.

Jemial Peña, working at the box office at the Gaumont, says he can't remember a time when his theater had so many local documentaries showing at once. Argentines are ready to confront the recent past, he says. "People are interested in what happened," he says.

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