The canon shouldn’t be put behind glass in a museum. I’m interested in the idea of opening up canonical figures – we should be dealing with them as our contemporaries. (1)
– Matías Piñeiro
The first of five films to date from Argentinian wunderkind Matías Piñeiro, The Stolen Man (El Hombre Robado, 2007) documents a few days in the life of two Buenos Aires museum attendants, Mercèdes Montt (María Villar) and Leticia (Romina Paula). Opening in media res with an unnamed museum employee in conversation with an out-of-frame interlocutor, the film is immediately reminiscent of those of Piñeiro’s Argentine coeval Frederico Léon, who also eschews the contextual scene setting that viewers have come to expect from mainstream cinema. Thrown floundering into the current of the film, the viewer nevertheless ascertains that two Buenos Aires museums are conducting oral refresher tests for their attendants and tour guides, and Mercèdes has just successfully completed hers. For Leticia, on the other hand, the test still looms and in preparation she is memorising the writings of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, intellectual and past president of Argentina, and namesake of the museum in which she works.
Mercèdes serves as a complex foil to the innocent Leticia. Trying to entice her friend away from study, Mercèdes advises, “It’s not a big deal; you can make up a little bit; you don’t have to learn it by heart.” It is with these sorts of self-serving platitudes that Mercèdes skips through the film, carefree and gregarious. Taking advantage of her position at the museum, she steals exhibits and pawns them for cash, replacing them with cheap fakes. Perhaps on account of her sunny disposition, the viewer is encouraged to excuse her peccadillos until, towards the end of the film, her true capacity for duplicity is revealed.
Written and acted in Rioplatense Spanish dialect, heavy on dialogue and recited text, the film asks non-Spanish-speaking viewers to strike a delicate attentive balance between digesting the subtitles and remaining receptive to the visual and aural metre of the film. Resisting the temptation of the written text, what Piñeiro has called “a cinema of subtitles,” (2) is essential to experiencing the seductive rhythm that this film expresses outside of its words – in the clatter of women’s shoes on cobblestones and marble, the pitching pace of a tracking shot, the interjection of a car horn. For Piñeiro the most important quality of cinema is rhythm, and at its altar he willingly sacrifices narrative transparency and coherence. He has said: “The confusion is part of a strategy mostly. There’s a rhythm that has to be sustained and that shouldn’t be obstructed by the need to understand everything.” (3) A measure of disorientation is desirable, just enough that the audience surrenders to the experiential undertow of the film. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” Piñeiro seems to be saying, “just come along for the ride.”
What a ride it is too – not only rich and enjoyable in its own right, the film is a useful entrée into Piñeiro’s subsequent work. Perhaps most importantly, The Stolen Man prefaces Piñeiro’s decade-long cinematic troubling of the boundary between the original and the re-enactment, the real and the simulated, the authentic and the counterfeit. Obsessed by the disjunctions between the textual object and its performance, it is in The Stolen Man that Piñeiro first has his actors playing actors, rehearsing and reciting passages out loud – something he will return to in his later films.
Mercèdes and Leticia read out sections of Facundo and Campaña en el Ejército Grande, historically significant works penned by Sarmiento in 1845 and 1852. Whilst the political implications of the texts are arguably of only marginal significance to the film, it is the performativity that deserves consideration. In the young women’s recitations, history is revivified and re-contextualised, presented in the life of two of Sarmiento’s compatriots a century and a half later. In these speeches, delivered in sunny patios and gardens, the two women reclaim this important Argentinian historical figure from the institutions that would have him moulder in their dusty archives. Similarly this might be the basis on which Mercèdes’ pilfering could be justified – if the significant historical artefacts are not being seen by anyone in the museum then they ought to be returned to circulation in the outside world.
Aesthetically too the film prefers natural lighting and the outdoors. Even the rare interior shots are often marked by the presence of a sun-dappled window in the background, reminding the viewer of all the beauty that lies outside of the four walls. Indeed it is the plein air scenes of Mercèdes walking around Buenos Aires that are the most captivating of the film. Fernando Lockett’s grainy 16mm black-and-white cinematography captures the textural lushness of the vegetation in the city gardens and accentuates the architectural chiaroscuro of the colonial buildings. Most memorable is the first time Mercèdes emerges from the darkness of the museum entry into the bright sunlight, her face momentarily illuminated against a pure black backing and framed by the camera in Piñeiro’s own refiguration of seventeenth century Dutch portraiture. History, art and architecture, the film might be heard to say, should be liberated from museums and meaningfully enwoven into the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants. In this mode the film feels like a paean to Buenos Aires, Piñeiro’s spiritual home and the place to which he still returns to make films even after relocating to North America.
If, as some critics have suggested, Piñeiro’s films can all be viewed as contributing to the one project, then The Stolen Man sets the scene for what is to come. Equal parts challenging and delightful, the film is a logical entry point into the career of this important practitioner of the new Argentine cinema.
1. Matías Piñeiro in Clinton Krute, “Matías Piñeiro,” BOMB 124 (Summer 2013), http://bombmagazine.org/article/7203/mat-as-pi-eiro
2. Matías Piñeiro in Maximiliano Cruz and Gonzalo de Pedro, “As You Like It: Interview to Matías Piñeiro” [sic] in Sandra Gómez and Maximiliano Cruz (eds), Matías Piñeiro: Los Juegos del Tiempo/The Plays of Time (Interior Trece: Mexico City, 2014), p. 85.
3. Matías Piñeiro in Viovanni Marchini Camia, “Film Interview: Matías Piñeiro, Shakespeare in Buenos Aires,” BOMB (10 October 2014), http://bombmagazine.org/article/1000270/mat-as-pi-eiro
El Hombre Robado (The Stolen Man 2007 Argentina 91 min)
Prod Co: Universidad del Cine, El Pampero Cine and Revólver Films Prod: Pablo Chernov Dir: Matías Piñeiro Scr: Matías Piñeiro Phot: Fernando Lockett Ed: Alejo Moguillansky Mus: Daniela Ale and Hernán Hevia
Cast: Ana Cambre, Francisco García Faure, Daniel Gilman Calderón, Sabrina Korn, Nicolas Malusardi, Julia Martínez Rubio, Romina Paula, Alejandro Sirkin, María Villar.