Although he has written and directed only two features, Martín Shanly has developed a distinctive voice in Argentine cinema. His style is low-key, and his character studies showcase troubled heroes. His two films, Juana a los 12 (aka About 12) (2004), and Arturo a los 30 (aka About 30) (2023), portray angst-ridden characters who make bad decisions as they try to escape from their pain.

When asked about his place in Argentine cinema, Shanly aligns himself with “films with depressed stoner characters who speak in voiceover.” He especially loves Martín Rejtman’s Silvia Prieto (2019), and Magic Gloves (2003). He also appreciates the films of Ana Katz, acknowledging, “I find her very funny, and I like the way she shows people.”

Shanly has appeared in a handful of features and shorts as an actor since 2011 before writing and directing his debut, Juana a los 12. Since then, he has been trying to get a second film off the ground, and worked on two projects, one that is still seeking funding, and another, which became Arturo a los 30. 

Arturo a los 30

A charming sad sack comedy, Arturo a los 30 premiered at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival and Shanly won the Best Argentinian Director award at the 2023 BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema) as well as the Audience Choice Award. Shanly also received a Best Actor prize at both the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Film Festival and Torino Film Festival. 

The filmmaker, who cowrote Arturo with Ana Godoy, Federico Lastra, and Victoria Marotta, stars as the hapless title character who is “in a transitional phase.” Arturo is underemployed, single, and depressed, smoking weed and taking pills to manage his emotions. He recounts, in voiceover, what he claims is “possibly the worst day of my life,” which involves attending the wedding of his friend Daphne (Camila Dougall).

Much of the film’s humour stems from Arturo’s awkward experiences, which include arriving late for the wedding ceremony, getting into a car accident (and injured) on the way to the reception, having difficulties getting into the reception, and then encountering his ex at the reception. Arturo’s despair fuels his impulsiveness, and he really gets into trouble behaving inappropriately during a fireworks display at Daphne’s wedding. The incident acts as a catalyst for his future. 

Arturo a los 30

Episodes from Arturo’s life prior to this fateful day are also seen as Arturo a los 30 toggles back and forth in time as the protagonist’s memories are triggered. Arturo has a series of awkward interactions with his family and friends that reveal his character. His frustrated roommate, Nico (Ivanna Colona Olsen) asks him to move out; his younger sister Olivia (Julia Ezcurra) treats him with disdain; and his bestie, Daphne, describes Arturo as a “tsunami”— because he destroys everything in his path. His efforts to improve are really ways of him escaping, or at least postponing, having to grow up and deal with life. Various reasons for this become clear over the course of the film. 

Shanly may be playing a loser, but he makes the vulnerable Arturo oddly endearing as he copes with various humiliations and situations – some of his own making, and some created by others. Shanly spoke with Senses of Cinema about making Arturo a los 30 and his unique way of finding comedy in pain.

– GK

Arturo a los 30 and Juana a los 12 are very similar in tone. What accounts for your approach to these character studies?

I was halfway through making Arturo when I realised I was making the same film twice. They both have a real absence of characters “crossing a threshold.” With Juana, it is more documentary-like than Arturo, which has more formal elements like flashbacks. The films are similar, but they are very opposite experiences in my life. 

You cast your sister in Juana, and yourself in Arturo…

I am 11 years older than her, so she has always been a part of my life. Whenever I had to shoot something for film school, she was my puppet. There was a dynamic where she is very used to me pointing the camera at her. There was a shorthand we used in the film. 

Juana a los 12

Watching Arturo first, I was curious about his sister Olivia, and if this was autobiographical.

Juana was shot 10 or 11 years ago, and my sister just saw the film last year. I don’t think she knew what she was trying out for, and when the film came out, she didn’t take it very well. The sister in Arturo is autobiographical. But when you write a scene, even if it is literally from your life, it becomes a scene. It is no longer your life. It is very therapeutic.  

What prompted you to create and play Arturo? It is very easy to “write what you know,” but are you using your film to examine your own issues? 

I’m sure another actor would have done a better job. I wanted to act – it’s something I’ve done since I was younger – and once I gravitated towards becoming a director, I let that go. I wanted to see if I could do it. And no one else was going to cast me, so I cast myself. The original idea of the film was going to be vignettes of Arturo being a sidekick or companion to another person’s story. He would be there, but the story would revolve around the other character. We started shooting that as a series of short films, and we realised we wouldn’t be able to shoot them all. It involved several years of shooting, and I couldn’t ask an actor to have that degree of commitment, and I wouldn’t be able to find a cheaper actor than myself. So, a lot of things drew me to the decision. I regretted it a lot of times during the process, but I made my peace with it. [Laughs.]

Why did it take you ten years between features?

I was shooting Arturo for the last five years. It took four years to write the script and find the funds. I wrote another script I had hoped to shoot, so I was juggling these two projects. I was supposed to shoot the other one first, but the funding didn’t come through, so as an antidepressant mechanism, I started shooting these vignettes and eventually I got to make Arturo

How close is Arturo to you? You worry me making this film.

[Laughs] With this film I guess I wanted to confront and, in a way, distance myself from the Arturo in me. It’s worth noting that none of the events in the film actually happened to me.

When it comes to [characters like] these screw-ups, we think they are not self-regulating enough, but I think the opposite is true. The pressure is so much that they are paralysed. Arturo realises that he is not that important. He is not into punishing himself for his own problem. 

Arturo a los 30

Arturo is having a very hard time. What can you say was possibly the worst day of your life? 

That’s a good question. Missing flights stresses me out. I don’t think what he describes as “the worst day of his life” is actually “the worst day of his life.” It’s curious how people grab that as a way to describe the film. 

You introduce him this way, and that makes us feel instant empathy for Arturo. 

That’s lovely to hear.  The “fuck-up” archetype resonates a lot with me. I feel that we all internalise the immense and cruel pressure from the outside to be extremely productive, resulting in many people living their lives with a heavy bag of shame that they carry around. Which, in turn, becomes their worst enemy. What has surprised me the most about this experience with the film is how many people from different parts of the world have identified with him.

Watching how Arturo interacts with his friends and family members, he is awkward. We might identify with him and root for him, but we might also judge him. His friends and family seem to have only so much patience for him. What observations do you have about this?

It’s not that people are assholes treating him badly. Arturo is more of a passive witness to everything. He’s not defending himself. He is just doing his best. There is genuine concern from his surrounding friends and family. They are a little fed up with him not finding his path in life. They see him as a lazy person. His family is going through the same [emotions] he is. 

Can you talk about the tone of the film? It is cringe-comedy.

The tone of the film works itself in a very unconscious way. Some line readings seem off, and some are funny. We tried to be specific about where you are going. There was no casting process. Almost everyone in the film is close to me, and the characters were written specifically for them. I wrote things that made me giggle when I thought about that person doing that – like the first woman to cross the highway or passing Covid to everyone in the car. She is my friend and that is something she would have done. She is not very good at measuring the consequences of her actions, so I put her in that situation. It made me laugh and that’s the tone – what tickles me.

The humour in the film is very awkward, with amusing moments of deadpan absurdism, melancholic scenes, sight gags, physical comedy, as well as embarrassment humour. Your jokes are not vulgar, even when you have a fellatio scene. Your performance is terrifically gawky; Arturo is not comfortable in his own skin. Why do you create humour out of suffering?

There is something about someone making an effort to avoid reality, or something that is tangibly happening and other people pretending it is not happening – I find that hilarious. Or people taking things more seriously than they are supposed to. That makes me laugh. The fellatio scene – the embarrassment of [Arturo] made that easy to act. Otherwise, it would have been the most uncomfortable thing to do in the world – which it was – but his embarrassment protected me. You have another mission in the scene to not perceive reality as it is. 

Arturo is almost always the focus of the humour in the film because he’s the butt of the joke or reacting to something someone else is doing or saying.

I gave myself a whole spectrum of things to play, such as clumsy physical stuff. I wanted to play with as many crayons as I could. The whole cast is very funny, and even though I wrote everything for them, they surprised me and surpassed my expectations. 

Why make a comedy? 

The shame is the inspiration for the idea. When someone is too serious in a situation, making it a comedy makes it lighter, and manageable. I like the therapeutic aspect, and I like to laugh. So, the idea was to make a comedy and embrace the genre more than I did in Juana. I wanted to lean in harder to the comedy aspect and not shy away from it as if it were a dirty thing.

As the film started and Arturo recounted some of his past relationships with women, I thought this was just another hopeless straight guy mooning over his ex-girlfriends. But the film turns around the midpoint, and it is revealed that Arturo is either bi or gay. He is still broken-hearted about his ex-boyfriend, Voldemort (Pedro Merlo), despite having been apart longer than they were together. Can you talk about burying this lead, and having Arturo’s sexuality revealed in the way it does?

I didn’t think about that, but it’s nice. I didn’t like the idea of his gayness being imposed from the beginning – “This is a story about a gay man.” I like that you get to know him, and then that aspect appears when it needs to. It wasn’t conscious. I didn’t find a reason to introduce it before it is [revealed]. I like discovering things about people as you go along in a film, and I like it when you are surprised by people. It’s not a character playing the whole note. Halfway through, you find out [Arturo is gay], and it is not important that the character is gay. But it wasn’t a conscious choice to create a “mystery.” Having done it, I understand why I did it.

Arturo a los 30

But that appealed to me. I thought, is Arturo not accepted, or not accepting himself because he is gay? As we see him with Voldemort or the waiter he hooks up with at Daphne’s wedding, we feel his despair. 

It helps to do those really humiliating things in those scenes. They are important to the story, but they were hell to shoot. Fortunately, the guys were really supportive. 

Your approach to telling Arturo’s story is layered as there are various points of view. Arturo recounts “possibly the worst day of his life” in voiceover, for a notebook he is writing. His past relationship with Majo (Paula Ginszpan) is the basis for a scene in a play she is staging. And Arturo can’t quite remember what exactly happened at Daphne’s wedding when he embarrassed himself, making him an unreliable narrator. Can you talk about your approach to the storytelling?

It’s more like Arturo doesn’t want to remember. The structure of the film was something that happened over time. The notebook idea came after shooting half of the film. We started shooting the vignette idea – the short films of Arturo as a sidekick of another character – and there came a point where I realised that the passing of time was tangible. You could see kids growing, and him getting fat, so there was this idea of capitalising on it rather than making it pass as if it happened all in a week. The wedding was the final vignette. We threw half the script away and the last episode [the wedding] became the anchor in the present day from which the other vignettes would emerge. 

The editing is very effective as you cut away from scenes at dramatic moments, and you toggle back and forth in time showing Arturo’s memories. which forces viewers to piece the story together because the timeline is jagged. What decisions did you make about the editing, selection, and juxtaposing of past and present moments from Arturo’s life?

I liked the idea of: When do we go to the past? What happens that triggers that? So we put in little cliffhangers and put him in dangerous situations, so that the danger becomes more internal as the film goes on. This adrenaline rush becomes unbearable, so we go to an arbitrary moment from the past. 

Arturo claims he is in a “transitional phase.” He suffers from a case of arrested development. We learn about a trauma in his past that probably impacted him, but his character is hapless. Can you talk about this man-child, who doesn’t want to grow up and treats himself and his friends poorly? 

I do think there is something about the trauma [in his past] that makes him reluctant to grow up. In his head, that means leaving [the past] behind. I like the comedy of him being a man-child, but there is also the idea that even though everything is funny, it comes from a painful place. I like showing that aspect. As time goes by, it’s less easy to shrug it off. The outside world starts to reflect his reality and his running away. That is why he is getting more isolated as time goes by. He can’t face a mirror. I like that and relate to that – running away from your shadow and isolating yourself.

His malaise feels very authentic, and Arturo medicates himself with drugs and pills. Can you talk about this and how Arturo copes with his depression?

There is a lot of internalising blame for something that happened. As I showed the film in different parts of the world, I realised that. I thought it was a nice Argentinian thing, and something that I was experiencing on my own, and it brought me shame. I was surprised at how many people relate to him, his situation, and his feelings of uncertainty. There is something very human about blaming yourself for the cards you are dealt, and it think Arturo does that, he copes with a lot of shame. I think the ending is optimistic because that heavy coat of shame is lifted because of the context.

At the end of the film, Arturo says he feels liberated even though he is “in purgatory.” There is a fantastic closing shot that magnifies his isolation. Is there hope for him? 

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think he’s trying for the first time at the end, and for him, that’s a lot. But I don’t know. There is a teeny tiny growth, but I don’t know. [Laughs.]

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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