In September 2014, Trapero’s most recent feature film, The Clan – a huge box-office success in Argentina – won the award for best director at the Venice International Film Festival, where, in 1999, the film-maker had screened his first film, Crane World, greeted with great enthusiasm by the critics at the time, which marked him out as one of the most promising directors of his generation. The film won the Anicaflash Prize and Trapero received the Italian Cult Network award for best director.
Crane World was seen as a kind of South American late re-reading of neorealism, an Italian film movement highly influential internationally, whose repercussions can still be felt today. In this, his first—and impressive– feature, Trapero weaves together a portrait, at once raw and poetic, of the worker’s world, making the man of the people a solitary hero, in constant conflict with a broken country, devastated by ten years of a Menem government that had been for Argentina what the Second World War was for Italy. Crane World contains a number of features that would be present throughout the director’s work over the next two decades. His films, invariably realist in style, at times almost documentary, portray ordinary people engaged in activities that are at once trivial and extraordinary, since, in some way, they denounce the enormous social abyss and recurrent social injustices in contemporary Argentina. But Trapero’s films are not merely socially engaged and political in nature: they go far beyond this. Thanks to his notable ability to build up complex personalities, the director also turns his films into powerful existential dramas.
One example of this is Zapa, the protagonist of The Other Side of the Law (2004), a young criminal who is forced by circumstances to become a police officer. After getting involved in an incident in his local town, he is sent to the capital Buenos Aires, where he has a chance of starting over, but, although now on the right side of the law, he ends up fulfilling his destiny, which seems to have been written in advance. Another recurrent feature of Trapero’s work is the quest for a cinema of small gestures, in which each part signifies more than the whole and the proximity of the camera to the characters borders on the absurd. This feature has been present since Crane World and appears in a peculiar fashion in the Argentinean director’s third feature, Family on Wheels (2004), his first venture into the realm of comedy.
The plot follows a matriarch who decides to return to Missões, her home town, with her whole family, for the first time since her youth to attend a wedding party. In a trailer mounted on an old Chevrolet Viking 56, where there is room for her children, grandchildren and sons and daughters-in-law, all kinds of repressed feeling come to light, as the family is on the move. Master of a vibrant style, the dramatic tension does not result only from the concatenation of situations, but, above all, from the way each scene is constructed. Trapero’s filmic art emanates from the characters and the relations established between them before his probing camera.
Displacement is also a theme present in Born and Bred (2006), albeit set in a completely different context. Comedy gives way to psychological drama of a much more intimate kind as we accompany the trajectory of the protagonist Santiago, an interior designer, who loses his emotional stability when his reckless driving causes an accident and a family tragedy. Consumed by guilt, he moves to an inhospitable region of Patagonia, in southern Argentina, where he tries to atone for his guilt and flee the past. Once again, the film-maker shows a striking ability not only to use film to express personal points of view, of a social or existential nature, but moreover to plumb the true depths of his characters and express them in a complex fashion using probing camera shots that encourage the audience to unmask the protagonist, whose pain is revealed gradually at a leisurely pace.
In Leonera (2008), Trapero returns to a more social themes, without abandoning intimacy, albeit within a realist aesthetic. The feature film, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Havana Festival, Cuba, follows Julia, a woman arrested under suspicion of having killed her boyfriend in unclear circumstances that may involve the supposed male lover of her partner, who had been leading a double life. If convicted, she may spend many years in jail, but she is pregnant and will be transferred to another wing of the prison, known as Leonera – which is home to the “lionesses”, as inmates who are mothers are called. There she faces the simultaneous challenge of living the symbolic death that is incarceration and becoming a mother. Once again, the intimate nature of Trapero’s cinema makes all the difference, closely involving us in the drama of the protagonist, dissecting her trauma, as he has done with the main characters of other films who are men and women adrift.
In his following feature, Vultures (2010), the director tried his hand at the crime thriller genre, but without relinquishing his trademark political engagement, with subtle plots and characters, that does not stoop to mere pamphleteering. The central theme of the film is the legal damages business that thrives on the thousands of automobile accidents that occur each year in Argentina. The plot centers around the scheming lawyer Sosa, played by the film star Ricardo Darín, who would also feature in Trapero’s next film, the social drama White Elephant (2012).
The presence of this director at FICBIC 2015 sheds a new retrospective light on his important work and invites the audience to reflect on his career and the way in which he builds up characters and settings that transcend the local Argentinean context. The three segments of Trilogy of Light, camera, director and spectator, will breathe new life into Pablo Trapero’s already highly acclaimed work.