Down and Out in Buenos Aires
Israel Adrián Caetano’s Bolivia manages to both shed light on international hardships and entertain. Shot in 16mm black and white, it explores the experience of being poor and nonwhite in Buenos Aires, while recalling the laconic style of Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise (1984). Though set almost entirely within the confines of a small space—a café—Bolivia is a refreshingly wide-open film, an antidote to current message movies. Call it “hipster humanism.”
Such a subject is usually the basis for documentary or heartrending social drama, but Caetano presents it in the disaffected but keenly observant manner of its protagonist, Fred (Freddy Flores), a poor immigrant from Bolivia who takes an illegal job as a café cook in Buenos Aires. We take in details as he does, via overheard conversations, and with one eye always on the slowly ticking clock above the grill.
Fred is focused on money. He makes 15 pesos a day, plus a share of the tips and free meals. His ears prick up whenever money is even mentioned in the surrounding conversations, and we are cognizant of every peso he earns and spends throughout the film. Ten pesos, for example, goes to make a phone call to his family in Bolivia. After being hassled by the cops for wandering the streets, he spends another peso for a coffee, an excuse to stay in an all night coffee shop, so he can catch a nap. This attention to monetary detail is unusual in any film. Here it works to draw the viewer in to the poor person’s frame of mind.
These moments are powerfully low-key; Fred’s impassivity in the face of this chaos makes us painfully aware of his hopelessness. After a hard day and night of work, he has only four pesos left and a hungry family waiting in another country. His actions and demeanor remain calm and disaffected despite this, which is both heartrending and consoling. Here’s a portrayal of life right on the edge of poverty with no tears, no optimism, no righteous anger, just weary acceptance.
The clientele of the cafe, mostly Argentines, have a similar set of economic woes, which they are less equipped to deal with. Oso (Oscar Bertea) is a coke-addled cabdriver in debt up to his ears, who grouses with pal Marcelo (Marcelo Verdela) about owing money while running up a hundred-peso tab. Oso’s spiraling economic woes epitomize Argentina’s future crises. Even as he complains about his debts and makes empty promises to pay Enrique, Oso orders more and more rounds of beer and food. Enrique eventually refuses to serve him, only to relent later; habits of affluence are hard to break, even in the face of economic depression.
But money is only part of the problem; Fred must also deal with racism. Even before the economic crash, Buenos Aires was a city ringed by vast shantytowns filled with starving “Indian” and non-white populations. (A large portion of Argentina’s middle class is actually from European descent and view native South Americans from both their country and its neighbors with disdain). The film’s opening credits flash by alongside a televised soccer game matching Argentina vs. Bolivia, with the TV announcers praising the home team and deriding Bolivia’s floundering field performance. For a despondent, once economically thriving nation like Argentina, triumphing over its poorer neighbors still offers some small comfort.
Similarly, Oso aims his rage at Fred. The cook is arguably the “poorer” of the two, being a Bolivian immigrant who has left behind a wife and two daughters to slave away at a job that earns him barely enough to survive the night. But he is still better off than Oso, who, though middle-class Argentine and the customer, is trying to maintain his self-esteem through racist bluster and a terminal line of credit with Enrique. Fred can survive at a subsistence level in a way that Oso cannot.
Fred manages in part because he is distracted by Rosa (Rosa Sánchez), the waitress at the café. Their developing relationship incites Marcelo’s jealousy, for he has taken her out a few times. That she chooses Fred humiliates Marcelo, who joins in Oso’s resentment of the cook. At the same time, Fred’s own machismo emerges when he takes Rosa dancing. With a beer in his hand, he becomes an aggressive flirt. Rosa takes him to her hotel where they drunkenly fumble around in a darkened hallway. “What about your family, your daughters?” she asks, pushing him away. “They’re asleep,” he says, then makes another bold advance. Here Fred seems less a bad father or husband than a man resisting his oppressive environment, grasping at momentary happiness.
Caetano is well acquainted with this experience. Born in Uruguay, he moved to Argentina with his family at a young age, feeling like an “outsider” for much of his childhood. He has endured many years of hard-knock life, doing whatever it takes to get by and get his films made. And at last, the positive buzz for Bolivia, his second film, which is only now reaching the United States on its slow festival crawl, suggests Caetano has a future as an indie auteur.
Tellingly, he claims fellow low-budget auteur John Carpenter as a major influence. Like Carpenter, Caetano uses a lack of financing to his benefit; he keeps his camera on the action, and he keeps the action moving. He employs stylistic tricks—such as slow motion—sparingly and effectively, in sole service of his story, which he tells without judging, lecturing, or hand-wringing. Like Fred, Caetano’s film is too strapped for cash to afford the luxury of any moral position. Its low budget keeps it at street level, keenly observing details of experience, without judgmental clutter.