A murder mystery, a society on the brink: Death in Buenos Aires is Natalia Meta's commentary on '80s Argentina
Death In Buenos Aires opens with the face of a beautiful young man sitting at the edge of a luxurious bed. Just behind him, soaked in blood, yet peacefully dead, is a man of Argentinian high society.
'Killing Time' is a fortnightly column on murder mysteries from around the world.
Death In Buenos Aires opens with the face of a beautiful young man sitting at the edge of a luxurious bed. Just behind him, soaked in blood, yet peacefully dead, is a man of Argentinian high society. It so happens that he was gay. Inspector Chavez and his partner Officer Dolores Petric arrive at the scene. The beautiful young man, we are told, is Officer Gomez, who found the body. He insists on helping with the case, and soon becomes ‘el ganso’ (the goose) who is sent to mingle with a suspect to find leads.
Using the murder investigation as the lens, director and co-writer Natalia Meta takes us back to 1980s Argentina — a country navigating its volatile democracy, a judiciary that parties with the rich, a society uncomfortable with its sexual mores being challenged, and a world where death is treated with nonchalance. This world is as dark as its colourful, and Meta brings it to life with sharp wit and dark humour.
Chavez — played with commitment by Demian Bichir — is a homophobe, who hides behind his hypermasculine demeanour to repress his homoerotic desires. The film never stops making us see this — in ways obvious as well as subtle. He uses the word ‘f*g’ with derision, landing with a thud every time he says it. He gets into a bar-fight out of nowhere. He calls someone a ‘cry baby'. Chavez isn’t alone, though. His homophobia is simply a reflection of nearly everyone around him. “They killed another f*g,” he tells his wife, who doesn't so much as flinch. “Remember the parent-teacher meeting tomorrow,” is all she has to say. “We knew he’d end up like this," says a judge about the victim’s manner of death. So there!
In the beginning, we see Chavez violently trying to assert his straightness. And then, one fine moment, his cover begins to unravel, and he gives into his desire for Officer Gomez, played by Chino Darín, who looks perfect from every angle. We see this clearly in the scene where Chavez takes Gomez to buy him a suit. The latter struggles to knot his tie, and Chavez comes to his rescue — as if accepting his gayness, while still retaining his hypermasculine position as the ‘real man’ in this exchange.
Throughout the film, Meta uses Chavez’s smoking habit as a metaphor for his queerness. We see him light a cigarette, take 1-2 drags and throw it away almost instantly. He wants to smoke but doesn’t. Just like he is attracted to Gomez but isn’t. The film doesn’t concern itself with ‘love’ or any such thing; all it wants to show is the raw desire that feels so right that Chavez can be easily distracted from seeing the obvious. In a first viewing, Chavez’s arc can be perplexing. Perhaps, so is the process of understanding oneself.
The sexual undercurrents of Death In Buenos Aires don’t take away from the strong social and political commentary it makes. Each character tells us something about the milieu the film is set in. Judge Morales, who speaks on “behalf of the family”, embodies the hand-in-glove relationship between the justice system and the country’s rich. The system doesn’t even allow Chavez to investigate the victim’s sister — “I’ll keep that mind,” Morales replies, when pointed out that she has the most to gain from the victim’s death.
Commissioner Sanfilippo represents the incompetence and disregard for justice. He snorts drugs at his office desk and doesn’t so much as remember that one of his cops has been dead for years. Mónica Antonópulos as Officer Dolores Petric is relegated to a gendered role in the police department. She stitches buttons, folds clothes, seduces witnesses, but isn’t more than a ‘woman’ in the team.
In presenting this world, Meta is clear that she doesn’t want to judge. The queer culture of 1980s Argentina is painted with an almost admiring quality. She even presents Chavez’s own internal conflict without judgment. In fact, when we see the Commissioner doing drugs in his office, he is taking a dig at the Judge about ‘justice’. An individual is but a cog in the wheel of a corrupt system, oiled by the rich.
For a murder mystery, Death in Buenos Aires is an incredibly beautiful film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Pulpeiro lets us dwell in the grandeur and beauty of the rich neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. There is a short sequence with horses that is as surreal as it’s captivating. We first see the horses in an air-conditioned building. We then see them transported by road — each frame peppered with large statues of men on horses, almost as if Meta wants us to think of the horses themselves as symbolic of the ruling class. Just after, we see the horses galloping through the streets of the city in the din of the night. Soon enough, one of the horses is lying upside down on the medical examiner’s table.
As if these arresting visuals alone aren't enough to hook the viewer, Meta puts sound to work, and sometimes the lack of it. The silences that fill Death In Buenos Aires are the most beautiful. Take this scene for instance: Immediately after the murder, we see Officer Gomez walk down a dark flight of stairs, lit only by the police vehicles. The rhythm of the blinking lights almost tricks us into thinking that it is a replacement for sound, until music comes along.
What I love about Natalia Meta’s Death In Buenos Aires is how clever the writing and filmmaking is, even if the mystery itself is pretty straightforward. Take the way the film uses power cuts, apparently very common during the time, to underscore dramatic highs and lows. Keep an eye out for the closing shot of the film to see what I mean.
One reason you should absolutely watch this film: Visual craft.
Where to watch: Netflix.
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