I found this essay online and proceeded to translate it. It’s probably longer than it needs to be, but I dig it. Hopefully you will too. There aren’t many good images of the film in question online, so I give you fillers also. Spoilers are marked, but I’d still recommend to watch the film first and then read this essay.
The Question of Oblivion: Agresti and the Disappeared
By Lior Zylberman
Political cinema is generally approached under certain parameters: denunciation; provocation or agitation in favor of a given ideology; or as taking a stand with regards to a specific issue or event. It has also been analyzed within the relation of history and cinema; that is as historic cinema. In general, its initiatives have undertaken diverse methods of production and varied genres—from classic drama, melodrama and comedy to documentary and even Neorealist and experimental aesthetics. In all, political cinema has been constructed in multiple shapes and genres.
Consequently, we set ourselves to analyze a film that remains on the margins of these sorts of approaches, or that may not even be considered if we think of new kinds of political cinema.
The film in question uses irony, anachronism, metaphor, allegory and satire. It is a clear exponent of a certain poetics of rupture—a rupture that makes possible the critical stand and the denunciation that it undertakes. It manages to mimic them within the genre it adopts and also question that genre. At the same time, that process of mimicry offers it the tools to smuggle in the event it reveals and devastate the genre it chose to use. All that established, the film to be analyzed is Alejandro Agresti’s The Act in Question.
The director as smuggler—politics in genre smuggling
In his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, Scorsese imposes a rather non-academic category: “The director as smuggler”. This kind of filmmaker uses common themes and stories to establish profound social criticism and sensitive elements that remain hidden in the underbelly of society. That way, a director can speak the unspeakable. Although Agresti is not necessarily in tune with the directors Scorsese thinks of, the character of the smuggler […] is useful.
Agresti’s career has been somewhat erratic. He started in Argentina and later, towards the end of the 1980s, he continued it in the Netherlands, making Argentina-themed films and even filming them in Argentina, as well as Netherlands-based films or spoken in English ( Modern Crimes, 1992) or in Dutch ( Just Friends, 1992). The Act in Question was made in the Netherlands, spoken in Spanish—it’s the last film Agresti would make there before returning to Argentina.
After films like A Night with Sabrina Love (2000) and Valentín (2002), Agresti continued his career in the United States. However, his accomplishments must not be underestimated—many consider him the “father” of the New Wave of Argentine Cinema, since he opened the doors to production in the early 1990s. His filmography is diverse and uneven, but his first few films reference those who disappeared during the last dictatorship [1976-1983]. One time and again, starting with Love Is a Fat Woman (1987) until Buenos Aires Vice Versa (1996), and including Secret Wedding (1989), Agresti tried to approach the subject in a symbolic, metaphoric and allegorical manner. He will wait until A Less Bad World (2004) to do it directly and explicitly, and it will, in fact, be one of his weakest films.
Thus, Agresti makes The Act in Question after a while dealing with the subject […]. The Act in Question, made in 1993, will use allegory and metaphor to transform the film into one about the disappeared and the repression in Argentina during the dictatorship. The fact that Agresti belonged to an intermediate generation (he was born in 1961, so he was a teen when the dictatorship started) also pushed him to explore different cinematic ways to approach the recent past.
Before proceeding with the analysis, we want to succinctly present two theoretical trends that have allowed us to confirm this film’s place under the historic cinema category. Robert Rosenstone has established that films, when dealing with historic themes, carry on an interpretation of the past. This means that a film is not a history book, but that films interpret the past like a historian would. Notwithstanding the differences and specifics that audiovisual media have in contrast to written or oral works, cinema may hold a key to find new ways to express our relationship with the past (Rosenstone, 1997). When Rosenstone analyzes a film like Walker (Alex Cox, 1987), he allows us to present our own current work. In that film—conceived by its author as a postmodern reading of history—, we see a series of anachronisms that allow different readings and interpretations, as well as to establish continuities between the past and the present. As it narrates, interprets and contextualizes in symbolic and metaphoric ways, the film arrives at historic truths. All this should, ultimately, raise questions about the past.
When he thinks of cinema as a source or interpreter or history, Rosenstone often quotes Hayden White. His theory of tropes can well be applied to cinema (White, 2001). Thus, we could say that the formal presentation of the story is akin to classic cinema, to the narrative (and, in this case, the denunciation) that is sustained by the genre itself. But historians also use elements of literature to write history. Hayden White mentions that history can be written from an ironic, and even satiric, point of view. Therefore, along the lines of Rosenstone and White, we believe that The Act in Question can be read as a historic film—not just as comedy or drama.
The Act in Question effectively combines magic realism with genres typical of Hollywood’s 30s and 40s, in terms of photography and visual texture. This includes not just the quality of black and white, but also the costumes and production design. Magic is filtered in along the real and quotidian threads; Quiroga’s act in question breaks into the story in mundane fashion. However, from the beginning the film is laid out as a great dollhouse, not as a reference to Ibsen, but in a literal and ludic sense.
The film is also a playful display of forms, lights, shadows, ornament and camera movement. The act in question itself—the disappearance of objects and persons—are reminiscent of Méliés’ tricks. The pension house where Quiroga spends the first sequences of the film are but a great feat of set decoration, which we are able to contemplate in a traveling shot backwards in a later scene: a large construction becomes visible, which, through a cross-dissolve, is likened to the small doll house owned by Rogelio (Lorenzo Quinteros), the chronicler and doll craftsman.
Also, Agresti uses jump cuts and speed alterations to recreate film newsreels, overlaps of the doll’s eyes to empathize with Miguel when he does his trick for the first time, and even the choice of music [is playful]: a range that goes from a chamber ensemble to Les Luthiers, with a Kurt Weil-like version of Luis Alberto Spinetta’s “La montaña (The Mountain)” in between, when he introduces Sylvie (Nathalie Alonso Casale), the cabaret singer who becomes Miguel’s last wife. Agresti’s arsenal includes more resources, but that is beyond the point. What we hope to do is reinforce the idea of a prevailing playfulness in the whole film, the fluid and regular introduction of singular elements and forms.
However, this film’s uniqueness is not just due to its formalism, but also because it hits the spot with a subject matter that is one of the most controversial and difficult to explore in Argentinean cinema. Many films have tried to explore it seriously , but Agresti does it through a great metaphor, obscuring his true motives—in all, smuggling—, and that makes the impact even stronger.
As previously stated, The Act in Question was filmed during Agresti’s Dutch period, with Argentinean actors and in the Spanish language. Agresti preceded by ten years the “memory boom” and the exploration of the last Argentinean dictatorship’s repressive genocide.
What does the story tell? [SPOILERS ALERT] The story is centered on the rise and fall of Miguel Quiroga, a book stealer who one day encounters a book about magic and the occult, which teaches him about “the act in question”, a trick that allows him to disappear things. He quickly becomes famous and later travels the world with his magic trick, trying it on different objects and, eventually, in people. His relation to books also changes inversely: he will no longer enjoy reading, but (like a censor) becomes obsessed with books; no one should find out about the existence of the book that originates the act. He will search books and libraries everywhere, even burning some of the former, an event which dictatorships typically use to attack culture […]. Miguel becomes authoritarian and intolerant; he goes so far as to dismissively exclaim, when he sees people reading, “what do they hope to find in books?” When he talks about books with Natalio, his butler, Miguel becomes nervous and angry. Throughout the film he transforms into a kind of dictator, an authoritarian person who, believing himself the possessor of exceptional power, can decide on the fate of others. At some point, he will restrain his wife, Sylvie, from enjoying the act of reading. He will prohibit not just reading, but also thinking about books. [MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD] Finally, it all ends when his manager obtains the rights to the original book, reedits it and distributes it for sale, thus betraying and ruining Quiroga.
Although the film starts in present tense, as it progresses we can tell the story is told in a past tense by Rogelio, Miguel’s brother and a craftsman of dolls and marionettes. He is the puppeteer of this story. The film’s anachronisms are elaborated in a different way than Cox’s Walker. Here, the recreation of the period remains “stable” throughout the film: it references recognizable places —“I work at Gath and Chaves”, says Azucena (Mirta Busnelli)— and the costumes are appropriate to those time frames. In this way, the political thesis is constructed around the ironic winks, the allegories and the metaphors.
What could be the relation between this tragicomedy and the last Argentinean military dictatorship? What is hidden inside it? Many scenes shed light and make the debate possible. A political reading happens in a refined level, with preference to those winks mentioned above. [POSSIBLE SPOILERS DURING THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] When Quiroga’s career starts in the circus, we already anticipate the possibility of disappearing human beings. When he feels pressured by his boss [and later manager] Amílcar (Sergio Poves Campos), he threatens him. The boss replies if he will make him disappear too, and Quiroga responds that it is not a bad idea. In another scene, when he tries the act for the first time in a human, a kid, Rogelio narrates in voice over and warns that making a human disappear is not “something to screw around with”. It is in this moment when Quiroga’s power becomes a weapon, especially because he is unable to bring the child back. After this incident, Quiroga escapes and remains hidden for two years, dedicating his time to write under the pseudonym “Jacques Lacan”. During this time he becomes involved with matters of faith, God, and the Church. At first he wonders how he can confess what he has done, but he will finally find solace in God. Still in hiding, he writes a letter to God, thus establishing a perfect allegory to the relationship dictatorship/disappearance. While he prays and writes his letter, he boasts about his capacity of disappearing whatever he wants. Also, he realizes that, in truth, this power did not come from a book, but that it was God who gave him the formula, turning him into a “prophet of the anti materialist message”. He finishes his letter reflecting: “Why can everything be disappeared so easily? Where does everything go when it disappears?” Only then does he understand that “disappearing things is nothing; forgetting is the real issue”. In this scene, Agresti smuggles the religious justification of the typical military discourse, while filtering in his own point of view. Later, the scene where Amílcar —now turned into Quiroga’s manager— gives a press conference is a reference to the traditional statements by human rights organizations. Although the action takes place in the 1940s, someone among the crowd of angry journalists screams: “Reappear the living!” With this phrase, Agresti’s intentions become evident. The film turns towards the political while remaining in tune. The Act in Question, unlike traditional Argentinean cinema, is a political allegory. Here, the political is refined and subtle, without simplistic moralizing. Two years later, Quiroga learns how to make people reappear. From then on, his fame will become global and his act will draw large crowds. In Spain, a journalist questions him and Quiroga states that his trick is not such a thing, but “a process”, a clear reference to the National Reorganization Process. Winking to the camera, he underlines the dialogue, going from medium shot to a close up, and says that he is the only one who can make people disappear in Argentina… “for now”. Once married to Sylvie, world famous, 114 prison inmate disappearances under his belt and having refused Hitler the proposal to disappear “six million orphans”, Quiroga lives in a small palace with his wife. There, he categorically prohibits any type of reading (“no one should read”) and even keeps her confined in the house, like any detention center, chained to the floor, feeding her by leaving plates near her. After insulting and mistreating her, Quiroga prays. This is an important gesture in the film: always after an immoral action, Quiroga searches for God’s forgiveness and acceptance.
Quiroga’s character is ripe for analysis. Under a sympathetic guise, intolerant and even racist traits are revealed. His power, as he says, leads him to madness: “this disappearing thing makes you mad”. This is not intent to justify his actions, but the contrary; a reading of Quiroga’s character is possible through the irresponsible use of such power. We could say that Quiroga possesses the “monopoly of disappearing”, of force, even reaching levels of indiscriminate use.
[MORE POSSIBLE SPOILERS] The peak of his fame is shown through fake newsreels, letting us understand he is traveling the world, making things disappear as he chooses… even the Eiffel Tower. [MAJOR SPOILER] Near the end of the film, his manager shows him the book, which he will reedit and will cost Quiroga his career. He also tells him about how much it cost him to keep the book in secret all those years. That scene ends when Amílcar says: “Do you think things disappear just like that?” The image becomes frozen and the sound becomes an echo. The emphasis on these words reminds us that, sooner or later, that which is hidden will be brought to light once again.
[…] The Act in Question allows us to study different vertexes. At the time when Agresti made this film, there was a lot of talk in Argentina about “reconciliation”, amnesty to the military and forgetting the past. With his film, the director chooses remembering. With imagination and cleverness, he addresses the most tragic events in Argentina’s history. Through humor, without excessive horror, he accomplishes a reflection on the disappeared. His film should be considered inspiring; it is revealing to its audience and leaves a lasting impression difficult to erase, same as the marks of the horror left by Argentina’s last dictatorship.
The purpose of this essay resides in the desire to rediscover the film we discuss, since it is hardly acknowledged in film analyses pertaining to the time frame it references. Scorsese’s notion of the smuggler is still useful when thinking about this film. The American director establishes that such a typification is partly due to the marginal condition of the filmmaker. Even if Agresti is currently not a fully marginal director, it is true that he was for a long time. Now considered one of Argentina’s most important directors, he was not valued until his return in 1996. That self-exile also served to marginalize his work in the Netherlands, which remained on the sidelines of our nation’s filmography. The Act in Question was never commercially released in Argentina. For a long time it made the rounds in underground circles and was pirated among cinephiles and film students, as well as random retrospectives. […] In spite of all that, The Act in Question keeps still waiting to be revealed and deciphered in favor of a possible representation of past events
Our wish is to undo the ostracism this film has fallen under, provide it with its own space within film analysis; not just inside cinephilia or specialized criticism, but also from a sociopolitical perspective, in order to think, debate and expand the horizon of images representing the past and the present.
1997 El pasado en imágenes. Barcelona: Ariel.
2001 Metahistoria. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Thanks, R., for finding and translating this insightful article. Here are some key points for me:
The Act in Question effectively combines magic realism with genres typical of Hollywood’s 30s and 40s, in terms of photography and visual texture. This includes not just the quality of black and white, but also the costumes and production design.
Reminding me at times of the playfulness of Ruiz, this film is obviously an homage to black & white films of the 30’s and 40’s, too. The film reminded me of Sapir’s La Antena (2007) – another clever b&w Argentine allegory (featured in the previous World Cup)
However, from the beginning the film is laid out as a great dollhouse, not as a reference to Ibsen, but in a literal and ludic sense.
This Doll’s House aspect, particularly evident in the scenes in the apartment block in the beginning, are one of the most fascinating aspects of the film – repeated in various ways throughout. It emphasizes the microcosm design of some of the imagery.
The film is also a playful display of forms, lights, shadows, ornament and camera movement. The act in question itself—the disappearance of objects and persons—are reminiscent of Méliés’ tricks.
Good point, Scorsese’s film Hugo has again made us aware of Méliés – which Agresti is obviously referencing here.
The Act in Question, unlike traditional Argentinean cinema, is a political allegory. Here, the political is refined and subtle, without simplistic moralizing.
This article makes obvious how the very act of disappearance (and then reappearance) in the film, playful as it is, is also a powerful indictment of those who disappeared during the dictatorship.
Thanks for providing us this.
I just got around to finishging reading all of this.
Thank you so much for translating this and presenting it! Agresti sure is a smuggler. I don’t know how the metaphors for a dictatorship eluded me when first watching this. I just loved the film for what it is. But now it seems so obvious and I love the film all the more.
Also, what is a “memory boom”?
As it concerns Argentina, It refers to a moment when the subject of memory came to dominate the Argentinean politics, society and intellectual discourse; when forgetting about crimes committed by the dictatorship ceased to be a possible objective. But it may also refer to a general interest in memory and history in academic circles around the world.
Thanks for reading. Glad the film was generally liked.
Is there a copy of this one available? Would love to see it.