Argentina’s long history of economic chaos: a film tutorial

Show me the money: five movies to help you understand the country’s financial woes

Nueve reinas.

Argentine cinema has been depicting the country’s unique and frenzied economic woes since its very beginning. It has taken the form of social commentary, like Hugo del Carril’s Las aguas bajan turbias (1952), which depicted the poor labor conditions of yerba workers in Misiones. It has also recurred to laughter, like in the popular comedy Esperando la carroza (1985) about a low-income family’s hilarious meltdown during a Sunday family lunch as they try to find their lost grandmother.

Here’s a list of movies that depict Argentines navigating a litany of financial problems, from hyperinflation and debt default all the way to soaring unemployment rates. In addition to being great stories, they are also fitting ways to showcase one of the more unique skills Argentines possess: figuring out how to survive. 

Sweet Money (Plata dulce; Fernando Ayala, 1982) 

An all–time Argentine classic, Fernando Ayala’s film tells the story of Carlos Bonifatti (Federico Luppi), a first-aid box manufacturer who runs into Arteche, his old Army pal now-turned businessman, who offers him a dream-like solution to save his company. 

The pro-market regime established in the late 1970s by the military dictatorship provides the context to understand the film’s argument. The result of these policies was a market flooded with cheap imports and high interest rates, which severely hurt local small businesses. 

Any similarities between this 1982 dramedy about two middle-class business partners (Bonfatti and Rubén Molinuevo, his brother in law played by Julio De Grazia) trying to navigate the country’s über-liberalized economy and the current president Javier Milei’s ardent libertarian creed are not a coincidence. Landmark films are timeless, and Sweet Money is arguably the finest depiction of struggling Argentines trying to survive their country’s swinging economy.

Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes (Pizza, Birra, Faso; Bruno Stagnaro & Adrián Caetano, 1998)

The film spearheaded the so-called New Argentine Cinema of the early 2000s. Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes echoes the social realism of directors like Argentine Leonardo Favio and Spaniard Luis Buñuel in its depiction of a group of young friends trying to survive as petty thieves wandering the streets of a grim downtown Buenos Aires. 

The setting worked as the most illustrative scenario of a broken society that was suffering from the neoliberal economic reforms of the 1990s. With its familiar and endearing delinquent characters, coupled with a fresh aesthetic Argentine cinema was lacking, Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes caused a sensation after its premiere at the Mar del Plata Film Festival in 1998. It went on to become a box-office hit as well as a cultural phenomenon. 

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas; Fabián Bielinsky, 2000)

A clockwork urban thriller, Fabian Bielinsky’s first feature-length film is about one day in the lives of two small-time street con men in a crisis-ridden Buenos Aires where the motto seems to be every man for himself. 

This 24-hour adventure begins when a kind-hearted swindler named Juan (Gastón Pauls) runs into Marcos, a much more experienced and cynical colleague played by Ricardo Darin, in what would be a turning point for his career. 

This was the first time Darin, until that point a beloved soap opera and comedy actor, shifted gears and played the role of a total scumbag. His character became an icon of the kind of individualism that seems to bring out the worst in people in times of crisis. 

The duo finds themselves with the chance of a lifetime amidst an array of colorful street hustlers and scams piling up like a Russian doll. With influences that range from David Mamet and Sydney Lumet to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Bielinsky’s film surpassed the one million spectator mark in movie theaters and became an instant classic. It is also a good tutorial on what to look out for when you walk the streets of Buenos Aires. 

Heroic Losers (La odisea de los giles; Sebastián Borenzstein, 2019)

The 2001 crisis was a turning point for Argentina. Unemployment and poverty rates soared, the country defaulted on its huge foreign debt, and people’s bank deposits were retained, with daily caps on cash extractions. The social unrest translated into a huge nationwide protest that ousted President Fernando De la Rúa in December and triggered one of the most unstable weeks in Argentine history, with five presidents taking office over the course of 10 days. 

Staring Ricardo Darín, this dramedy, based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, is the story of a group of rural neighbors who lose all their savings at the hands of a crooked banker who had insider information about the economic meltdown. The group’s “odyssey” will be to recover what the crisis took away from them and get some payback from the corrupt Argentines who led them there.     

Exchange Exchange (Cambio Cambio; Lautaro García Candela, 2022)

Argentines are obsessed with the U.S. dollar. This is noticeable from the minute you set foot in downtown Buenos Aires — illegal foreign currency exchangers, popularly known as arbolitos (Spanish for “little trees”) hawk dollars nonstop every day in broad daylight. In his latest film, director Lautaro García Candela set out to portray the underground exchange market with Cambio Cambio (“Exchange Exchange”), entitled as the catchphrase arbolitos blurt out all around Florida street. 

The result is a hyperrealistic financial thriller but also, at its core, a love story. Ignacio Quesada stars as Pablo, a young man working odd jobs who becomes an arbolito to save money and impress Florencia (Camila Peralta), an ambitious architecture student. Through their eyes, we witness currency runs, illegal exchange houses, and some of the people behind the curtain who profit from the country’s permanent financial crisis.

Additional reporting by Facundo Iglesia


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