Who was Tangalanga? Argentina’s notorious phone prankster gets heartfelt biopic 

The quirky origin story of comedian Julio de Rissio is the basis for Mateo Bendesky’s The Tangalanga Method.

– Sir, I was hoping you could come to my house for a painting job. You’ll need to call beforehand.
–Sure, sir, give me your phone.
–No way, if I give you my phone then I won’t be able to answer! I’ll give you the number. 

One of Argentina’s most famous comedians, the unique prank-caller known as Tangalanga by several generations of Argentinians (born as Julio de Rissio), is finally getting the film treatment he deserves nine years after his passing. The life of the exquisitely foul-mouthed joker, now a legendary icon of Argentine comedy, is the basis for Mateo Bendesky’s El método Tangalanga (‘The Tangalanga Method’), which premiered on Thursday and is now playing in multiplexes across the country.

It all started back in the 1960s, when Julio’s friend Sixto was forced to stay at home after  head surgery left him semi-paralyzed. Sixto complained to Julio about his vet’s high prices, so Julio took matters into his own hands. Armed with a phone-to-tape recorder, he called the man just to mock him. Sixto was thrilled, and showed the recordings to all his visitors to distract himself from his illness, which he succumbed to a year later. 

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Julio picked up the phone and recorder again, out of boredom from being bedridden with hepatitis. The new recordings quickly went viral, in the analog way cassette tapes did at the time: through pirated copies. The tapes started circulating among friends, schoolmates and relatives, and the anonymous caller –known as ‘Tarufetti’ back then– became a cult phenomenon with his foul-mouthed, ingenious and hilarious conversations with random people.  

As he elevated prank-calling to an art form, Tangalanga’s calls became massively popular. With his serious, senior man’s voice, he could solicit the most delirious products (a box of fine chocolates “but with all the fillings on the side”), complain about services that went ridiculously wrong (a roof fixed so poorly that people would rather go outside when it rained) or downright crazy requests, such as asking a medical student to let him bring flowers to the skeleton she was studying, because those bones used to be his cousin. Often, his conversations would end up in meta-comedy improv territory, exchanging insults and jeers like a ping-pong match.  

It was Julio’s long-time friend, famous TV comedian Tato Bores, who convinced him to start selling his tapes, which became a hit and today have thousands of plays on Spotify and YouTube. Tangalanga jumped to the mainstream and finally showed his face –in disguise– for the first time in 1993. He became a regular on TV comedy shows, performed live in theaters, released more CDs, and even got to prank former president Fernando de la Rúa, in 2008. Julio passed away in 2013, five years after that last prank call.

Tangalanga’s Way

While not strictly a biopic, Mateo Bendesky’s latest film El método Tangalanga (‘The Tangalanga Method’, runtime: 98 minutes), which premiered on Thursday, uses Tangalanga’s actual origin story to craft a well-paced, solid romantic comedy about an extremely shy man named Jorge –played by Martín Piroyansky– who becomes an involuntary prankster as a side-effect of an esoteric treatment to cure his shyness. 

Just like the original Julio, Piroyanki’s Jorge also works in a Mad Men-like position at a soap company alongside his charming and confident friend Sixto (Alan Sabbagh), who can seemingly pitch any product he comes across, until he ends up in the hospital with a bleak prognosis. While visiting him at the clinic, Jorge meets receptionist and phone operator Clara (Julieta Zylberberg) who mesmerizes him to the point that he can’t speak to her. Through sheer luck, Jorge runs into Taruffa, a flamboyant oratory coach with a wardrobe straight out of Austin Powers. Played by legendary 84-year-old broadcaster Silvio Soldan, Taruffa will cast a sort of spell that makes Jorge lose his inhibitions and social manners every time he hears a dial tone..

From then on, the film follows a Nutty Professor dynamic (or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for the bookworms), with Jorge occasionally transforming into the smutty, outspoken Tangalanga, and captivating Clara with anonymous phone calls. Echoing the style of classic Argentine comedies, the film frames Tangalanga’s original, old-fashioned humor within a pristinely-designed 1960s Buenos Aires, in a sort of stripped-down, matte version of Peyton Reed’s Down with Love

Just as in typical Hollywood screwball comedies, the film’s supporting characters are an almost invisible backbone. Pitch-perfect performances by the gallant Sabbagh, Luis Machín –as Julio’s boss– and Luis Rubio –as Sixto’s nurse– set the vintage atmosphere, although the constant use of retro slang at times hinders its magnetic lead actors’ artlessness. Yet behind that quaint tone lies an innocent and sensitive nature, also apparent in Bendesky’s previous work, that brings soul to his heartfelt, luminous third feature.

In 2006, 700 fans gathered to celebrate Rissio’s 90th birthday, an event covered by Rolling Stone that included live calls and music by some of his rockstar fans, such as Argentine rock hero Luis Alberto Spinetta. “It has been demonstrated that laughter is the best therapy,” said Spinetta, while Rissio mocked him about his songs. “Hopefully, this one will last forever, in a world that doesn’t seem like it’s going to laugh anymore.”

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