starring Ricardo Darín, Gastón Pauls, Graciela Tenembaum, María Mercedes Villagra
written and directed by Fabián Bielinsky
by Walter Chaw What may be the best David Mamet film since House of Games, Argentine director Fabián Bielinsky's debut Nine Queens is a mannered, serpentine caper thriller that places its trust in the able hands of a troika of talented performers. Baby-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls), ferocious Valeria (Leticia Brédice), and twitchy Marcos (the gifted Ricardo Darín) find themselves involved in a plot to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps (the titular "Nine Queens") to Spanish collector Gandalfo (Ignasi Abadal), himself on the lam for some sort of fraud. Delightfully ludicrous and self-contained in the way of The Sting, the picture is a Rube Goldberg/Spanish Prisoner device translated into small-time cons and sin-stained grifters as they grind and smash into each other like sharks in the green noir bucket of Buenos Aires.
One of the last projects completed in Argentina prior to its recent political and economic collapse, Nine Queens is meticulously structured while maintaining a gritty vérité style that provides the film an ironic counterbalance. It marries a subversive commentary on the cynical zeitgeist of modern Argentina to Byzantine hustles and street-worn hustlers, finding at heart a film both entertaining and profound. For all the world, Bielinsky seems to have predicted his country's recent political travails by capturing the corruption at the heart of Buenos Aires street interactions.
Nine Queens is not only, then, a frighteningly capable debut and genre piece, it's also a snapshot of a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head. Marcelo Camorino's exceptional cinematography and "found" lighting schemes present the events as almost voyeuristic; when taken with the affected artifice of the screenplay, the aggregate is something at once immediate and intellectualized. Though there is much to be said about the film's craft and undercurrents, the beauty of Nine Queens is that although you might see a twist coming, each 180 is satisfying and professional. A combustible one-upmanship contest that reminds a little of Sleuth in its intimate choreography, Nine Queens presents an elaborate swindle and takes its audience along for the ride. At its essence, Bielinsky's picture is about movie love: it has an affection for its audience and the process of filmmaking that is rare and wonderful, and though it's not flawless, there is a redeeming joy to it. Originally published: April 19, 2002.