nine queens [nueve reinas] (2001)


director: fabian bielinsky

ricardo darin, gaston pauls, leticia bredice, tomas fonzi

"This place is going to hell." Those are among the first words spoken by Marcos to Juan, two con men who've just met after Marcos saves Juan from a grift gone bad. They're walking down a street in Buenos Aires as he says it, and you're struck by how precient his words are, spoken in a film made almost two years before Argentina's utter economic meltdown earlier this year.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time grifter whose principal asset is his baby face, and a talent for fleecing old ladies. Marcos is an old pro who, as played by Ricardo Darin, oozes cynicism and sinister intent. On a day that promises to be filled with opportunity, Marcos suggests that the younger man become his partner, since two-man teams can pull more elaborate cons. Juan agrees, but remains wary of the old pro, certain that he's going to be conned himself.

In one, stunning sequence, Marcos reveals to Juan that, on any given day, the streets are filled with grifters, hinting that the whole of society is engaged in one constant con job. The irony is rich as, it's apparent now, that was abundantly true of Argentina, nowhere more so than in the banks and the government. Writer/director Fabien Bielinsky obviously intended Nine Queens to be more than a taut, cynical heist film, and as luck would have it, history proved him right.

As the day unravels, Marcos drags Juan into an ambitious con job involving a disgraced businessman on the verge of deportation, and a set of rare, valuable stamps. Every step of the way, Juan is pulled further into the scheme as it teeters on the verge of failure, desperate for money but wary of the double-cross that Marcos certainly has waiting for him.

The final, elaborate plot twist would be unfair to reveal here. It's both elaborate and, as much as it's possible in hindsight, watertight in its logic. As an ending, though, it seems inadequate next to the grim picture of Argentine society, rife with corruption that increases in scope the higher you go, thriving in a widespread cynicism whose consequences have only now become obvious.