Argentina’s Fabian Bielensky only made two features before his death at the age of 47 in 2006. Nine Queens (2000) was his first (followed by the noirish The Aura in 2005.) Both films were critically acclaimed, and Nine Queens certainly impresses as a tightly-plotted, well-performed take on the heist or sting sub-genre.
As a fairly recent film, we expect to see some development of the genre conventions laid down in earlier crime and heist movies like The Public Enemy and Rififi. Equally, of course, we expect to see many of those conventions in place, and they are in plain view here. As ever, we are situated with the criminals; we follow Juan and Marcos about their day as they meet, then stumble across the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to sell the fabled Nine Queens (a sheet of rare stamps) for a small fortune. Both of them, largely thanks to the charisma of the actors (Ricardo Darin is particularly good as the older of the two, Marcos), are likeable even though they are engaged in reprehensible behaviour and contemptibly small-scale crime (ripping off small stores, stealing from old ladies, thieving newspapers.) They are made more sympathetic by virtue of their backstories – Juan is trying to raise money to help his father escape a lengthy prison term, Marcos is tangled up in a complex court case with his brother and sister. As ever in the heist, we’re forced to identify with the bad guys.
We saw this also, of course, in those earlier films. In The Public Enemy we saw how Tom Powers was affected by troubled relationships with his brother and mother; even in Rififi, not as reliant on backstory, we were made to sympathise with Jo in particular when we see his closeness to his son. Even Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs shows us just enough of Mr Orange’s background – the sparse apartment, the wedding ring – to raise interest and sympathy. In his Guardian review of Nine Queens, Joe Queenan points out that ‘scam movies always trick us into identifying with the criminals, and never sympathising with their victims’ and says that, as a result, such films ‘are almost completely devoid of moral content.’ While I don’t quite agree with this, it’s clear that there is moral ambiguity, inherited from noir, at the heart of these movies; we’re dealing with antiheroes, not heroes.
In terms of representations, Juan and Marcos seem to have the relationship we’ve already seen between Mr Orange and Mr White, or Tom Powers and Paddy Ryan – a younger man, often alienated from his own father, seeking a new mentor. Marcos takes Juan under his wing and starts to teach him how to survive as a conman; as we’ve seen, these are extremely gendered texts and the informing theme is, arguably, masculine relationships. In many ways, the narrative arc which interests us is watching a younger man learn to navigate the criminal world and his own lie, alway sunder the guidance of his surrogate father figure.
Given the masculinity of these films, female representations also seem predictable. While the women in the film seem at first glance stronger than those in older examples – at least twice, the success of the central scam depends on decisions made by women, and the female characters in the film are as well-drawn as the men – they are ultimately secondary characters, and the plot is entirely dependent on the men for development. The film is about men struggling against other men for the upper hand and the ‘prize’; it could even be argued that one of the female characters (Valeria, Marcos’ sister) is the real ‘queen’, the actual prize being contested. Such representations – men helping women, then being rewarded by being ‘given’ the woman – are often identified in fairy tales, but they are common in crime fiction also.
So far, so familiar. Does the film go beyond genre convention? Perhaps, a little. There is a degree of social commentary; Marcos points out at one point that criminality is rife in Argentina and it’s telling that many of the characters, all of whom are involved in crime of one sort or another, point out that they aren’t crooks. Perhaps, in this world, their criminality is the norm. That seems to be supported at the end of the film when Argentina’s financial collapse of 2000 plays a part in the plot; everyone’s getting ripped off here, not just the victims of the two central characters. The system, it is suggested, is in some way complicit in all this criminality, most clearly seen in the (possible) fact that Juan needs the money from the scam to bribe a judge to help his father. Such bribery is represented as an unexceptional part of the legal system in Argentina. This, perhaps, pushes it beyond straight genre imitation a little.
Also, the plot is more complex than those earlier films. There’s a touch of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in the twists and turns, although it has none of that film’s narrative daring. The plot twists are driven by treachery, incompetence and coincidence; all features which play a common part in the genre. There’s a lovely symmetry to the narrative, in the way the younger Juan seems to take some control away from the older Marcos. Where Marcos leads Juan into criminality by the arm at the start, the situation is reversed (and the shot mirrored) by the end.
So, not the world’s most original movie, but a very, very good one; the twist is cleverly handled (you always know someone’s being swindled; working out who is not so straightforward) and the genre conventions, while clearly in play, are well handled and used.