Bad Day To Go Fishing

While the nights are still long and chilly 400km south of the capital, it might be a good time to take a weekend out of the city and head to Mar del Plata for a movie overdose.

The 24th annual international film festival in the coastal resort — which ends this Sunday, November 15 — has not escaped the Herald’s radar, and although it is screening around 200 films — some 100 fewer than last year — that doesn’t stop buffs and critics heading there for talks, tributes and of course the chance to leave cinemas with screen-shaped eyes following a day-long session of back-to-back movies.

The A-rated festival, which holds the same status as Cannes, Venice, Toronto, San Sebastián and Montréal, is the most prestigious in South America as it is the only category one festival on the continent.

Besides its international competition which has selected movies from Iran, South Korea and Russia, other categories include Latin America, Argentina, Specials, and Flashbacks & Hommages. The Panorama section is diverse and numerous, comprising Auteurs, New Auteurs, The State of Things, Film as a Compass, Documented Cinema, The Paths of Music, History Records, Sense of Humour, Midnight Screaming, Altered States and O.S.T., more than enough to appeal to all cinematic tastes.

Despite the 200-plus number of films being screened at five venues around the city, it is a smaller affair signified by the reduction in length from 11 to nine days, the lack of a major celluloid star to commence red carpet proceedings, and, frustratingly for some critics, the lack of official opening and closing parties.

ACROSS THE WATER. In 36 hours it is difficult to gauge just how popular the 2009 festival is, although 600 film students out of Argentina’s staggering 12,000 who are guests for the whole nine days are bound to make as many contacts and fill as many seats as possible.

So with time of the essence, one movie highlighted by a Uruguayan friend naturally turned out to be directed by a Uruguayan who has lived in Spain for 10 years. Was some bias wafting across the River Plate towards a film that has been screening in our neighbouring country’s cinemas for the past 13 weeks?

A contender in the International Competition, Alvaro Brechner’s Mal día para pescar (Bad Day To Go Fishing) is set in the fictional coastal town of Santa María, and this western slash black comedy slash sports drama, based on Juan Carlos Onetti’s short story Jacob y el otro, focuses on two strangers swaggering into the backwater and causing an inevitable stir.

Scottish-Catalan actor Gary Piquer is the pony-tailed, business card-distributing Principe Orsini, a seemingly opportunistic Spaniard who is the manager, translator and substitute parent to Jacob van Oppen (Jouko Ahola), the man mountain the “Prince” calls heavy-weight wrestling champion of the world.

A character Brechner described as “Quixotic” when the film was unveiled on Monday in Mar del Plata, Orsini lays down a thousand dollars to any challenger who can last three minutes in the ring with his German champ. Adriana (Antonella Costa) steps up to the plate, an ambitious young woman who even if she wasn’t so convinced that her fiancé can floor Jacob, could almost take him on herself, so intense and fierce is her aggression due to her need for this money.

As Orsini creates hype (or is it simply bullshit?) surrounding the wrestler — approaching the local newspaper, driving alongside an increasingly volatile Jacob while he trains and buying rounds of drinks despite the obvious cash shortage — he emerges as the King of Spin, surpassing the title of a mere prince. When the prize fund seems about as distant as the champ’s homeland, the paper’s editor suggests Orsini discreetly leave the day of the showdown, but in a last-ditch attempt to raise the money he gets involved in a poker game. The battle goes ahead at the Teatro Apolo, but who will be the victor?

Although he acted in Brechner’s short film The Nine Mile Walk (2003), lead Gary Piquer co-wrote Mal día… with the director, which has taken four and a half years from first draft to screening in Argentina. “We got on well on that four-day shoot, despite the fact that I found him a bit standoffish — and even though he’d been in Spain for two years, his Uruguayan accent was so strong I couldn’t understand him.”

But they became friends and went for a birthday dinner and a whisky in May 2005, where Brechner suggested the actor find himself a real character to get stuck into — and that was Onetti’s Orsini. “I bought the book the next day. It’s only 38 pages long so I wondered how he was going to get a feature film out of that,” says Piquer, speaking from Mar del Plata. After Brechner’s first draft, he solicited Piquer’s translation skills, which he did although he also offered up some of his own ideas. The director went for them and the pair started the next draft together. “The great thing was playing around, and Alvaro would ask me ‘what would Orsini do in this situation?’ So I’d start to act it, and it just happened. I actually felt more comfortable re-enacting Jacob, as I never saw myself playing Orsini!” he says.

Rehearsals and filming took place in Uruguay and Piquer was in the unusual role of having the title role but also knowing all the characters inside out. “That was a problem because you have to treat it as if you know nothing about them, so I had to do the whole process in reverse. Working with Argentine and Uruguayan actors was so different to European ones, as they love to improvise, but in Europe you have to stick to the text. I had a rough time of it, but I learned a lot.”

I’M A SURVIVOR. Brechner’s first full-length feature is a survival of the fittest: the “prince” who touts wares he no longer believes in; the pregnant girlfriend desperate to right her wrongs in this small town who could end up a widow because of her own desperate ambition; and the 30-something wrestler who is clearly past his sell-by date yet desperate to continue fighting. But isn’t Mal día also a tragi-comedy? Piquer agrees: “The comedic elements aren’t obvious — and I like that. I wanted to make Orsini more ironic, but Alvaro wanted him to be straight-forward, not trying to be the ‘nice guy’ because we see that from many characters.”

Orsini is also the laughing stock in the 100-minute film. Piquer agrees: “Yes, he is but he plays it with a straight face and the humour is there. If people don’t like him in the beginning, well, you will. You feel sorry for him, but then it turns about. He’s not a sympathetic character which is a risk as he’s the lead — if people don’t like him, they won’t like the film. And that worried me.”

Another issue of concern, adds Piquer, is the fact this film is in two languages: Jacob and Orsini speak English, which enhances the wrestler’s dependence on the “prince” who then converses with everyone else in his mainland Spain Spanish, allowing him to use his gift of the gab. “It’s very risky and a lot of distributors don’t like it, especially in Spain. But some film houses in Madrid and Barcelona are starting to take more risks by showing films in their original (language). Two other similar films have been done recently in Spain: one in Spanish and French and the other in Spanish and English. It seems to be working and I love that, to mix languages.”

It’s a good day for casting off as there is definitely something fishy from the offset about Piquer’s Orsini, who veers between slimy, desperate and believable — his final action awakens the viewer’s faith in him as he finds faith in what he does once more.

Mal día para pescar is captivating: Santa María in the 1970s with its adobe houses and ancient automobiles is the perfect hell for these European strangers who have no business being there, which coincides with Orsini and Adriana trying to escape their personal infernos. Although it has not been released in Argentina, its selection in the International Competition category can only help ensure a Buenos Aires première in the coming weeks.

Where & When: The Mar del Plata international film festival is on until Sunday, November 15.

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