Pablo Trapero is one of the four or five most highly acclaimed Argentine film directors. His first film, Crane World, released in 1999, put him on the world map with its almost documentary-style realism to create a portrait of modern Argentina trying to recover from the financial collapse of ‘98, an event comparable to the Great Depression in the U.S., and which lasted ten long years.
The story concerns Rulo (played by Luis Margani), a middle-aged Buenos Aires construction worker, who lives in a tiny apartment and often falls asleep in front of the TV. Although he’s overweight and a heavy smoker, he’s a generally cheerful and resourceful guy, and even takes the risk of asking a local sandwich-shop owner (Adriana Aizemberg) on a date. He also helps support his mother and his twenty-something son, who parties a lot, sleeps late, and doesn’t have a clue what we wants to do with his life. Rulo looks forward to his training on the huge crane at his construction site, but when he fails a health test, he ends up having to seek employment a thousand miles to the south, in Patagonia. There the workers live together in a small farmhouse, while the bosses show little concern for their welfare. One time the employees are not served lunch; they refuse to keep going until they’re fed. Of such little acts of defiance do we maintain a semblance of dignity.
Trapero’s slice-of-life approach pays careful attention to the little details of working class life. The day-by-day struggles, with occasional breaks of humble recreation, are the story here. The film’s naturalism doesn’t allow dramatic crescendos. For instance, when Rulo, who saw brief fame in his youth as a musician in a band with a hit single, finally lets his son borrow his precious bass guitar for a gig, with dire warnings not to lose it, there’s no need to expect the conventional complications of plot you’d get with a mainstream film.
Crane World is remarkable for its focus on work as a central part of people’s lives. It is also, I must say, refreshing to see an unglamorous, ordinary central character—a pot-bellied chain-smoker in a hard hat. Margani’s performance is utterly convincing. The writer-director’s gentle respect for his subject is expressed in a style of open-ended observation. We do understand, eventually, without an explanatory word, that Argentina has become a place of vanishing opportunity. The film is shot in black-and-white with mostly non-professional actors, on authentic locations, and it conveys a sense both of hard-working determination and diminished hopes.
The film’s style represented a new beginning in Argentina’s cinema. After the military dictatorship fell in 1982, a lot of interesting and politically engaged work had emerged, but in the 90s the movement had slowed down. Pablo Trapero blazed the trail for a new group of filmmakers focused on the present rather than going over the crises of the past. These new directors include Lucrecia Martel, Daniel Burman, and Juan José Campanella. Trapero himself is still going strong, but he deserves to be better known in the States. Crane World is available on DVD.