The Bitter Stems | Los Tallos Amargos (1956) Viennale 2022

October 26th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Fernando Ayala | Cast: Fernando Cores, Julia Sandoval, Vassili Lambrinos, Gilda Lousek, Pablo Moret | Noir thriller, 90′

Murder, mistrust and suspicion are the classic Noir elements that burn through this stylish psychological thriller from Fernando Ayala one of Argentina’s most revered filmmakers.  

The Bitter Stems/Los Tallos Amargos (1956) sees Buenos Aires-based journalist  Alfredo (Cores) join forces with an unlikely ally – the thrusting Hungarian refugee Liudas (Lambrinos) – in a get-rich scheme that predictably goes wrong. But it’s Alfredo’s flawed character – his lack of self-belief and florid imagination – that ultimately leads to his self-inflicted downfall in a  tense and tightly scripted narrative that still resonates in today’s climate of uncertainty and xenophobia. But there’s a caveat: always beware of someone who has nothing to lose.

Still living with his mother (Romay) and sister (Lousek) in a pleasant Buenos Aires suburb Alfredo has never quite made the grade career-wise despite the encouragement of his loving girlfriend Susana (Sandoval). A chance meeting with a barman Liudas has a distinct touch of Strangers in a Train about it: offering the men an opportunity they have been looking for. Both have something to gain from the arrangement: an illicit but lucrative journalism course capitalising on Alfredo’s journalistic credentials, Liudas having the chutzpah to get the project off the ground and the chance to finance his family’s passage to America with the promise of legal citizenship; and Alfredo can fulfil his financial ambitions, although he stands to lose professional credibility if the scheme backfires. But soon the cheque are piling up and success is within their grasp.

But the plot turns on Alfredo’s lack of trust in his partner, an affable stranger who seems too good to be true but is also a bit of a swindler when the scheme gets underway. And crucially, Alfredo is an upstanding citizen and doubts starts to play on his mind.  And soon suspicion and neurosis rears its ugly head and Alfredo’s doubt start to cramp his style and eat away at his confidence. He starts to look for a way out.

Once again Ayala makes use of surrealist dream sequences and magic realism supported by Ricardo Younis’ striking camerawork. An evocative score by Astor Piazolla creates an atmosphere full of anxiety and suspicion building towards a denouement that is both tragic and unexpected in this stylish and satisfying noir thriller based on a best-selling novel by Adolfo Jasca. MT






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