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[whitespace] Scene from 'Nine Queens'
Photograph by Silvio Benitez

Partners In Crime: Ricardo Darín (left) and Gastón Pauls plot to wring a fortune out of a businessman in 'Nine Queens.'

Confidence Men

'Nine Queens' finds the con in Argentina's economy

By Richard von Busack

THE HIGHLY ENTERTAINING con-artist movie Nine Queens' title refers to a block of nine valuable stamps printed in the Weimar Republic. It can't be happenstance, this allusion to the German republic, which, after ruining its monetary system, became a cocoon for the Third Reich. Argentina's economy has endured just about everything: inflation, government bottling-up of funds, World Bank-enforced austerity programs to starve the debt into submission, bank-account freezing to stanch the hemorrhaging of funds. In short, every possible remedy but faith healing. Among other things, Nine Queens is a movie about the fiscal agony in that country.

A short-haul con man named Juan (Gastón Pauls) is adopted by an older, wiser sharper, Marcos (Ricardo Darín, one of the most unflappable Latin actors since Fernando Rey). The older crook tests the younger, trying him out on a few petty grifts. Then he clears his throat and gets down to business. With the unwilling help of his estranged sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), Marcos plans a grand scam. He wants to use the German stamps to fleece a Spanish businessman who is one day away from being frog-marched out of Argentina for nameless frauds of his own.

The obvious source is The Sting, but Nine Queens is much chillier and more aware. Director Fabián Bielinsky acknowledges the sexual tensions under the surface of The Sting that Paul Newman would only joke about, long after the fact, on The Simpsons (remember Homer trying to raise a sexual fantasy from a bottle of Newman's Own salad dressing and Newman coming alive on the label and saying, "I'll tell you what I told Redford: It ain't gonna happen"?). Marcos asks Juan how much money he'd take to sleep with a man. After Juan first refuses, then seems hesitant, Marcos makes his point: "We're not lacking maricons, we're only lacking investors."

Even David Mamet's metaphysical admiration for the con artist's role in the game of life (in House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner) is clearly trumped by Bielinsky's superior hand. More than Mamet, Bielinksky has fleshed out the reasons people descend to brother-robbing and sister-pimping. The Spanish plutocrat is worse than our heroes, hinting at the official thievery he's carried out: "I'll hate leaving this country. I've never seen such good will for doing business."

Underneath the diabolical scheming of the two con men, there's a rumbling of political discontent that elevates Nine Queens out of the realm of ordinary entertainment. And while the ending may involve one too many twists, the film's ruthlessness never crumbles into the ordinary cynicism of watching whip-smart hustlers at work.

Nine Queens (R; 114 min.), directed and written by Fabián Bielinsky, photographed by Marcelo Camorino and starring Gastón Pauls, Ricardo Darín and Leticia Bredice, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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