The key to the bleak portrait of an exploited Buenos Aires street kid in "El Polaquito" is the lack of contrived hope.
By PETER THEIS
There are places where angels fear to tread especially guardian
angels and these places are black markets and petty rackets. These are
places where oversight does not reach, and economic arrangements are
enforced not by civil law, but uncivil main and might. The Argentine film
"El Polaquito," written and directed by Juan Carlos Desanzo, is a Dickensian
tale, based on true events, of one boy's life in that shadowy, unsheltered
The film does not stint in depicting the sophistication of the
underworld in plain view, centered in Buenos Aires' main train station.
Here, impostor bootblack Rengo (translated as "Limp") lords over a small
fiefdom of child beggars, prostitutes, and thieves. Through collusion with
the police, who are permitted a cut and perquisites, Rengo operates with a free
hand. The film's teen protagonist, El Polaquito (Abel Ayala), works for
Rengo as a commuter-train busker who imitates Polaco, a famed Tango singer.
El Polaquito (who goes by Polaco amongst friends), a gentle street kid
unable to return to an abusive home, chafes at being under Rengo's thumb,
but Rengo has his means of control. He can assure that Polaco's sister, who
prostitutes for him, is beaten; when Polaco is especially rebellious, Rengo
has him arrested and incarcerated by police accomplices. Most of all,
however, Polaco needs Rengo's patronage to survive. Buenos Aires is
saturated with begging rackets; Polaco's one attempt to work independently,
in another part of town, results in a mortal threat from another
territorial, Rengo-identical petty racketeer.
|Directed by: Juan Carlos Desanzo.|
Written by: Juan Carlos Desanzo, Lito Espinosa.
Cast: Abel Ayala, Marina Glezer, Fabián Arenillas, Fernando Roa, Rolly Serrano, Osvaldo Sanders.
Cinematography: Carlos Torlaschi.
Edited by: Sergio Zottola.
Music by: Martín Bianchedi.
In Spanish with English subtitles.
|Clearview 62nd & Broadway
Tues., Aug. 17, 2004, 4:15 p.m.
Thurs., Aug. 19, 2004, 8:15 p.m.|
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Trapped, the resilient Polaco makes the best of it with an
irrepressible buoyancy. He becomes enamored with one of Rengo's
prostitutes, Pelu, and begins to think of escape in earnest. However,
Rengo, after his wheedling fails to curb Paloco's flight ambitions, simply
increases the violence quotient. Polaco's inherently gentle nature is no
match, and his imagination is not developed enough to permit him to
outmaneuver the experienced and muscle-backed Rengo. The filmmakers permit
no illusions about the chances of child fighting against a sophisticated,
all-encompassing system of exploitation.|
The film excels at fleshing out this system, enabled by official
corruption, and laying out its players and its millionfold methods by which
the most vulnerable, children or young women with no options, are coerced to
work to enrich minor-league, but unhassled criminal syndicates. Although
Rengo is portrayed as an unambiguous, irredeemable villain, the film clearly
locates the supreme villainy in the system itself, which will always find
Rengos to fill its positions of authority and Polacos to fill its yokes.
Thus, the film finds itself in the social conditions critical tradition of
authors Emile Zola, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. A common defect of
lesser works in this tradition is an implausible, thin dramatization of a
generic character "caught under the wheels," who exists only to dramatize
exploitation. "El Polaquito," however, draws its protagonist with breadth
and credibility; he is flawed, weak, addled, unreflective, and naive (all
stemming from his adolescence), yet also sympathetic and genuine. The
inevitably of the narrative derives less from a contrived damn-the-system
fatalism than an objective observation of full, complex, differentiated
characters interacting in a system with cognizable and predictable
The film is not without problems, such as overdrawn musical effects
undercutting the seriousness of the events, some overly schematic minor
characters, and total privileging of narrative development over basic
technical mastery or any formal pleasures (in other words, the prose is
dry). However, the core dramatization is so competent, Polaco so fallibly
human, and the petty underworld milieu so authentically constructed (from
minimal production materials), that "El Polaquito" succeeds both as
muckraking critique and particularized witness to hope eclipsed.
|AUGUST 13, 2004|
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