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Buenos Aires Unbound

Zapa is a locksmith. A good-hearted country boy, he is duped into opening a safe and then set up for the theft that follows. This being the countryside, where everyone knows everyone, nobody involved wants him to suffer unduly for his naïveté. He is given an out: a bus ticket to the fringes of the big city and a job with the local police.

What happens next is the subject of El Bonaerense, Pablo Trapero's unflinching study of a cop's life in the bleak hinterlands of Buenos Aires that has been filling movie houses across the city. Not incidentally, this story of corruption and quiet desperation is also a metaphor for a country laid waste by economic crisis and losing its bearings under the strain.

Trapero, 31, is one of a new generation of Argentine filmmakers now looking at their disintegrating country with an unsentimental eye, and helping define what it means to be Argentine in the process. The public's enthusiastic response—not just to Trapero's films but to recent endeavors in art, music, and the theater—suggests that porteños, the residents of this most vital and garrulous of cities, are questioning long-held assumptions and searching for a way forward. Such defiance is new for a country that has lurched from crisis to crisis like an inveterate drunk. Whether it will last and where it might lead is anybody's guess.

Buenos Aires is largely a creation of the early years of the last century, when wheat and beef from the pampas fed the world and made the country rich. Argentina's time in the sun was as short and extravagant as a gold rush, ending promptly with the Great Depression. But it sustained an enduring illusion that this great city, with its French architecture and English social trappings, is not Latin American at all but actually part of Europe.

Such exceptionalism proved costly: fixating on a golden past made it hard to deal with an invariably messy present. It allowed the generals who savaged the country during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983 to plead that they were protecting civilization from barbarism. And it explains, in part, why Argentina so eagerly embraced the prescriptions of the free-market purists—the so-called Washington consensus—which seemed to confirm that this was, after all, a First World country. That's a notion most porteños laugh at now.

Throughout the 1990's, Argentina was the blue-eyed boy of the international financial community, privatizing nearly everything that moved and throwing open its markets to the world. The country also pegged the peso to the dollar, banishing hyperinflation almost overnight. But the expensive currency priced Argentine products out of overseas markets, and financing the country's fast-expanding debt became increasingly difficult. As the recession that began in 1998 worsened, Argentina edged ever closer to default.

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