This is a difficult film to analyze as it has many layers of deception built into it. The basic premise of the story is very simple – Marcos (Ricardo Darin) and Juan (Gaston Pauls) are two small time swindlers in Buenos Aires (it's a Spanish movie) who run into each other 'accidentally' and decide to team up for a day. In turn they run into a swindler trying to meet a guest in a hotel where Marcos' beautiful sister Valeria (Letecia Bredice) 'happens' to work. The latter is a con artist who has faked a set of valuable postage stamps of the Weimar era known as the 'Nine Queens'. The guest is no saint either, he is the infamous Gandolfo (Ignasi Abadal) - a multi millionaire – who is 'about' to be deported from Argentina the next day.
The plot runs into its predictable series of twists and turns. The main charm of the story, though, is the fact that throughout the course of the movie and indeed till the very end one is not really sure as to who is the lamb and who is the wolf. The circumstances are too pat, the boyish newbie Juan has to cough up 50 grand (very conveniently his entire wealth) as his contribution to pull of the caper. Will the roguish Marcos swindle Juan? Or will Valeria, who hates Marcos, but is crooked enough to sleep with Gandolfo walk away with all the money? And what about Gandolfo? He has seen many a swindle in his life and indeed is a big con artist himself. The movie unfolds gradually and keeps unfolding till the very end.
The pace of the movie is very relaxed. The story is simple, so the director (Fabian Bielinsky, who has also written the movie), has ample time to flesh out the characters and develop the plot with all the side stories. Juan comes across as a loveable rogue, a bewildered, hopeless, no-gooder who is being pushed by circumstances into a trade that he seems to loathe. His father is in prison and needs 70 grand to bribe a judge to set him free. The most delightful vignette of the movie is when Juan goes to meet his father in prison. They are sitting across a table playing cards wherein his father is rapidly moving the cards and Juan has to guess the position of the ace, which he unfailingly does so. At the same time his father is exhorting Juan not to do any work that will land him in prison. The shot ends with Juan not being able to identify the ace's position and turning up all three cards to find that the ace has disappeared. His father concludes the game by saying "You wouldn't survive." This seems to be the overarching message of the movie, only one has to keep guessing who the "it" is. The other characters, too, are brilliantly sketched out. Marcos as the world weary, battle hardened, take no prisoners conman, Valeria as the beautiful, hardworking sister who nevertheless seizes her crooked chance when she gets one and Gandolfo as the playboy businessman are played to perfection by the respective actors.
The end of the movie is where I have a quibble. As mentioned before, the movie keeps peeling of one layer after another. The most apt ending, in my opinion, was the penultimate layer. (Hint: being an economist I believe the Argentinean peso is the ultimate con artist.) Unfortunately the director peels off one layer too many and leads to what I feel is a very tame ending to a delightful journey.
PS – I hope the last paragraph is tantalizing and irritates my readers a wee bit. That is the intention. I hope it will motivate more people to watch this charming movie. J