The Gold Bug, or Victoria’s Revenge (El escarabajo de oro or Victorias Hamnd): Buenos Aires Review
This co-directed tale of a film shoot doubling as a treasure hunt took the best Argentinean film at the recent BAFICI festival.
From its original multilingual, Spanish/Swedish title on, The Gold Bug, or Victoria’s Revenge is an exhilarating, distinctive mix of very different things. Part farce, part treasure hunt adventure, part film about itself, part road movie and part postmodern political treatise, it’s the kind of dangerous digital holdall into which its co-directors, Argentinean Alejo Moguillansky and Swedish Fia-Stina Sandlund, have stuffed a bunch of interests and obsessions du jour. It shouldn’t work -- but it does, and with some distinction. Confusion may be an option, but boredom never is, for an item which deserves to follow Moguillansky’s well-received The Parrot and the Swan and Sandlund's documentary work onto the edgier end of the international festival circuit.
The first few minutes, intercut with a striking credits sequence, are rapid-fire comedy, with what looks like dozens of characters packed into a small room. An Argentinian cast and crew, headed by Moguillansky himself, are about to begin shooting a co-production about the life of Victoria Benedictsson, a 19th century Swedish feminist writer. At which point the actor, Rafa (Rafael Spregelburd, currently doing the festival rounds in El critico) walks in with the news that he’s obtained information which will lead him to treasure in a town called Alem.
Rafa persuades the French and German co-producers, and tries to persuade the project’s Swedish director (Sandlund, whose voice is heard, but who, a controlling absence, is never seen) that it makes no sense to use Argentinian money to make a film about a Swede. Far better to make it about the Argentinian radical Leandro N. Alem, also 19th century and also a suicide. The shooting of the film thus provides a cover for the treasure hunt.
Until now, it seems as though the movie will be little more than an amusing, pacy take on the trials of movie coproduction --of which The Gold Bug itself is a good example. But then Rafa gives his coproducers a long list of famous Europeans and then challenges them to name three famous Argentinians, which they comically fail to do. This it opens up darker, larger themes in the film -- if Europeans go to Latin America to make movies because it’s cheaper, then they’re extending colonalist attitudes. It’s only a short step from there to the ever-vexed issue of who makes the “official” versions of history.
The Gold Bug explores these questions through its different sections. Crew member Lucia Acuna tell the mysterious and enthralling story of Rafa’s missing treasure, involving Jesuit priests and cryptograms, accompanied by images which recreate the seventeenth century; this section deserves a movie to itself. There is black and white false footage of Alem, whose story Rafa completely distorts in order to get his hands on the treasure and who is allowed, in voiceover, to protest against the distortions. And finally there’s a lengthy voiceover by Benedictsson which triumphantly turns The Gold Bug into exactly the pro-feminist film that its co- director Sandlund has wanted since the beginning. History, we learn, is mostly a matter of who’s telling the story.
With its abrupt shifts in tone from dry, self-reflexive comedy to historical reflection, it's verbose, heady stuff, which demands some indulgence from the viewer-- but it earns it, because the writing is so sharp and because of the directors' surefootedness. Indeed, the tone remains essentially light and dextrous throughout, despite the heavy themes: the fact that the plot is mostly borrowed on Poe’s own Gold Bug and Stevenson’s Treasure Island merely add to the playful, self-referential pleasure.
The wheeler dealer Rafa -- also afforded a melancholic scene in which he reflects morosely on a life dedicated to making movies which nobody will care about -- is an appealing traveling companion for both his crew and for the audiences, as is his somewhat tonto one-step-behind sidekick Walter (Walter Jakob). Gabriel Chwojnik’s jaunty, attractive score is likewise a nod to the spirit of movies past, and works fine. Co -scriptwriter and editor Mariano Llinas, a director in his own right, also deserves mention on both counts.
Production: El Pampero Cine, CPH: Dox
Cast: Rafael Spregelburd, Walter Jakob, Luciana Acuna, Agustina Sario, Matthieu Perpoint, Georg Tielmann, Cleo Moguillansky, Balthassar Perpoint, Andrea Garrote, Fernando Tur, Fia-Stina Sandlund
Directors: Alejo Moguillansky, Sandlund
Executive producer: Agustin Gagliardi
Screenwriter: Moguillansky, Sandlund, Mariano Llinas, based on 'The Gold Bug' by Edgar Allan Poe, 'Treasure Island ' by Robert Louis Stevenson
Director of photography: Agustin Mendilaharzu, Cecilia Madorno
Production designer: Daniela Zeppa, Leticia Bernhaus
Editor: Moguillansky, Llinas
Music: Gabriel Chwojnik
Sound: Milton Rodriguez, Marcos Canosa
Sales: El Pampero Cine
No rating, 100 minutes