‘The Little Match Girl’ (‘La Vendedora de Fosforos’): Film Review

Courtesy of El Pampero Cine
Playful and thought-provoking.

Alejo Moguillansky reaffirms his position as one of Argentina’s most distinctive indie talents with his Buenos Aires fest winner, now on release at home.

With The Little Match Girl, Argentinian maverick Alejo Moguillansky delivers another witty, delicate and high-risk item to follow a series of titles that have achieved festival recognition at home, but that, 2009’s Castro apart, have so far failed to make an international mark. Moguillansky’s trademark is perhaps the playfulness with which he works up personal, social and political concerns into pleasurably offbeat and always distinctive items that balance subtle characterization, strong storylines and plenty of sociopolitical reflection. Match Girl strikes no new sparks, but generates all the director's usual warmth and light.

Like much of Moguillansky’s other work, Match Girl is set at the interesting interface between fact and fiction. It is introduced in voiceover as being a record of the preparations for a Buenos Aires performance of radical German composer Helmut Lachenmann’s opera of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. But typically of Moguillansky, this preparation quickly becomes one strand of many.

Walter (Walter Jakob) is the stage manager but, amusingly unable to understand what Lachenmann’s work is all about and indeed unsure that it’s an opera at all, he has little clue how to go about it. He asks his more creative partner Maria (Maria Villar) for ideas, which he then takes back to the theater. Maria is taking classes from the renowned pianist Margarita Fernandez (playing herself) and, forced to keep their young daughter Cleo (Cleo Moguillansky) busy as she practices with Margarita, she sits the young girl down to watch a DVD of Bresson’s tragic classic Au hasard Balthazar. Meanwhile, the dress rehearsal of the opera is being threatened by a public transportation strike.

If this sounds like a bunch of the director’s personal artistic and social obsessions being yanked together to make a plot, then it probably is. So it’s all the more surprising that it falls together into something that is charming, lyrical and often very funny; the script is full of pleasurable little twists and turns, handled with an agility and freshness that prevent proceedings from ever feeling contrived.

Moguillansky seems to be the directorial equivalent of a butterfly, settling briefly on an idea before getting bored of it and moving on, happy to raise questions rather than settle them. Up for debate in Match Girl are, among others, issues of what art is for, the limitations imposed by capitalism on artistic freedom, the relationship between music and politics (Maria discusses Lenin’s supposed comment that Beethoven’s Apassionata made him into a nicer person to be than he could afford), the loss of innocence and the mistreatment of children; like Bresson’s donkey, Cleo is herself a victim of abandonment.

The script throws these ideas out without forcing them, though it’s clear that Moguillansky enjoys pulling together opposing tendencies to see what happens. Given Lachenmann’s political history (he hung out with members of the radical left-wing Baader-Meinhof group in the 70s), how will he deal with the fact that rehearsals for his opera are being threatened by a strike he’s presumably in favor of? And which is the "truer" music — the exquisite pieces by Bach, Beethoven and Schubert that are so crucial to the film or the dissonant abstractions of Lachenmann’s opera? (In the end, to confound us all, the veteran maestro reveals that his fave composer is none other than Ennio Morricone.)

If all this makes Match Girl sound forbidding and preachy, it never is. A couple of sequences stand out for their sheer poetry. One, where Walter is casting child actors to take part in the opera, is a beautifully rendered sequence of children reading a line from Andersen’s story and each blowing a match out at the end. Another is Villar’s compelling reading of Andersen’s tragic tale in the version that will presumably finally be used in the opera.

The too-easy accusations of pretentiousness that are sometimes levelled at Moguillansky can be countered by pointing out his attention to character work; the film’s ideas don’t exist merely in the abstract. Villar is wonderful, and her relationship with Walter affecting and credible; though they don’t seem to have a penny, they unquestioningly agree that artistic creation is the most important thing. The real-life characters Lachenmann and Fernandez, respected vets both, are fascinating, especially when they sit down to chew the fat at the end. And mention must be made of Moguillansky’s daughter Cleo, a compelling natural presence whose eyes when watching Bresson’s masterpiece are full of the soulful contemplation of someone who is experiencing for the first time the full power of film.

Production companies: El Pampero Cine
Cast: Maria Villar, Walter Jakob, Margarita Fernandez, Helmut Lachenmann, Cleo Moguillansky
Director, screenwriter: Alejo Moguillansky
Producer: Eugenia Campos Guevara
Director of photography: Ines Duacastella
Editors: Alejo Moguillansky, Walter Jakob
Sales: El Pampero Cine

71 minutes