Saturday, 17 August 2013

Review: Nine Queens

Juan (Gastón Pauls) performs an elaborate money-changing con ('If you have a $100, I'll give you 50, and another 50...') on a convenience store cashier, right before her shift ends. When he attempts the same trick on the next cashier, the first one returns to catch him. Juan tries to run, but the store manager grabs him. 'Son of a bitch! Call the police!'

Another man appears and reveals a gun in his jacket. 'That won't be necessary'. He then apprehends Juan: 'You think I'm an idiot, just like all the assholes you swindle? You fucking thief! Freeze, motherfucker!'

He seizes Juan and the money, and tells the manager: 'You'll get a call from the precinct to file your report and to return this to you.'

The man turns out to be Marcos (Ricardo Darín), another con artist who saved Juan from real arrest by using a toy gun stolen from inside the store.

Marcos asks Juan to work with him for the day, since Juan has a natural advantage of having a more open and trustworthy-looking face than Marcos.

Would this face lie to you?

Their game is brought to the next level when Marcos's associate asks if he's up to selling a counterfeit copy of an old and rare sheet of stamps called the Nine Queens.

'My best work ever. Original paper. 1920. Hand-cut; one perforation at a time. The trick is the time involved. I know they wouldn't pass a lab test. But they're taking the guy to the airport tomorrow. He doesn't have the time to check them thoroughly. That's why they must be sold today. He'll go for it.'

My Take

Movie con-men often have a lot of help. The massive swindles that the anti-heroes of The StingThe Italian Job and Ocean's Eleven pull off require access to so many costly resources - actors, cars, explosives, fake store-fronts and radio signals - that they'd be lucky to make any profit at all from their winnings. (Incidentally, this is an apt metaphor for Hollywood's current business model.)

The scammers in Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas in its native Spanish) (2000, trailer) get by just on their wits: Marcos and Juan's cons seemed so plausible to me that writer Fabián Bielinsky probably lifted them directly from real accounts. In one such trick, Marcos asks 'Auntie?' into apartment intercoms until one lady answers: 'Yes, who is it?'

'You can't recognize your favorite nephew?'

'Fabián, is that you?'

'Yes, Auntie, it's Fabián.'

'What a miracle!...You came to visit me?'

'No...I'm with a friend. We came to visit someone near here, and my car broke down...They're about to tow it to the garage, and after checking my wallet I realized I had no money. Then I noticed I was close to your place. Could you lend me some money, say 50 or 60 pesos?...I don't want to leave the car alone. My friend's down here, give him the money.'

The film's scenes alternate between these clever schemes and the two leads conversing while they thread through the streets of Buenos Aíres like crooked beat cops. The content of Nine Queens may be more pedestrian than the glitzier caper flicks, but its characters and dialogue outshine them all.

We find out pretty quickly that Marcos is a shameless conniver with a superiority complex: 'Of course I can buy it, but I can also not buy it. As everybody else would do if they could...The thing is they don't have enough balls. You think I'm a thief? I don't kill people. I don't use a piece. Anyone can do that.'

Marcos may be a bastard, but he is a thoroughly entertaining bastard who delivers the best lines of the movie. After arguing into a cell-phone, Juan asks him: 'Problems?'

'I don't know. Maybe. I'm going to see my sister.'

'And what shall I do?'

'Come along. You never know with my sister. I might need a witness.'

Marcos and Juan visit Valeria (Leticia Brédice), whose attitude towards her brother is neatly summed up by her face.

Come on, I told you this face wouldn't lie to you...

The true extent of Marcos's ruthless opportunism is revealed when he learns about the Nine Queens deal. Marcos's counterfeiter cohort Sándler planned to sell the stamps himself, but he succumbed to a seizure due to nerves. Collapsed, sweating and awaiting an ambulance, Sándler tries to hammer out a deal with Marcos:

'When I fell ill, I saw your sister and I thought, why not? It's been a long time. You didn't expect this, did you? Here I am, trusting you again.'

'You're desperate. You had no-one else to call...Let me tell you what the situation is. You don't set the percentages; I do. Because if I leave here, all you'll get will be an enema at a public hospital.'

'Listen, I'm 73. I don't have many opportunities left, and this one is mine, rightfully. Don't fuck with me, Marcos. I can call someone else.'

'If you could call someone else, you'd have already done so.'

'Let's do it 50-50.'

'I'm not negotiating. I'm making you the only offer you'll ever get. 10% for you, or nothing, zero.'

Juan is the more relatable character. He is trying to raise $20,000 to buy parole for his father, and only plays the con game because his past business ventures have failed. He even feels guilty when one of his marks fondly compares him to her son.

Juan also has the power to be as deceptive as Marcos, although in a different way. In order to retrieve Sándler's fake stamps, the two must convince Sándler's wife to hand them over. When Marcos's aggressive opening gambit fails, Juan wins her over with a gentler touch:

'I know your kind' the old lady scolds. 'You take advantage of old ladies like me. But I won't allow it. That's why I don't open my door to anyone.'

Juan glances at a marriage certificate on the wall: Basavilbaso, Entre Ríos, 1984, then apparently moves to the retreat: 'Let's go, the lady's right. There's no point. Your mother will understand. It's not that bad. If we ever visit her again we'll take her the photos, otherwise we won't. Forgive us, madam.'

'In that envelope there are photos for your mom?'

'Some photos of my uncle Libor and his family in Poland. Your husband promised us some copies of the originals. We wanted to give them to Mom now that we're going to visit her.'

'Where does your mother live?'

'In Entre Ríos'

'Ah...Entre Ríos!'

This face you can trust.

Marcos may be the scene-stealer of the two, but Juan gets his occasional funny moment. In an awkward situation when Marcos briefly leaves him alone with Valeria, he arbitrarily asks her: 'Do you remember a song by Rita Pavone, 'Il Ballo del Mattone'?'

Juan is constantly on the lookout for when Marcos might screw him over, and just when Marcos thinks he can dump him, Juan will suddenly become invaluable to the plan. The struggle is sort of Darwinian, and the life-energy of Nine Queens lies in the perpetual sparring between the two leads. Personal information about both characters is doled out in increments, and each uses these scarce details to try and beat the other.

And since it's a film about deceivers, the 'facts' are always suspect.


An English-language remake of Nine Queens entitled Criminal was released in 2004. Although it had a solid cast (John C. ReillyDiego LunaMaggie Gyllenhaal) Criminal failed to match the original's cleverness. It felt to me like your garden-variety perfunctory Hollywood do-over.

In 2006 Nine Queens writer/director Fabián Bielinsky died at age 47 of a heart attack. His short career in feature filmmaking yielded only one further film;  El Aura

Nine Queens won a litany of national awards on its release, and Wikipedia tells me it's now considered a classic of Argentinian cinema.

Further Reading

For more about con man movies, see my post about The Brothers Bloom.

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about MotherThe Skin I Live In, and Troll Hunter.

Screengrabs: Nine Queens was produced by FX Sound, Industrias Audiovisuales Argentinas S.A., J.Z. & Asociados, Kodak Argentina S.A., Naya Films S.A. and Patagonik Film Group. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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