Argentina's Answer to the Coen Brothers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because making films is like performing an exorcism.
By Wesley Tomaselli
If the Coen brothers are America’s subversive siblings celebrated for making movies that cause audiences to snicker, squirm and grind their teeth, then this Argentine screenwriter could be the Coens’ long-lost stepbrother.
Andrés Duprat, 53, is the screenwriter behind The Artist (2008), The Man Next Door (2009) and The Distinguished Citizen (2016), a comedy-drama that won the award for best foreign film at the Venice Film Festival last year. Were you to meet his protagonists, you’d conclude, as Duprat tells OZY, that he is “interested in that someone who feels dead inside, who’s desperate to transform his life and who all of a sudden sees an exit. I think those moments happen to all of us.” His screenplays are an alternative, arguably refreshing attitude toward life in a region saturated with overtly politicized storytelling at best and soporific, superficial soaps at worst. “His whole ideology is to produce discomfort,” says Juan Becerra, an Argentine novelist who is writing a book on Duprat’s screenplays. “I think there are really dark moments, betrayals of self in all of us. And that is what Andrés explores and what he’s really good at.” The scripts come to life in what Duprat calls a “rock band” collaboration involving two producers who partner with him in nearly all his work, his brother Gastón and Mariano Cohn. Duprat’s next screenplay, Mi Obra Maestro (My Master Work), is currently in production.
With a background in contemporary art, Duprat says his screenplays often go after the clash between high culture and popular culture: A nobody nurse with a meaningless life turns into a famous painter overnight by stealing his patient’s art in The Artist. Leonardo, an uptight designer, butts heads with his crass neighbor over a mundane home renovation project in The Man Next Door. Daniel Mantovani is The Distinguished Citizen, a Nobel Prize–winning writer, well past his prime, who returns to his backward, isolated hometown, where jealousy, hatred and obsession creep up and eventually overtake him. “A recurring theme in my scripts,” Duprat tells OZY, “is the clash of two different worldviews.”
Duprat cops to having bouts of despair over the world’s troubles … but he also believes in the human spirit.
Duprat’s view of his world while growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s was of an Argentina in the grip of a brutal dictatorship where tens of thousands of people were forcibly “disappeared.” Time folded that trauma of deceit, cheating and betrayal into the country’s national psyche — as well as Duprat’s adolescent imagination. The social tensions he absorbed as a youth are still everywhere in Latin America, making the region fertile ground for his philosophical experiments to play out on-screen. As Becerra puts it, when you put people under “systems of repression, at some point, the savage emerges.”
Born in La Plata to a family of lawyers, Duprat broke with tradition and chose to study architecture and move to Italy. Most of his early professional career was defined by design, curatorial work at museums and university teaching. His entrance into screenwriting came late — without any experience — when he was 42 years old. Annoyed by what he considered the snobbery, elitism and hypocrisy of the contemporary art universe, he sat down at his computer and banged out an essay criticizing all that was wrong in his profession, and shared it with a good friend, the late Argentine artist León Ferrari. “This isn’t an essay, it’s a screenplay!” Ferrari told Duprat. Inspired, he transformed the essay into his first work, The Artist. Looking back, Duprat says, he can see that everything he did in the art world “stays there, it doesn’t leave. Not like making films. It was like an exorcism for me.”
Mariano Cohn and Gastón Duprat started making video art and experimental cinema in the early 1990s. A decade later, they had launched their own company and began putting out documentaries. When Andrés cooked up The Artist, Gastón and Cohn were the obvious team to turn to — and they’ve been his main collaborators ever since. It’s a trio that occupies the gray area in any production: There are no firm lines, Gastón and Cohn weigh in on every script, and Andrés helps with casting decisions and advises on production.
Still, while their roles may blur the lines, the scope of Duprat’s work has thus far been quite defined, and limited. “He works a lot in the world of art. So, it’s worth asking why not work in fields he doesn’t know?” Becerra says. “I mean, to throw yourself out into the void. That’s the squeeze I want to see him in.” Short of leaping into the void, the Duprat brothers and Cohn have edged into new terrain with their latest documentary, on Argentina’s obsession with meat, Todo Sobre El Asado (Everything About Barbecue), which aired on Netflix last year.
Was it a welcome reprieve for a filmmaker obsessed with man’s darker impulses? Duprat cops to having bouts of despair over the world’s troubles: borders shutting down, wars in the Middle East, hunger, starvation. But he also believes in the human spirit — “that everything gets resolved down here on earth,” and that we have the tools to correct course and put ourselves back on track. Maybe that’s why he repeatedly shows us what it looks like to go off the rails. One part warning, the other part asking: Why do we do it?