It takes, er, three, to tango
It takes, er, three, to tango

Every so often a groovy film festival sweeps into town and shakes up the schedules a bit, introducing us to some silent movies that were hitherto a mystery to us. This month, the Argentine Film Festival arrives, complete with critical hits such as Las Acacias, but also with a programme of silents and live music at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton.

I’ll admit, I’m not au fait with Argentine silent cinema. A little reading around tells me that only a handful of films made in the silent era in Argentina are still with us today, and that the films the Ritzy is showing have never been seen in the UK before. So this event should be a surprise to most of us.

These four short films, including the newsreel Film Revista Valle (1926), My Sorrel Horse (Mi alazán tostao -1923), The Return to the Bulin (La vuelta al bulín -1926) and Creole Mosaic (Mosaico criollo -1929) – one of the oldest preserved sound films – form part of the first collection of silent films to be recovered by the Pablo C. Ducrós Hicken Film Museum in Buenos Aires, and have never before been screened in the UK.

Together, they offer an intriguing vignette of life in 1920s Argentina, a country that was very much under Europe’s influence – as could be seen in the leisure pursuits of its upper classes – yet retained its own distinct character, not least through the tango.

The news reels featuring fox-hunts, visits from foreign dignitaries and elegant river cruises present a glamorous world which does much to explain how Buenos Aires acquired its title as the “Paris of South America”. At the same time the comic scenes from the tango underworld in The Return to the Bulin and the lawlessness in the country drama My Sorrel Horse are more reminiscent of North American genre films. Creole Mosaic sees one of the first attempts to include sound in films, using a synchronised gramophone record along with the actual screening. More of a musical review than a movie, it presented audiences with the voices and figures of popular radio artists.

It wasn’t easy to be a film-maker in Argentina in the 1920s. Money was tight, equipment was scarce and directors often found them selves multitasking, working on both sides of the camera, and editing films not on a Moviola but with a pair of scissors. Jose Ferreyra, who directed The Return to the Bulin, managed these challenges better than most. His films were made on the fly, often taking tango lyrics as the inspiration for the story. Sadly, Ferreyra’s films were not very well received, but those directed by one of his actors, Italian-born Nelo Cosimi, picked up better reviews. Cosimi didn’t restrict himself to tango themes, but looked farther afield for his subjects. My Sorrel Horse is one of his first films, and shows the influence of Hollywood cinema of the time.

The Argentine silent film programme screens at 5.05pm on Sunday 22 April 2012 in Screen 3 at the Ritzy Cinema, and will be followed by “a musical tour of Argentine tango history” in the bar afterwards. Tickets are available on this link.