I remember how frustrated I felt the evening of the 2015 Academy Awards when Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I found the film hopelessly generic and derivative of about half a dozen other foreign films I’ve seen about cloistered young people breaking out of strict communities, “finding themselves,” and losing their religion—both figuratively and literally. The cynic in me whispers that it only won because it was tangentially about the Holocaust.
Now I have a new reason to despise Ida: it stole the Oscar from Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (2014), a deliriously creative, wicked hilarious anthology film about violence in modern day Argentina. Through six short parables, every facet of violence gets held up to the camera: its capacity for destruction, for vengeance, for justice, for renewal. Whereas Ida was predictable, Wild Tales thwarted my every attempt to guess where it was going next. It all comes down to this: I have seen Pawlikowski’s Ida before. I’ve never seen Szifron’s Wild Tales.
It opens with quite possibly the best short film I’ve seen in years. All I’ll say is that it involves a group of plane passengers who make a terrible, terrible discovery after take-off. These ten minutes are worth the ticket price alone. From there follows five more stories: a young waitress struggles to decide whether or not to put rat poison in the food of a loan shark who ruined her family’s life; two rural motorists see how far road rage can push them in a game of deadly one-upmanship; a demolitions expert becomes a folk hero after fighting back against a corrupt transportation department; a rich father gets in over his head after he tries to bribe his groundskeeper to take the blame for his drunk son’s fatal hit-and-run accident; a newlywed bride systematically humiliates and emotionally annihilates her groom after discovering that he cheated on her with an office co-worker…then invited her to the wedding reception. Szifron never attempts a grand statement about the nature of violence. He just lets each situation take itself to its logical, exaggerated conclusion. Sometimes the violence is justified. Sometimes it isn’t. But every time, the grim veneer of gallows humor shimmers through.
Maybe Academy voters shied away from Wild Tales because it was a dark comedy. I’m reminded of one voter’s explanation why they voted to give the Best Picture Oscar to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) over Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013): McQueen’s film deserved it because it was about something. But to dismiss Wild Tales for its humor would be to devalue its value as satire of contemporary Argentinian society. I have a dear friend who lives in Argentina with whom I talked at length about Wild Tales and how it reflected and satirized his country. He told me that, yes, the transportation departments truly are that corrupt and what happens to them in the film was essentially wish fulfillment on the part of all Argentinians. We discussed how the film repeatedly addressed class concerns, that old specter that haunts modern Argentinian discourse on national self-identity. We went back and forth trying to figure out the best Spanish term to use for the hillbilly who initiated the car fight in the second segment, finally agreeing on “provinciano”—a somewhat derogatory term used to describe anybody in Argentina who lives outside of Buenos Aires.
Wild Tales isn’t just a great dark comedy; it’s explicitly, undeniably Argentinian. Who cares if it wasn’t shot in stark black-and-white like Ida? Or that it’s not “about something?” Wild Tales makes a solid claim towards being the funniest and most daring anthology film I’ve ever seen.