Argentinian director Pablo Trapero would be well advised to watch his driving when he's out in Buenos Aires. His film El Bonaerense - you might translate it as "BA's finest" - is so mordantly critical of the city's police that you imagine they'd be only too happy to haul him off and discuss the odd parking offence. Then again, the film feels so vividly realistic that presumably Trapero has a few friends on the inside to advise him, and no doubt rent him the odd uniform at knock-down rates.
The anti-hero of his picaresque story is Zapa (Jorge Roman), a naive locksmith from a rural backwater, who gets arrested for his part in a robbery, but is helped out by a benevolent uncle with a few favours to call in in the big city. Just as the English aristocracy used to put their dimmer sons into the clergy, it seems that the police force is Argentina's dumping ground for the clueless and corruptible, and Zapa is rapidly and discreetly inducted into the Buenos Aires constabulary. "Welcome to El Bonaerense," says his commanding officer with a wince. "God help you."
Before things take a more sour turn, Trapero treats Zapa's new career in a gently farcical tone that suggests a cynical Latino remake of Police Academy. In a wonderfully understated scene, the recruits are visited by a gun-seller offering special discounts on Glocks, and gingerly inspect his goods as if they were Tupperware. Sent on a training course, Zapa unfailingly does all the things that on the streets would get him killed. In the classroom, he and his fellow cadets are overgrown schoolboys, smirking, tossing paper at each other and ogling their long-suffering instructor Mabel (Mimi Arduh, looking rather as Jennifer Lopez might after 20 years as a supply teacher). Before you know it, Zapa is goatishly hitting on her - it's his only decisive action up to this point - and inexplicably, she takes him on as her lover. Zapa seems to lead a charmed life, according to the Bonaerense principle that if you ask no questions, blindly follow your corrupt superiors, and do absolutely nothing to distinguish yourself, then you'll get by fine.
Some of the ironies are signalled heavily: when the new commissioner (Dario Levy) makes a speech announcing a new code of ethics and discipline, it's instantly clear that he'll prove the most rancid egg in the basket. Yet the inevitability of Zapa's compliance in the entrenched rot gives the film its inexorable narrative thrust - if thrust is the word for a film paced with such studied languor. Trapero doesn't overemphasise Zapa's own dormant but easily aroused nastiness: a scene in which he leans on a club owner for protection money suggests he's discovering his natural penchant for brutish menace. But a subtler suggestion occurs in a long shot down an alley at night as Zapa's colleagues are kicking some arrestees sprawled on the ground; among the silhouettes, we see Zapa joining in, his hesitant movement suggesting he's doing it purely because it's expected. The prevalent brutality is never treated horrifically but made drably routine, giving the film a persuasively sardonic voice rather than a more literal exposé tone.
El Bonaerense is so effective partly because of the blankness of a protagonist who, even by the most abject anti-hero standards, is some specimen. Jorge Roman plays Zapa as a sullen, doltish adolescent (much is made of the fact that at 32, Zapa is far too old to be a cadet), with an ox-like placidity and the spiky haircut of Lou Ferrigno's Incredible Hulk. A big, over-dependent boy, Zapa is constantly trying to please parent figures, whether it's his older lover Mabel - the film's one truly sympathetic big-city character - or his commanding officers.
Guillermo Nieto shoots the film in coarsely grainy stock to thicken the nocturnal blackness while giving everything else a greeny-gold burnish that emphasises the grubbiness of surfaces and the clamminess of sweaty skin: you can feel, practically smell, the oppressive heat of city nights. Trapero, whose previous film was the intimate blue-collar drama Mundo Grua (Crane World), is one of the leading lights of Argentina's tenacious new generation of film-makers, along with Fabian Bielinsky (Nine Queens) and Lucretia Martel (La Cienaga). They and their peers seem to be carrying on regardless, so whatever the state of its economy and policing, Argentina can count itself blessed in one respect at least.
If you're in the mood for more sad-sack anti-heroes, there's a prize British pair in This Is Not A Love Song. An extremely gritty and abrasive example of what I suppose you'd have (with a groan) to call the guerilla school of digital film, this low-budget venture was shot over 12 days in deeply inhospitable-looking conditions, and written, co-executive-produced, even catered(!) by Simon Beaufoy, effectively living down his rep as the benign writer of The Full Monty.
Directed with nervous vitality by Bille Eltringham, this British off-road movie would make a great double-bill with David Mackenzie's recent The Last Great Wilderness, another UK digital tale of two no-hopers straying off the highway and into deep, cold, murky water. Despite the title - from the PiL song - the film is a sort of male Liebestod, a subsistence-level Of Mice and Men with a dash of Deliverance. Following a spectacularly ill-advised faux pas, a haggard petty criminal (Kenny Glenaan) and a youthful jabberer with Attention Deficit Disorder (Michael Colgan) end up hunted over hill and dale by falcon-faced vigilante David Bradley, resembling a homegrown Lee Van Cleef in sensible rainproofs.
Shot and edited with bracing harshness, the film disappoints only in being slightly too much a textbook example of what now looks like the closing first stage of post-Festen digital cinema, emphasising scratchiness and nervous tension. However, it roundly disproves the received wisdom that you can't make road movies in Britain because the distances are too short. Once the duo get deep into a labyrinthine moorscape, they could be lost forever; we get a palpable sense of geography folding malevolently in on them. The film is released simultaneously in theatres and online (www.thisisnotalovesong.com), but I suspect your laptop screen won't be an adequate vehicle for its game feistiness.Reuse content