FABIAN BIELINSKY Director of 'Nine Queens'

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The Independent Culture

The early years of the 21st century were tough ones for Argentina, given the country's first-round knock-out in the 2002 World Cup and a pronounced period of economic collapse. Oddly, though, this coincided with an upsurge of interest in Latin America cinema. Brazil and Mexico made headlines with City of God and Y Tu Mamá También respectively, but Argentina also drew attention with the Oscar-nominated Son of the Bride and Fabián Bielinsky's début feature, the quick-witted scam caper Nine Queens.

Bielinsky had waited a long time for this hit, having directed his first short, an adaptation of Julio Cortázar's story "Continuidad de los Parques", as a 13-year-old at the Buenos Aires National High School in 1972. Bielinsky was an avid moviegoer from a young age: he was so moved by John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) that he refused to budge from a cinema until he was given a poster of the film.

He went on to study at Argentina's National Cinematographic Institute during which time his adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges's short story "La Espera" ("The Wait") won first prize at the 1983 Huesca International Short Film Festival. Graduating the same year, he worked as assistant director on several features and roughly 400 commercials, while teaching on the side. In 1998, tired of being an AD, he entered his script for Nine Queens into the Patagonik Film Group contest. The plot spun a web of double-bluffs around an experienced con artist and his charge as they try to sell the fake rare stamps of the title. Out of 350 entrants, he took the first prize of financing to shoot the film.

Released in Argentina in August 2000, Nine Queens was an emphatic success. It won seven Argentinean Film Critics Association awards, including those for director, screenplay, film and actor (Ricardo Darín), and even out-grossed Ridley Scott's Gladiator in the country. Altogether it won 21 awards worldwide. On the film's UK release in 2002, critics noted its superiority to then-recent US scam movies, such as Frank Oz's star-heavy but stodgy The Score (2001) and David Mamet's tired Heist (2001). Comparisons between Queens and early Mamet were rife, but Bielinsky, ever the cinephile, preferred to cite earlier influences such as Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) and Federico Fellini's Il Bidone (1955).

In the United States in 2002, Variety named Bielinsky one of their 10 directors to watch. In 2004, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh produced a remake of Nine Queens called Criminal, which, despite being decently acted, lacked the original's acute sense of context. The double-dealing detailed in Bielinsky's script seemed to prophesy Argentina's economic turmoil.

Bielinsky opted not to make his follow-up in Hollywood. Based on a script he wrote in 1983 and inspired by Deliverance, The Aura (2005) is a slow-burning Argentinean thriller about a taxidermist plotting the perfect crime. It scooped awards at the Cartagena and Havana film festivals, as well as six Silver Condors from the Argentinean Film Critics Association. After the ceremony for the last, Bielinsky began casting for commercials in Brazil. It was there that he died of a heart attack in his hotel room, at the age of 47.

Kevin Harley

Fabián Bielinsky, film director and writer: born Buenos Aires 3 February 1959; married (one son); died São Paulo, Brazil 28 June 2006.