Noir City 14 was filled with many great moments and wonderful films, but by far the festival’s highlight was the North American premiere of the Argentine film Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems or The Bitter Stalks) from 1956.
Los tallos Amargos won the Argentine Film Critics Association’s Silver Condor award (designating the country’s best film) in 1957 with Fernando Ayala picking up the Best Director award for the film. While lauded in Argentina, the film remained virtually unknown to the rest of the world for decades. Even Eddie Muller was unaware of the title until his friend and cinephile/collector Fernando Martín Peña showed him a 16mm print of the film. (If Peña’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was responsible for discovering the complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years ago.)
Muller was knocked out by Los tallos amargos and even though he saw it without English subtitles, he knew he had to find a print of the film he could restore and share with the world. Thankfully, Peña found a deteriorating negative in a private residence outside Buenos Aires and the Film Noir Foundation went to work.
An Argentine newspaper reporter named Alfredo Gaspar (Carlos Cores, above) teams up with a Hungarian immigrant named Liudas (Vassili Lambrinos) to run a journalism correspondence course scam. All I will tell you about the rest of the plot is this: one of the men starts to distrust the other, leading to tragedy.
American Cinematographer magazine honored Los tallos amargos in 2000 as one of the “Best Photographed Films of All-Time,” so clearly someone remembered the film. Once you see it, you’ll understand why. Los tallos amargos is filled with brilliant cinematography and innovation. Ricardo Younis does a masterful job of bringing shadows to life by exposing just enough light to draw our eye to things that are not only interesting, but essential to understanding the story. One of Younis and Ayala’s most impressive feats is in how they handle flashbacks. Rather than relying on fadeouts or foggy dissolves, the filmmakers focus in on the character telling the story, then literally pull the light from underneath his feet: the narrator remains illuminated, but everything surrounding him turns to black. In a distant part of the frame, we see a character from the backstory emerge in light, while still keeping the narrator clearly visible. All of this appears seamless and organic. I’m not sure how they pulled it off, but it’s brilliant.
All of this adds up to a very, very good film, but when you add the musical score of Ástor Piazzolla, Los tallos amargos rises to greatness. Piazzolla – recognized as the world’s foremost composer of tango music – delivers a score that is stunning and vibrant, incorporating both classical and jazz styles in a refreshingly powerful way.
As the Noir City festival comes to your area*, make it a point to see Los tallos amargos. Even if you have to drive a couple of hours to get to a screening, your efforts will be rewarded. Many thanks to Fernando Martín Peña, Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation for bringing this superb film to a wider audience.
You can see the film on YouTube, but without English subtitles. Again, I urge you to see the restored version at an upcoming Noir City festival. Confirmed cities and dates so far:
Noir City Hollywood: April 15-24
Noir City Austin: May 20-22
Noir City Chicago: August 19-25
*In addition to the flagship San Francisco festival, Noir City festivals are usually also held in Portland (OR), Washington D.C. and Kansas City in addition to the cities listed above. There’s no guarantee that all of the films, including Los tallos amargos, will be shown at every festival. Check Noir City for updates.
(Also, thanks to Scott Yeager for pointing out a mistake I made in an earlier version of this post.)