The Blonds (Los Rubios) is a fascinating, well-crafted quasi-documentary that nonetheless is a study in frustration. It is frustrating in its inability to ever really confront the material it purports to explore—the political murder of its filmmaker Albertina Carri’s leftist parents by the Argentine secret police in 1977.
In turn, Carri, a captivating filmmaker with very interesting ideas about narrative and the creative process, was frustrated by the refusal of many to testify for her film. So she rethought her planned documentary on the spot and morphed it into a part fiction, part investigative memoir, part meta-postmodern exercise. The results are absorbing if uneven, often frustrating the viewer.
The Blonds recalls Nicholas Kahn’s documentary My Architect in which the filmmaker seeks to learn of a father he never knew. True, The Blonds is a more engaging film; the fate of Carri’s parents at the hands of the Argentine military junta reads like a 20th century political thriller, a far more captivating prospect than Kahn’s search for a deadbeat if brilliant dad. (One could argue that the architecture itself is the star of My Architect.) But Kahn achieves what he set out to do: burrow to the spiritual soul of his father through a reflection on the man’s work, whereas Carri tells us nothing about who her parents were nor what ultimately befell them. Last year’s Brazilian Bus 174 broke "through the frame" too so to speak, with a scene in which the filmmaker enters a terrifying prison where inmates packed together like animals plead for their woes to be aired to the outside world. The scene is shown in reverse negative, assumedly to hide the identity of the clandestinely entered facility. The effect is chilling, as if director Jose Padilla had come across scores of silent, tortured ghosts whose spirits had suddenly erupted free. Melodramatic certainly, but the scene is in step with Bus 174’s objective of serving as an open window into the social calamities of Brazilian society. In contrast, the use of animated sequences utilizing dolls and Lego blocks in The Blonds is touching and poetic but contributes little else.
This is not a film that purports to be straight documentary; early on Carri gives up on the form because she is aware that it offers little chance of shedding light on her material. And so she turns inward. Adding dramatic elements such as an actress to stand in for herself, the film turns quasi-documentary—far different in tone than either Kahn or Padilla’s films, closer perhaps to the documentary-like narrative films of Harmony Korine. His Gummo, which The Blonds often resembles in style, was nonetheless a fictional film that presented a number of "real" people playing themselves within the context of a fictional narrative. That The Blonds concerns the deaths of two very real people (and one real family) makes one question the appropriateness of its sometimes flippant attitude toward its principals. As Carri seems to take a detached satirical approach toward her parents’ demise it is no wonder that her older sisters, who can actually remember the day their parents were snatched away by authorities, refused to participate in the film’s making. It is possible that exploring this material, going through the process of investigating the murder of parents she never knew so overwhelmed Albertina Carri that such creative detachment became necessary. Yet one can’t help but wonder what were the elder Carri’s politics? What did they do to bring down the wrath of the Argentine government? These questions are not even remotely answered.
An otherwise enlightening neighbor remembers the whole family as being blond, though they are and were dark-haired in reality. The impossibility of grasping the truth of someone’s story, even something as simple as someone’s hair color, becomes readily apparent—hence the film’s title. The "blonds" might have been the codename the secret police used for the Carris, but Albertina never finds out. In later scenes the actress standing in for the filmmaker begins to wear a Blond wig. Although this existential frustration at grasping her parents’ fate is understandable, this spiral into almost Dadaist nonsensical flourishes undermines the film’s effect.
And yet I could not help but be moved by the poetry of Carri’s narrative/documentary. Played by Analia Couceyro, the stand-in "Albertina" re-enacts certain scenes and sometimes even "conducts interviews" in the real Albertina’s stead, sometimes alongside the filmmaker. It is all far more brilliantly "meta" than anything Charlie Kaufman could think up. It just never really manages to illuminate anything about the story. Ultimately the movie, though intriguing and complex, seems more an exercise in creative possibilities that bode well for Carri’s future projects than a heartfelt exploration of the filmmaker’s family history and Argentine politics.