Argentina (2017) Dir. Anahí Berneri
It’s known as the World’s Oldest Profession, yet it is one that is least likely to see those who work in it high on people’s esteem list. Regardless of whether you considered them near the bottom of society’s scale, they are still human beings and surely should be able to take advantage of the system without prejudice.
Young single mother Alanis (Sofía Gala Castiglione) is a prostitute working out of a tiny unregistered flat with an older woman Gisela (Dana Basso), who helps look after Alanis’ baby son Dante (Dante Della Paolera) when she is otherwise occupied. Posing as client’s the authorities raid the flat and arrest Gisela, summarily shutting their business down and leaving Alanis and Dante homeless.
Forced to sleep on the floor of dress store owning aunt Andrea (Silvina Sabater), Alanis seeks help from a social worker (Estela Garelli) but she is always too busy or unwilling to give her time. With few options open to her and needing a stable home and income to support Dante, Alanis juggles working legitimate jobs but soon begins seeing old clients on the sly when social services refuse to help.
Usually films about sex workers tend to rely on the inherent prurience of the subject to draw the audience in – Alanis is that rare beast where the focus is less on that line of work and more about the worker herself. Despite frequent but congruent nudity, there is only one sex scene in the film but it serves as a moment of self-examination for Alanis, though where it leads can be described as bittersweet at best.
Judging by write-ups for her modest film output thus far, director Anahí Berneri seems to have plenty to say about life in her native Buenos Aires and doesn’t sugar coat it either. Alanis is my first experience of Berneri but I believe I have a fairly good idea of how her previous films are based on this one – gritty, stark, steeped in realism, and approaching topics from an inquisitive yet forthright perspective.
The key to Alanis is that there is no judgemental tone apparent in the narrative towards sex workers whilst recognising the stigma begat by their job and lack of social mobility it incurs. Negativity from outside of the profession is momentary, born from exasperation and anger, not spite, eschewing the prolonged persecution and pariah treatment we’d see depicted in other films.
Alanis is not the protagonist’s real name, that would be Maria, but even she is respectful enough not to use it during working hours given the religious connotations attached to it. But with no home and no income, this is the least of her worries. Driven by defiance and duty to her son, Alanis isn’t complacent in looking for work; a cleaning job brings in a few pesos but Alanis finds this a slog, not helped by the local bus stop being covered in cards for the personal services she used to offer.
Checking out the scene nearby, Alanis returns to her old ways to Andrea’s disapproval. Borrowing clothes from the shop’s racks, Alanis sneaks out at night and scores a punter – except the area is run by ethnic girls who don’t take kindly to outsiders on their turf and Alanis is beaten up for her troubles. The tragedy is this doesn’t send a wake-up call to Alanis; it simply inspires her to move on to pastures new, in another shared brothel.
So, Alanis is essentially trapped in this world for the foreseeable future, apparently good for nothing else at aged 25 with an 18-month old baby to feed. Perhaps tragedy sounds extreme but the argument put forward here is the system is partly to blame. The raid on the flat at the start is handled with zero empathy and tact, just like a drugs bust, on two women and a baby.
Not always easy to root for, Alanis’ return to sex work is eye rolling, yet sadly inevitable as even the goodwill of others can be pushed to its limit. Only when Alanis is with Dante – played by Castiglione’s own son – do we get to see a pure, sympathetic side, ironically a façade for someone too young to know differently, where just his presence makes her troubles momentarily vanish, even if he is indirectly the reason for them.
Like many probing directors, Berneri uses the imagery to relay the unspoken. A common motif, if a little clichéd, is the use of mirrors as a symbolic gauge for how Alanis sees herself. The aforementioned sex scene sees Alanis facing a mirror as her client has her talk dirty to him. The ambiguity is profound – every aggressive word Alanis utters is directed at the mirror, which could be Alanis reprimanding herself, effectively agreeing with how others see her.
With a swift run time of just 82-minutes, Berneri still manages to take Alanis, and us, on a grim but eventful journey in a society where compromise is a one-way street. This implies Alanis is a victim of discrimination but also of her own doing, but that is left for us to decide. The Buenos Aires setting might be totally relevant or incidental as sex work is global, but as a window to another world, it affords us a fascinating peek into urban Argentina.
Rightfully rewarded on the awards circuit, Sofía Gala Castiglione inhabits the character of Alanis as if it was her own skin, and not just through the natural bond with her son, who is also remarkable. Castiglione manages that quirky paradox of being average looking she’d pass you on the street unnoticed yet mesmerising like a Hollywood icon, reflective of her innate charisma and lack of artifice in her performance.
How you view sex workers and their vocation might not change after watching Alanis, but it is impossible not to see them differently and realise there is a person behind the contentious image just like you and me.