“The queer theorist Leo Bersani has argued for the “self-shattering” qualities of gay sex, but Plata Quemada foregrounds gay desire as a mutually shattering event. The film’s romantic nihilism is at the heart of both its appeal and its essentially troubling nature.”
Marcelo Piñeyro’s Plata Quemada (2000) (the title in English is Burnt Money) is an Argentine film that won the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film in 2001 and several other awards. Based on the 1997 “dirty-realism” novel of the same name by Ricardo Piglia (given the English title Money to Burn), Piñeyro’s film is a fascinating, hypnotic work that demands attention on its own stylized cinematic terms. Plata Quemada is especially interesting for several reasons. First, made on the “other” American continent for an expressly Argentine audience and yet managing to become an international art-house hit, the film offers an uncanny mirror image of the possibilities and potentialities, or lack thereof, available to U.S. filmmakers as well as audiences.1 These possibilities and potentialities relate specifically to the gay/queer themes foregrounded in this film. Based on a real-life historical event, Plata Quemada, about two gay bank robbers and set in the mid-1960s, is a languorous male-male version of Arthur Penn’s seminal Bonnie and Clyde (1967). One question immediately arises: is this a queer version of that film as well as a same-gender one? (Penn’s film itself has queer valences: Clyde Barrow [Warren Beatty] reassures Bonnie Parker [Faye Dunaway], “I don’t like boys,” after his failed initial attempt to make love to her. Part of his character arc is his eventual success in having sexual intercourse with her.) Argentina’s homophobic history seems to be addressed and also pacified in this film that, at once, evokes with extraordinary erotic intensity the brooding, premonitory atmosphere of sexual desire between men but never shows actual sex between men.
Plata Quemada intersects provocatively with the major themes of post-millennial Hollywood films. This period of Hollywood history has been dominated by the new “body genres” of torture-porn horror (exemplified by Eli Roth’s Hostel ) and the Beta Male comedies popularized by Judd Apatow. What crucially links these seemingly antithetical genres is their shared fascination with not only exposing but ravaging the male body, marked as straight, white, and heterosexual. In many ways, Piñeyro’s film offers its own version of this representational project.2 While the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, are usually identified as the defining “cause” for the tortured representations of masculinity in post-millennial Hollywood, Plata Quemada, like other films of its moment, illuminates the broader issues at work in these representations. Its fascination with the exposed and suffering male body cannot be explained by 9/11, but the film is also representative of those being made in its own period and in the years to follow in terms of its depiction of both masculinity and male bodies. The further question, surprisingly even for this film with explicitly queer content, is, to what extent is the representation of the male body a queer act or event? Because so many overlaps exist between Plata Quemada and Pedro Almodovar’s film Law of Desire (1987), I will conclude with a comparative reading of both works.
Plata Quemada recreates the events of a famous bank robbery in Buenos Aires in 1965. El Nene (played by the Argentine Leonardo Sbaraglia) — an aspiring doctor who did not complete his medical training, the black sheep of his prosperous family, and a petty thief who has served time in prison — and Angel (played by the Spaniard Eduardo Noriega), a drifter, become known as “The Twins,” recalling the famous Kray brothers of English crime lore. (Peter Medak made a 1990 film called The Krays about these titular criminals. Twin brothers, one gay, one straight, they presided over London’s criminal underworld in the 1960s.) But Nene and Angel are not biologically related but, rather, lovers who initially meet in the bathroom of a Buenos Aires subway station and form an unbreakable, if shattering, bond after this first sexual encounter. The queer theorist Leo Bersani has argued for the “self-shattering” qualities of gay sex, but Plata Quemada foregrounds gay desire as a mutually shattering event. The film’s romantic nihilism is at the heart of both its appeal and its essentially troubling nature.
The lovers join a group of well-established gangsters who plan to hold up an armored truck. Fontana (Ricardo Bartis), the boss of the group, and the elderly lawyer Nando (Carlos Roffé), preside over a motley crew that includes the Twins as well as the young, dark-haired Cuervo (Pablo Echarri), who recalls the sensual male crooners of the 1950s but with palpable sexual intensity. His girlfriend is an equally sexually palpable presence, a lascivious 16-year-old teenager named Vivi (Dolores Fonzi). During the bank robbery, the armed guards unexpectedly retaliate, and Angel is wounded during the exchange of gunfire, which leads an enraged Nene to massacre all of the guards as well as the police. As David William Foster points out, Nene’s behavior here violates all of the codes of such heists, in which any participant who happens to be injured is either left behind or executed on the spot by the other heist members to avoid any interrogation by the police (Foster 146). The Buenos Aires police, enflamed by the loss of some of their own, make finding the heist team a top priority on a national scale. The gang first hole up in Vivi’s apartment, but then escape to Montevideo. The police extend their hunt for the gang to Uruguay. As the gang waits for new passports, the film explores the related narrative arcs of Nene’s conflicted sexual identity — his need to prove that he is, if not heterosexual, at least capable of being so — and Angel’s psychic disintegration. (Angel hears voices in his head and is also obsessed with his own Catholicism. The film strongly suggests that he is suffering from some form of schizophrenia.) At the same time, the real drama seems to be the lack of intimate contact, emotional and sexual, between Nene and Angel, a hiatus that began with their escape. Indeed, it is unclear whether or not Nene’s own odyssey of sexual confusion primarily stems from some deep conflict within himself or from his deprivation as Angel withholds intimacy with him — on many levels, of which the physical is the most obvious.
Sexually spurned and melancholic, Nene goes to a movie theater alone where other men are cruising for sex. After making sexual overtures to an effeminate man he meets in a bathroom, Nene torments him by sticking a gun in his face, but then performs oral sex on him. Afterwards, Nene returns that night to the fair that he, Angel, and Cuervo had visited. There he meets a prostitute named Giselle (Leticia Bredice), with whom he develops a relationship. It is not clear what is primarily motivating this relationship — the need to prove that he can be heterosexual? Actual desiring feelings for Giselle (he does mention escaping with her alone as well)? A demonstrable need to secure a new hideout for the gang in Giselle’s apartment?
Nando is apprehended by the police, and when the group must abandon their refuge, Fontana goes off on his own. Nene brings Angel and Cuervo to hide out in Giselle’s apartment before they leave the city at night. When Giselle attempts to convince Nene, whom she clearly loves, to escape with her, and then forces him to choose between her and Angel, he chooses Angel. The devastated Giselle calls him a puto, or fag, and goes, not for the first time, into enraged hysterics; for his part, Nene tells Giselle that he will find her and kill her if she alerts the police to their whereabouts. Giselle, however, does just that. The police surround the building, and a cataclysmic shootout occurs. But during the shootout, in which the thieves decide to go out in a blaze of glory, Nene and Angel reconnect sweetly, passionately, and with a spiritual abandon to match their physical intimacy. After the round of police attacks, Angel tells Nene that he can no longer hear his maddening “voices.” Soon, Cuervo is killed (and dies being cradled in Angel’s arms), and as they await the next and most lethal rounds of police attacks, Nene and Angel burn all of the titular money. Unlike the real-life version of Nene, who survived the attack, was brutally treated by the police, and died shortly afterwards in the hospital, the film’s Nene is shot and dies in Angel’s arms. Angel is still in this “Pietà” position holding Nene as the police commence their unstoppable final attack. We do not see Angel die, but it is strongly implied that he willfully allows himself to be killed by the police.
Given the notorious near-ban on representing scenes of same-sex love and intimacy in American films, Plata Quemada‘s very subject matter for a film meant for mainstream audiences makes for a provocative contrast. In the view of critics like David William Foster, however, the lack of representation of sexual contact/intercourse between the two men is “laughable” in a film purportedly about this very subject. In an interesting contrast, 2001 saw the release of openly gay French director Patrice Chereau’s English-language Intimacy, about a tormented heterosexual love affair. Starring Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox and based on short stories by Hanif Kureishi (who also wrote a novel of the same title), the film was immediately notable for its graphic depictions of onscreen sex, literally engaged in by the actors. Catherine Breillat’s brilliant Fat Girl also notably depicts sexual intercourse in an explicit way (we see the erect penis of the boyfriend of titular heroine’s sister; part of the heroine’s sustained emotional humiliation is being forced to watch her conventionally attractive older sister having sex in front of her). We can say that, with Plata Quemada, Intimacy, and Fat Girl, 2001 was the cinematic Year of the Penis.
While I do not wish to exculpate Piñeyro or the filmmakers for their cowardice in failing to show same-sex screen sex, or for the misogynistic aspects of their representation of women, I do want to suggest that Piñeyro’s film is, much like Ang Lee’s 2005 Brokeback Mountain, which received similar criticisms, a study in the torments of the closet. Both Nene and Angel, it is strongly suggested, are left adrift by the sexual anomie they face within a culture of not only compulsory heterosexuality but also rigidly constructed and maintained gender roles. I would argue that, while a full range of sexualities would certainly seem to be unavailable to the characters in the film, even within the conventional homo/hetero divide that organizes it, the lovers are presented as balked in the very desire that unites and on some level liberates them. Angel’s hearing of voices emerges as an allegory for the barrage of social messages against his desires that attend the inner life of the closeted homosexual. “Don’t you hear voices, confusing you, saying ‘This is wrong,’?” Angel, slumped on the beach, asks Nene at one point. Similarly, Nene’s various, conflicted attempts at sexual contact with others, male and female, appear to be a reaction against, on the one hand, Angel’s spurning of him for much of the film and, on the other hand, his own conflicts over being a “puto,” an identity — or a set of practices — which he claims was foisted upon him in prison. But as played with palpable sorrow by Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nene is exquisitely tormented chiefly by his longing for connection with Angel and inability to break through his wall of psychic and emotional impenetrability. The film becomes a study in not having — not having either emotional or sexual intimacy, one of the reasons why the final connection the two men do make with one another, a restoration of their intimacy while they are fending off the full fury of the police force, is so poignant and ecstatic.
What Piñeyro’s film chiefly thematizes are the varieties of frustrated desire: waiting, longing, deprivation. We can interpret these forms of affect as queer melancholia, ways of inhabiting a maddening and inescapable queer identity. These affectional modes also allegorize the melancholia of the capitalist subject. All of the cash amassed by the thieves do little to alleviate their sense of tense and unrelieved boredom. Nene’s intense pining for the unavailable Angel is part of this melancholia of boredom — and also one of the forms of gender play in the film. While Angel is the more conventionally feminine of the pair — with his mad scenes, hysteria, and obsessive religious devotion — he also possesses all of the power in the relationship. This power is figured as chiefly the power to make his ardent lover wait. So, while Nene is someone who can easily “pass” as heterosexual, he is also cast into the passive role by Angel, waiting for any flicker of recognition from him. On its own terms, the film offers a probing rereading of gender codes. In Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush, I discuss the “double-protagonist film” that emerged in the 1990s, in which two male leads vie for narrative dominance; often, one of these male protagonists is typed as narcissistic and the other as masochistic. As a double-protagonist film, the film plays with modes of narcissistic and masochistic masculinity , with the surprise being that the seemingly suffering Angel, his injured, bleeding body bearing the evidence of his spiritual torments, is actually much more readable as the narcissist, the straight-acting Nene as the genuine masochist.
Plata Quemada uses the standard psychoanalytic register of homosexual narcissism — emphasized here in the physical similarities of these lover-“twins” — in innovative ways. The film is a study in doubles — the dark-haired twins and dark-haired Cuervo, who resembles Angel especially, and Viv as his double. (Emotional doubling also occurs. In her passionate and angry pining for Nene, Giselle doubles his pining for Angel.) So little, in the end, distinguishes Cuervo from the twins that the very dividing line of hetero versus homo comes to seem more than blurred, a matter of semantics. When Cuervo dies in Angel’s arms — the suffering, wounded Angel now the calm, generous comforter — the line is more than blurred: it’s redrawn as an entirely new form of bonding between men. (Perhaps the main point is that it is the straight Cuervo who seems like the “clone” of the gay lovers.) The film suggests that their shared outlaw position makes all of these men queer on some level — shunned, hunted, socially abnegated. The film evokes Jean Genet’s famous depictions of the gay outlaw, but it heals the overriding “anti-relation” motif in his work with tender, sorrowful connections in the face of death (eventually reached). Or the film can be said to be a surprising study in the possibilities of straight-queer solidarity in the face of a larger persecution.
If the film can only represent sexual intercourse when it occurs between a man and a woman, either Cuervo and Viv or, much more intensively, Nene and Giselle, and if it can only show us male full-frontal nudity during this scene, Plata Quemada also skillfully, in a way that recalls the more ingenious strategies of classic Hollywood directors who found ways to subvert the Production Code, uses its own limitations to extend its allegories of the constrictions of the closet and of what T. Walter Herbert calls Code Manhood. In the scene in which Nene has sex with Giselle, his naked body is forced into a tight two-shot in which her naked body also appears. It is almost as if the full range of pleasures he seeks is as constricted as the frame itself into which his much more expansive body must be crammed.
I would argue that in many ways Plata Quemada is a remake of Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire (1987). A bracing film that represents the near peak of Almodóvar’s first phase, which would conclude spectacularly the next year with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Law of Desire showcases the Spanish director’s signature blend of deconstructive cinematic techniques; melodramatic emotionalism that fuses classical Hollywood with the telenovela; vivid, almost cartoonish color; and garish costumes imbued with a camp sensibility. As José Quiroga has shown, this is a pivotal text not only in Almodóvar’s career but also in post-Franco Spanish culture. “La Movida Madrileña” emerged in Madrid after Franco’s death in 1975, a movement that represented the explosive releases from social, cultural, and esthetic repression of the era and that had powerful implications for gender, class, language, custom, race, cultural identity, sexuality. The emotionally aloof movie director at the center, Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), loves handsome young Juan, but Juan does not love him; the fiery and unstable Antonio (the young Antonio Banderas, a fixture of early Almodóvar) loves Pablo, but Pablo cannot return his love. Quiroga analyzes the rich thematic of the “chase” in this film as an allegory of the way that “gender is chased by sexuality, or the other way around — to the way in which gender and sexuality operate as a kind of mutual chase of affection and flight” (25-6). As Quiroga further analyzes, “Desire never quite involves the transit solely from one point to another, from a subject to an object, from one body to a different one” (30). The climax of Plata Quemada vividly recalls that of Law of Desire. Pablo, the cold, aloof, rejecting lover, finally holds Antonio in his arms and makes love to him with sweet, sexy tenderness. (Of course, this being an Almodóvar film, they only have one hour to be together in emotional and erotic unison, given that the police surround the building they are in and will soon shoot Antonio to his death.)
The scene of male lovers either making love or passionately embracing one another as bullets fly seems to be a queer interpretation of the final moments of Bonnie and Clyde. (In Plata Quemada, what the film lacks in explicit scenes of sexual intercourse between men it makes up for in its sustained study of homoeroticism. The entire climactic shootout is performed by the beautiful swarthy, hairy men in their underwear, an ironic commentary on their armored, heavily clothed pursuers.) Just before Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, surrounded by police officers brandishing guns, step out of the car at the climax, they exchange looks that would appear to be meant to suggest reserves of love and loyalty. Then once they step out of the car, they are annihilated by a blaze of bullets. As their bodies writhe in their death-throes, Arthur Penn famously slows down the action, turning the scene into a choreographed slow-motion dance of death. In Law of Desire and Burnt Money, this moment transforms into forms of ardent queer lovemaking that defy death while also suggesting that it is only death that gives this queer dance its license. At the very least, we can say that the glamour of the outlaw is a cult that extends to queer representation no less influentially than it does the mainstream. We might read these climactic connections as allegories for queer representation. The lovemaking as the bullets fly — or the tender physical intimacy with an erotic charge in Plata Quemada — is a desperate and fierce performance of erotic affiliation that burns brightest as the forces of conformity extinguish the flames of queer desire.
Bersani, Leo.Homos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Foster, David William. “Plata Quemada: Social Violence and Gay Idyll.” Chasqui, vol. 34, Special Issue no. 2: Cinematic and Literary Representations of Spanish and Latin American Themes (2005), pp. 145-150.
Greven, David. Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
Herbert, Thomas Walter. Sexual Violence and American Manhood. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Quiroga, José. Law of Desire: Queer Film Classics. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010.
Rocha, Carolina. “Contemporary Argentine Cinema during Neoliberalism.” Hispania, vol. 92, no. 4 (December 2009), pp. 841-851.
- “Argentine films accounted for only 3.5% of the released films in 1994.” Because of this diminishment of home-grown cinematic production, Argentina passed Law 24, 377 in 1994. “The law dictates the creation of a national public entity to regulate cinematography . . . and to develop local filmmaking. Specifically, 10% of the box-office income generated by both national and foreign films makes up a fund that, in turn, is redistributed among local film producers and directors” (842). Plata Quemada “deserves particular attention” for attracting “both cinemagoers and international acclaim” (845). [↩]
- Both the torture-porn horror films and the Beta Male comedies of Judd Apatow subject the bodies of their white male heterosexual protagonists to various forms of physical and emotional savagery that unify these disparate genres. [↩]