Film and TV


Transplant the classic Western Shane to a ranch in modern-day Argentina. Spice it up with local politics. Add horses. And sheep. And freight trains. There. You now have a pretty fair take on Adolfo Aristarain's A Place in the World, an engaging coming-of-age story wherein the filmmaker also manages to mount the soapbox more than once.

Aristarain, it must be said, is no George Stevens. But his film was the Uruguayan nominee for the 1994 Best Foreign Film Oscar before the ill-named "Academy" of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kicked it out in a dispute over country of origin.

That reported, let us say that World is Argentinian to the bone--and political to the marrow. Those who've grown rusty on Peronist history and the military juntas that have ruled the country ever since will get a refresher course here. This is the kind of didactic film in which you can hear the filmmaker sounding off through the mouths of his characters--in this case Mario (Federico Luppi), an old-line leftist who's founded a cooperative for sheep ranchers; his young Peronist wife, Ana (Cecilia Roth), who tends to everyone's needs as the village doctor; the mean old landowner boss, Andrada (Rodolfo Ranni); and the dynamic Stranger in Town, a Spanish/German geologist named Hans (Jose Sacristan).

As in the Stevens classic with Alan Ladd, the Stranger affects everyone differently: Mario and Ana's teenage son, Ernesto (Gaston Batyi), through whose eyes we see everything, worships him as a hero; Mario admires his intelligence and skill; Ana's got a good case of the hots, of course, but just as Ladd and married Jean Arthur kept the temperature down in the original, love remains unrequited here, too.

Meanwhile, Aristarain lays on the usual dose of rewarmed South American ideology. Whether you call it soft-core socialism, generic populism or old-fashioned union organizing doesn't matter: The battle between Mario's sheep co-op and the evil boss Andrada, who may be aligned with an even more evil multinational corporation, provides the real heartbeat of the movie. It's also about human will and individual purpose (as many American Westerns were), but you can't help feeling Aristarain has used Shane as an armature on which to wind his own political agenda.

So? Why not? In the process, he also gives us a boy at least as wide-eyed and appealing as the Brandon DeWilde character of 1953, a loyal husband and father as upright as Van Heflin and a wife and mother as long-suffering as Arthur.

In fact, there's just one killing weakness in this pleasing homage to a great Western. You could scour Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and no twenty villains recruited there could equal the dark threat Jack Palance mounted as the hired gun Ladd faced down in Shane fully 41 years ago. Some things never diminish, and Palance is one of them.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo