Pizza, birra, faso (1998)

Crime, just like any other job, divides people into classes. If you’re at the top, if you’re a Goldman Sachs banker, you can steal hundreds of billions of dollars, and the President will declare you above the law, and invite you into his cabinet. If you’re a small time drug dealer, on the other hand, you can probably get a life sentence for selling a few grams of cocaine. Pizza, birra, faso by the Argentinian filmmaker Adrián Caetano tells the story of Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, four petty criminals in their late teens who live in Buenos Aires, a glittering metropolis full of violent, third world slums, and hopeless young men going nowhere.

Pizza, birra, faso opens with what at first looks like a carjacking. El Cordobés, named after his hometown, and the asthmatic Pablo, push their way into a taxi cab, and rob a businessman at gunpoint, taking his wallet, and leaving him on the side of the road without his pants. Later we find out that it wasn’t a carjacking at all, but an inside job, that the cab driver works with Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés to fleece rich customers out of more than their fare to the airport. He also cheats the four young men out of their cut of the robbery on the pretext that Cordoba lost his cool and shot out the front tire of another taxi cab during the getaway. For the cabdriver, robbing his lackeys isn’t as dangerous as you think it might be since he maintains strict control over the guns, handing them out before the robbery, collecting them when it’s all over. Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, on the other hand, are at the very bottom of the criminal hierarchy, a Darwinian world where thieves rob other thieves, and where penniless young criminals like themselves are dependent on sponsors even to get the opportunity to do a job.

All they get for the trouble is enough money for pizza, beer, and cigarettes.

 El Cordobés, if not the leader, then certainly the most sympathetic member of the group, has a pregnant girlfriend named Sandra, a young woman who comes from an abusive family, and who shares space in a squat with El Cordobés and his friends. After Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés, out of desperation, rob a legless street musician, and she winds up getting arrested for their crime, Sandra decides she’s had enough. She moves back in with her violent father, and tells El Cordobés she won’t see him again until he gets a real job. There is, of course, no chance in the world that El Cordobés could ever get a legitimate job, but for Sandra the idea of going straight becomes a Utopian dream of escape. For El Cordobés, on the other hand, the dream of escape is all about setting himself up as head of his own criminal organization, committing a robbery without the help of sponsors. He dreams of pulling off one big heist that will give him enough money to take Sandra and his unborn child out of the slums of Buenos Aires to Uruguay, where, presumably, his criminal past won’t follow him.

“Promise me you won’t commit any more robberies,” Sandra tells El Cordobés, and he, reluctantly and dishonestly, agrees.

Nothing the four young men try on their own works out. They try working as pickpockets, but what little money they earn is lost when Pablo has an attack of asthma during an escape from an angry mob. They have to pay the doctors at the emergency room. They find another partner in crime, a young man named Rubén, who has access to guns and an old Ford, but the car breaks down after they rob a fancy restaurant, and they wind up losing all their money to a police officer, who demands a bribe in exchange for letting them go. Finally they decide to rob their old boss, the cabdriver who cheated them out of their earnings in the beginning of the movie, to take his car and his guns by force, and then do another job at the nightclub where they are regularly denied entry and insulted by the doorman.

The night before, El Cordobés meets Sandra at her parents house, and gives her two ferry tickets to Montevideo. Earlier, he had made up a story about how he had an honest job driving a cab, and now he lies to her that he’s made enough money to get them both to Uruguay at long last. You can tell Sandra doesn’t believe him, but she, like her boyfriend, is in a desperate straight. Her father’s started beating her again. Of course the robbery at the nightclub goes wrong. Nightclubs always exchange a lot of cash, but they also have armed guards. What’s more, the police are already looking for Pablo, Frula, Megabom, and El Cordobés. There’s a shootout. Frula and Megabom die. El Cordobés is shot in the stomach.

The final twist of Pizza, birra, faso is so subtle you might not notice it, but it suddenly illuminates everything that’s gone before. Throughout the film, Adrián Caetano has shown Pablo, Frula, Magabom, and El Cordobés in a sympathetic light. Considering that we see them rob a legless street musician, this is no easy task. Now, in the final minutes of his life, El Cordobés manages to reach Sandra, and hand off the money they got from the nightclub. Suddenly we realize that, petty thief though he is, El Cordobés is actually a noble soul who was born into an impossible situation, that he has the will to struggle through the pain of a fatal bullet wound to the stomach to reach the ferry, that he’ll do anything to give his unborn child a chance he never had.

“Did you keep your promise?” Sandra asks him, knowing that he didn’t.

“No,” he answers truthfully, and by doing so, hints that, perhaps, he did.

7 thoughts on “Pizza, birra, faso (1998)”

      1. Italy Spain and Greece are at 50%. France is more like 25% (and those probably in the North African banlieues).

        But yes, La Haine is an obvious influence on Pizza, birra, faso. I also thought of Over the Edge, although I’m not sure if Adrián Caetano saw it.

        The real difference between western Europe (or the US) and Argentina seems to be the strength of the state. In France, the carjacking that opened the movie would have been big news and mobilized the police. Here, Caetano dramatizes it as just another part of the landscape.

    1. Ah, Sorry. It’s 18-years-old and a very well-known film in the Spanish-speaking world so I didn’t think to give a spoiler alert.

      But I still think it’s worth watching. Nothing about it hinges on plot. You’ll know 5 minutes into it that nothing is going to end well, but you’ll still be drawn in.

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