Credit: Courtesy of El Pampero Cine
by Jesse Catherine Webber Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Small Mysteries: An Interview With Laura Citarella

April 28, 2023

In 2002, Laura Citarella co-founded El Pampero Cine with Mariano Llinás, Agustín Mendaliharzu, and Alejo Moguillansky. In 2011, they released Citarella’s first feature, Ostende, starring Laura Paredes, who would also go on to star in Llinás’ epic La Flor, which Citarella produced. That 14-and-a-half-hour film brought El Pampero Cine greater international attention, and on the heels of that massive achievement, Citarella has reteamed with Paredes once again, serving as both writer and director on her latest — Trenque Lauquen.

Though not as lengthy as La Flor, Trenque Lauquen spans over four hours and two parts, telling the story of the disappearance of Laura (Paredes, reprising a version of her character from Ostende). Slowly shifting focus from two men trying to untangle Laura’s story to a telling from her own perspective, the film’s length allows ample room for compelling tangents, as well as for an uncommonly rich characterization of a lead character. Trenque Lauquen confirms El Pampero Cine as one of today’s most exciting sources of cinema, and on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release on April 21, I sat down to talk with Laura about Trenque Lauquen and her filmmaking method.

You co-wrote Trenque Lauquen with Laura Paredes, who also stars in the film as well as in your first feature, Ostende. Was working with Laura — as a writer and an actor — a natural continuation of your relationship, or was it more a direct attempt to make a film in a different way?

There are many, many reasons. The first reason we decided to work together was that we had worked together on Ostende, and we wanted to continue working with the same character, because that character allowed us to invent a lot of scenes that were interesting for us in terms of cinema, in terms of thinking of possibilities of mise en scène. So, when we finished Ostende, we decided we wanted to work together on another film.

We were making La Flor, also, which is a film that I produced, and she was one of the main characters. So we continued working together and she’s also a friend of mine; she’s Mariano Llinás’ [Citarella’s producing partner and the director of La Flor] wife, so we are like a family. And we wanted to work on another thing, and it was very natural for us because we are also very close friends. So we decided to invent this kind of saga and to bring the same character to another universe, a universe of fiction, to another town, but keeping the same character, keeping the same curiosity of the character, the same ideas of the character regarding fiction, regarding this idea of a very — Laura [Paredes’ character] is like a voyeur that is all the time looking at reality and trying to find mysterious things in reality and in the world. So we wanted to bring this to another place.

We decided that this “place” could be Trenque Lauqen, because I wanted to make a film there, which is my family’s town — I was not born there, but I spent my summers during my childhood there. I decided I wanted to make the film there because it was also a way of portraiting the town, not only bringing in the same detective-esque character, but also because I wanted to show this place: to portray the radio, the streets, the lagoon, my grandmother’s house, my uncle who also appears in the film. I wanted to shoot an idea of the place.

So when we decided all these things, I also decided I didn’t want to work alone. Because I like to write with partners; I don’t like to write films on my own. So I decided to call Laura because she’s not only an actress, she’s also a theater director and she writes and directs her own plays. So I knew she could write with me. And it was great not only because she’s great as a writer, partner, and friend, but also because when we were writing her scenes, she would read her lines, and the character would already be there, which was an interesting experiment.

Could you elaborate on what it is about the character of Laura and her voyeuristic qualities that makes her particularly cinematic?

If you watch, for example, Rossellini’s films, with Ingrid Bergman, you will see Italy through the eyes of Ingrid Bergman. That was a great thing for him because he invented that character to show Italy, not through his alter ego, but through a character that was a foreigner in Italy. And, for me, Laura works in a similar way — because she is an outsider, she sees things as strange.

Working with a character from Trenque Lauquen or Ostende, it may have been difficult to have this new gaze at the town. If the character was not someone coming from another place, it would have been very difficult to make this character a voyeur. So the main thing is to bring a stranger to a town and make this stranger look at the town in a very particular way. Because when you live in the town, you cannot see the small mysteries hidden in it. But if you come from abroad, you come from outside of the town, you go through the door of Trenque Lauquen and suddenly, you will see lots of small mysteries hidden in different places. So that was one of the keys for me.

There’s also the idea that a character like this allows you to invent lots of possible mysteries, and they can spread because if you have a character that has this detective-esque idea of life, it’s possible that this character will be able to find stories everywhere. So the difference for me between Ostende and Trenque Lauquen is that, in Ostende and maybe at the beginning of Trenque Lauquen, the mysteries are something [the character is] looking at, and she’s thinking of, but then the mysteries start bringing her into the fiction. Her physical body is brought into the fiction because she finally goes to see these women. She finds something that she feels is a mystery, and then she goes to share a moment with these women, and suddenly she’s living with them. So it’s like she puts her body into the adventure.

The version of Trenque Lauquen that’s played at festivals and is currently being released in international markets is broken into two parts that are each a little over two hours. I’m curious if, first, you always conceived of the film as something that would extend beyond the limits of the traditional theatrical film, and second, how you arrived at the specific structure and balanced your vision as a filmmaker with the realities of how people watch movies in theaters and eventually in their homes?

I didn’t know that the film was going to be a four-hour film, though I knew that it was going to be long, because the script was already long. The film is as long as is needed. A lot of stories are told, a lot of things are happening, a lot of characters are suffering or having their emotional processes… I think that you need all this time to spread these stories and to bring them to cinema. So the other day, somebody asked me, “Why four hours?” And I said, “Well, the answer would be, why not?” Because it is thought that films should be like one-hour-and-ten or one-hour-and-thirty minutes. And that is something established by the market, but I don’t think of films as a merchandising process, but a mode of expression, of developing the language of cinema and trying to make cinema keep moving. So in a way, I’m not dealing with that kind of concepts of establishing a standard way of showing or telling a story with standard duration, and also a standard way of producing because the film is produced also in a very independent way, in a very particular way, which is something that goes far from the traditional way of producing films, and also the film is shot with a camera that is not the standard quality that is required nowadays for the making of cinema.

And so the decisions I made about the film are political, but they are also about what is needed for this film. Maybe if you want to make a film with another story with another character with another nature, you would only need an hour or an hour-and-thirty minutes or two hours. This film arrived at its own duration; that was the structure that was needed for the film to exist. So the duration is not something that you just decide, it is something that while you are making a film and you see the materials and you edit, makes itself apparent to you.

I think that people are a little bit afraid of watching films that are four hours long. You could also think that these are two films of two hours each, and you could watch them separately, or you could watch them together. People also are very used to watching 10 hours of TV series and they don’t complain. I think the difficulty is that going to and staying in a dark place for four hours makes people feel trapped. It’s interesting, because some of the classics are long, or directors like Martin Scorsese, who came of age in that classical period — they make long films. It’s something that you can find in the story of cinema, millions of things that are three, four, six hours long. But I think it’s something that is disturbing for people nowadays because the rhythm of life is different. But of course, if you like cinema and you like the experience of cinema, I think that’s not going to be a problem for you.

This film was produced by the collective El Pampero Cine, which you co-founded in 2002. I’d love to hear generally about how that group was founded, how it functions, and how that may have shifted over the last 20-plus years, which I’m sure is a big question. But also, more specifically, I’d like to hear about how working with the group has affected your filmmaking over time and how it affected this film?

Well, the group is a group of filmmakers, and we all change roles all the time. I produce the films they direct and they work on the films that I direct. And that’s something that we found through all these 20 years. And we’ve been making things in a better way. We started slowly, we eventually started showing films to the whole world, but because we are very independent, we initially didn’t have the tools to show our films internationally. And then we started going to festivals and being part of more important, prestigious places.

I think the key to understanding El Pampero Cine is that there is no standard. Standard is a word that we don’t even use, because we don’t work with the standard of quality that is requested by distributors, we don’t work with actors that have, say, 20,000 followers on Instagram, we don’t work with standard durations, with standard formats, and we don’t work with the standard mode of production. For each film, we think anew, how we can produce this film, rather than working in a uniform mode of production. We are always moving and reinventing ourselves and the films, and so when we start to feel that we are working in a systematic way or that we are repeating ourselves, we try to rethink those methods. The idea of being in movement all the time is one of the keys of El Pampero Cine.

We also don’t have a boss, we don’t have a producer or investor telling us how to make films, how to finish them, how to show them, or when we have to finish. I think that’s another key, because we work in a very horizontal way, and we are a… I don’t know if collective is quite the right word, but in a way it is. And apart from that we are friends so that’s easy because we understand each other and we know how to deal with each other because we know each other very well.

I think that Trenque Lauquen would have been very difficult to make more traditionally, because usually I [determine] what a film is as I’m shooting it. When you apply to a production fund, for example, you have to tell them your motivations and how you imagine you will shoot the scenes and place the camera. Usually, I don’t know those things before going to shoot because I think that the film is also a document of how you learned to make it. So for me, it’s important to have this sensation of play alive, that you can go to set and try something and suddenly you have an idea and you shoot it and that informs your approach to the film. It’s something that happens on set, it is not something that you can come up with in your house, in your office, in front of your computer.

Of course, you have to work a lot before, during, and after production. But, for example, I don’t usually rehearse with the actors, because it’s much more important to me to work with them on set. One of the main actors in Trenque Lauquen is Ezequiel Pierri, my husband, who isn’t a professional actor, and so I didn’t know how he was going to work. I wrote the character for him, and I knew he could play him, but it was much better to go to the set, and to try different things with him there to figure out the character, rather than doing that in my office in Buenos Aires. This is something that is possible because of our way of producing films. If you tried to make a film like this in the mainstream industry, you wouldn’t have the time, you wouldn’t have the money to pay the actor, which of course wasn’t an issue for me because he’s my husband. And so you couldn’t go to the set to experiment, because you wouldn’t have the time or the money, and you wouldn’t have the buy-in from your actors, because people are just going to set to work and then want to go home.

Being in a group also means that we are aligned in the same pursuit of asking questions and testing hypotheses about cinema. We’re this sort of club where we have similar sensibilities and we like the same films and we can discuss our own films from that shared point of view, but we also give ourselves space to make our films — in the moment, on set — and not before we get there in our heads. I think that’s key to how we produce films.

Research is something that is a big part of most filmmakers’ and artists’ work, but in this film’s first part, we see its characters engaging in their own research in a way that felt novel to me. Where did the idea for that plot come from, and how did it mirror your own process?

It’s a mix of things. I realized the other day, during an interview, that I really love letters. I’ve written letters to friends my whole life. Even as a kid and I would see my friends every day we would write letters to each other. It’s something that I really like, and that I find really romantic. I also find that there’s something secretive about letters, that it’s not the same thing to say something as it is to write it and send it to someone. So I really like this idea of letters. And then, there are two different ideas. On one hand, of course, I do research before making films. I read books and watch films, and those lead me to other books and movies, and I map them out to help organize my ideas. It’s a very expansive system, so if I buy a used book and there’s something written in it, or a little piece of paper inside, I include that as well. I started thinking about how that might be a good place to start a mystery, to unfold that little, little hint into a full story. So that was something I was interested in before I started writing.

And then there was this character of Carmen Zuna. For me, it was interesting to work with this character who is very representative of a generation of women. When my grandmother was 30, she lived in Trenque Lauquen and had three children. She was very particular, and the people in the town thought she was crazy and that she wasn’t a good mother. For example, she bought herself a car, and for the people in this small town in the ‘60s, it was very annoying for this woman to own a car. So they thought she was crazy and she was taken to a psychiatric institute where she was given electroshock therapy, and a lot of things happened to her just because she was very particular. I found this story to be very typical for a generation of women because I started talking with friends who had grandmothers who were given electroshock therapy just for being eccentric. So I thought it was interesting to invent a character who was occupying such a place in the town: a teacher with a very active sexual life, with this Italian lover, which is common in Trenque Lauquen because there are lots of Italian people and descendants of Italian people. And the idea that an active sexual life had to be kept secret. So I realized I was a little bit obsessed with this type of character, and it was great to be able to combine my interest in letters and notes written in books with this teacher having an erotic correspondence, and for all these elements to make sense together in the film.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.