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In Buenos Aires,
Deconstructing Woody

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 24, 1998


    'Deconstructing Harry' Argentines relate to "Deconstructing Harry." (Fine Line Features)
BUENOS AIRES — Here, in what has sometimes been dubbed the world's most neurotic city, perhaps it's only logical that Woody Allen rules.

That's right. In the slightly paranoid, often hypochondriacal and always guilt-ridden Argentine capital – which boasts more psychoanalysts per capita than anywhere on Earth – the New York nut case cum actor-director is what Jerry Lewis is to the French: one of the few Americans who can genuinely be proclaimed a genius.

His movies rank among the most popular of all time here; "Mighty Aphrodite" and "Everybody Says I Love You" are considered modern classics. And in less than one month, his latest film, "Deconstructing Harry," has pulled in about $1.5 million in Buenos Aires – compared with less than $400,000 during its opening month in Washington. And he has amazing staying power here. When his films enter the country, they go into wide, mainstream release – not just art theaters. He packs houses for months.

Allen's preeminence here is awesome – he lands on the cover of magazines and the fronts of T-shirts, and even desserts in Buenos Aires' famous cafes bear his name – one can belly up to the wrought-iron tables at one cafe in the fashionable Recoleta district and order a Woody Allen Banana Split.

Why Woody in Tango Town? Simple: The Argentines, like Allen himself, tend to believe they have more problems than the rest of the world and simply adore analyzing them to death.

"This is Buenos Aires!" said Salvador Sammaritano, Argentina's leading film critic – a self-proclaimed agnostic whose name translates as Savior Samaritan. His mother's name was Mary, his father's Joseph. "Didn't you know this city is filled with crazies? That's why we love Woody Allen. We relate to him and his characters like no one else."

This is one troubled town. You need only walk through "Villa Freud" – a zone with a vast concentration of analysts, and even a restaurant called Sigi's – to realize that Buenos Aires has found its soul mate in Allen.

Proportionally, it maintains Latin America's largest middle class, highly educated and urbanized. Yet this middle class – Allen's prime audience here – lives in a nation with one-third the per capita income of the United States, and far less prospect of achieving the rewards of their education and hard work, leaving them constantly unrequited and unsatisfied.

This country of 34 million is also populated overwhelmingly with European transplants who have felt culturally removed from their racially mixed Latin American neighbors. It's helped foster in Argentina, birthplace of the melancholic tango, an infamous reputation for isolation and loneliness.

And one other thing: Buenos Aires, a sophisticated city often called the Paris of Latin America, is home to roughly 300,000 Jews – the largest Jewish community outside the United States and the Middle East. Most of the rest of the population is Roman Catholic. So enough said about guilt.

Enter Allen and his movies, which are better than a therapy session, costing far less than $100 an hour, though the theater chair many not be as comfortable as the couch.

"I think it's easy for us to sympathize with Woody Allen," said Mirna Girolimini, 34, a Buenos Aires psychologist in line to see "Deconstructing Harry" at a cinema on the cafe-filled Avenida Santa Fe, loaded with grand, European-style buildings and movie houses. "His movies are about unfolding personalities, and people with problems that urban minds can identify with. We have a kinship with him and his search for identity."

To be sure. When watching an Eddie Murphy comedy – or, for that matter, even an episode of "Seinfeld" – with a group of Argentines, an American will often find himself the only one laughing. But with "Deconstructing Harry," not only do the Argentines laugh, they laugh in the right places.

During a recent showing of "Deconstructing Harry," the entire theater of Argentines seemed ready to bust their bladders from the beginning scenes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus having gnawing sex with her brother-in-law to the closing scenes of Woody Allen and a hooker named Cookie. The Argentines found the seemingly endless scenes that took place inside therapists' offices to be particularly hilarious.

"His comedy is psychological, intelligent and very associated with characters trying to understand themselves," Girolimini said. "He's very Argentine."

Allen's financial success here is impressive. Argentina is his third-largest market, after the United States and France. Not bad considering Argentina's smaller population, and the fact that it has a per capita income of $8,600 – compared with $28,600 in the United States and $20,800 in France.

"When Woody was on tour in Europe [playing clarinet in his Dixieland jazz band] there were Argentines who came all the way up to see him play," said Lucy Darwin, Allen's international publicist based in London. "They were some of his most vocal fans."

By default, this all means that Argentines harbor little love for Allen's former love, actress Mia Farrow, whose talent is viewed by many here as only as good as Allen made it. And the scandal with Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter and Allen's wife?

Let the words of a Buenos Aires taxi driver say it all: "Hey, he got a younger woman – what man here wouldn't want the same?" said Carlos Macci. "It's only logical, isn't it?"

Perhaps it's best that Buenos Aires and Woody Allen continue to work out their problems together.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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