While Making ‘Pizza, Birra, Faso,’ Bruno Stagnaro Had No Idea He Would Change Argentine Cinema Forever

'Pizza, Birra, Faso' still courtesy of Bruno Stagnaro

The first time I saw Pizza, Birra, Faso (literally Pizza, Beer, and Cigarettes – although an Argentine friend has suggested that faso also refers to weed), it was a revelation. The film picks up a trajectory running from Buñuel’s Los Olvidados through Roland Klick’s Supermarkt and Víctor Gaviria’s Rodrigo D. No Futuro, an invaluable addition to the canon of movies about waste-oid street youth trying to eke out a living in the big city, this time in the nineties shadow of turbo-capitalism. Héctor Anglada stars as Cordobés, a stick-up kid living from one robbery to another, while his pregnant girlfriend Sandra (Pamela Jordán) urges him to move with her to Uruguay so they can start a new life together – and for a time, the plan nearly works.

While refusing to flinch from the gnarly compromises Cordobés and his gang of friends accord themselves, Pizza Birra Faso neither moralizes nor titilates (beyond the foul-mouthed street-slang repartee of its antiheroes). Shot predominantly on location in Buenos Aires for the low cost of $187,000, Pizza Birra Faso is impeccably detailed, a present-tense debut toggling the modes of the TV movie (which it was originally designed to be) and something far less staid – a gnashing, bitter and relentless work, an earnest and unsentimental tragedy with many hilarious detours along the way.

On Sunday, March 4, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen Pizza Birra Faso in a new 2K restoration as part of their Neighboring Scenes film series, a positive early step in bringing this niche Argentine classic to a wider audience. Ahead of the screening, I spoke with co-director Bruno Stagnaro about Pizza Birra Faso’s 20th anniversary, making a street-punk movie with state money, and working with Anglada, a smoldering leading man who tragically died at the age of 26. Here are the highlights.

On the origins of Pizza, Birra, Faso

Adrián and I met shortly before making the movie, at a short film festival organized by El Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales (INCAA). The project of making short films with INCAA support became a feature film. Adrián and I would go out for drinks and talk about cinema, but it was circumstantial – a working encounter, not a casual one. We found out there was a contest to make a movie for television, so we had to write the script in three weeks to make our deadline, which gave us a crazy sense of urgency. Which is why our production company was called Palo y a la Bolsa – “on the rocks.”

The story was triggered by a real robbery, a story someone told to us from outside Buenos Aires, on the way to the airport, with a lot of details – we kept as much of them as we could, including specific dialogue. That was the bait for the movie, and then we decided to follow the robbers. We didn’t do any research beside that, but in all the locations we used – for example, when the characters go inside El Obolisco in downtown Buenos Aires, back then and still today, it’s a very businesslike place during the day, but at night it kind of brings out all this marginality, these outcasts. So we were trying to capture the sense of those places.

On working as a directorial duo

There was very little improvisation. The kids probably used some of their own slang in the dialogue, but basically everything was shot as written. Writing the script together had helped us. One day I would be taking care of the camera and Adrián tending to the actors, the other day we’d rotate. It was a unique arrangement, and it’s a special memory: the only conflict we had to deal with was being broke and a crew made of film students, working late and extra hours led to some friction which, in turn, helped me and Adrián come together as a duo.

On working with leading man Héctor Anglada

Héctor had worked with Adrián before on two short films in the province of Córdoba, where Héctor was from and where his character’s name comes from. Even though he had grown up in a very rough neighborhood, he was very transparent about his emotions. He actually lived with me during the making of Pizza Birra Faso; at the time I was 23 years old, and still living with my parents, so I shared my room with this Cordobese. We created a very special bond. His dream was to act on a soap opera produced by Channel 13, and he made his way to it – but his trajectory was a bittersweet thing, because he died in a motorcycle crash.

On the difficulty of achieving a wide release in Argentina

In all things, our main difficulty was money. We had the budget for a TV movie, to be shot entirely in interiors, and we turned it inside out, shooting on location. That extended the shooting days, plus a lot of the scenes took place at night; one of the most complicated ones was where they went inside the Obelisk. We tried getting permission to get in and we left the scene on the side while we waited for approval – but they never granted us permission so we decided to go inside and pretend we were tourists. Then the police showed up so we had to match the interior in a studio with whatever means we had.

The programmers at the Mar del Plata Film Festival wanted to premiere Pizza Birra Faso, but since we were originally budgeted as a TV movie, it was shot on 16mm. We had to convince INCAA to give us the money to blow it up to 35mm, which was a hard decision for them to make – it meant an investment of approximately $70,000. Getting that money was a big challenge, because we were in our early twenties and there was no knowing if it would be profitable; what we ended up doing was giving the original negative to INCAA, as a guarantee. But the film worked out, obviously, and we were able to pay the credit back and regain the negative. We had to work against the clock – we arrived at the festival with our 35mm print on the day of the screening.

On becoming one of the seminal works of New Argentine Cinema

We actually never thought it would have that impact. We thought we were making a film for television, and we wrote it in three weeks. Which also gave us the intimacy to do something not incidental, but more relaxed. It was quick and dirty filmmaking.

We had luck to be one of the first films with the energy of a new generation, a big group of kids who were studying cinema. I don’t think Adrián had any formal training, but I was studying at the University del Cine, where I was in contact with many other filmmakers who would become key in Argentine cinema. We were not conscious at that moment – it’s fortuitous that this film became emblematic.

We tried to break from the subject matter of the dictatorship – it had been explored already, by the previous generation. In that sense, our film was a reaction against that kind of seriousness – we wanted to do a more everyday life story, without an ideological statement – an exterior layer. I really value the sense of freedom and spontaneity that went into making Pizza Birra Faso – it’s something I’ve really tried to regain in my subsequent work, but it’s just different.

On Buenos Aires, then and now

I think the city still resembles the one in Pizza Birra Faso. Superficially, it looks better, sure – but I don’t think 20 years has yielded a lot of difference. I recently watched it again for the first time in several years, and I was surprised to see how little things have changed.