Difference and Repetition:
An Interview with Laura Citarella, director of Trenque Lauquen
by Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer

Citarella’s films center a distinctly Argentine tradition of storytelling that privileges winding narratives and inconclusive endings. These attributes also feature in the work of her colleagues Mariano Llinás and Alejo Moguillansky, and of esteemed writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Juana Bignozzi, inspirations for Citarella and the rest of her filmmaking troupe, known as El Pampero Cine. As a powerhouse independent producer, Citarella has been behind some of the most daring works of Argentine cinema in recent years: the dance docu-fiction El loro y el cisne (2013) and the 14-hour La Flor (2018). As a director, she has contributed to this exciting boom in her native film scene by staging lovely portraits of rural Argentina that often veer into the realm of mystery. She first got involved with El Pampero Cine—who have made hours-long, genre-defying films over the last decades without state-funding and only using their own equipment—in 2008 as a producer on Mariano Llinás’s Historias extraordinarias. Their films are as unique as the approaches they take toward producing each one, which often involves sharing their works-in-progress with one another for months or years on end until a project is deemed complete.

Her most recent film, the four-hour Trenque Lauquen, won several awards at the 2022 Mar de Plata Film Festival and has since received critical acclaim around the world, including being named the best film of the year by Cahiers du cinéma. In many ways, Trenque Lauquen is a continuation of her feature debut, Ostende (2011), another mystery set in a small Argentine town starring the same lead actress, Laura Paredes. This October, Citarella visited the East Coast as part of a work trip that involved lecturing at Harvard and filming in New York. During a pit stop in New York, she presented a double feature of Trenque Lauquen and Ostende at Spectacle Theater. I attended the event and sat down with her to talk about the two films the following day at Café Fiorello, across from the hubbub at Lincoln Center generated by the New York Film Festival. Halfway through our conversation, another member of El Pampero joined our conversation by surprise.

Reverse Shot: I’d like to ask about your interest in towns. Both Ostende and Trenque Lauquen concern the stories embedded in their titular towns. What comes first: the setting or the story?

Laura Citarella: The answer is very clear for me: the setting comes first. Frank Capra said, “One man, one movie,” and for me it’s more like, “One place, one movie.” When it comes to making movies, even those I don’t necessarily come up with—as was the case with La Mujer de los Perros which came about because of the actress Verónica [Llinás]—I’m always drawn to settings rather than characters or actions. In my mind, the setting always goes first, and stories are of second importance.

With Trenque Lauquen there were many existing characters, ideas, and actors, but, above all, locations. For example, I decided to include the radio station in the movie because I’d spent time with my uncle who works at a local station. It made me think, I want to portray this place, but the mere act of filming it doesn’t do much, it doesn’t provide that place with any meaning. I thought to myself, how can a place reach cinema through fiction? What I do is work in reverse. That is to say: the radio station exists, so how do I make it enter the universe in which the film is taking place? That’s pretty much how it happens every time. Places appear so that they can be portrayed, and one could argue you could film them in a documentary fashion, but to me, fiction achieves a form of portraiture that is more dense and deep. When you imbue history into a setting you want to portray, that setting acquires another dimension.

Scenes and films always have their roots in settings. And it’s not just places I’d like to film, but also places that force me to think, as was the case with Trenque Lauquen, what the town is like, where the sun rises, where the sun hides, what it looks like on a map, what its geography is like. There’s something about a place’s design that profoundly interests me, and I like to ruminate on it before coming up with a film.

RS: Where does the focus on the Province of Buenos Aires stem from?

LC: The Province of Buenos Aires is a place where I lived for many years. I was born there. The town of Trenque Lauquen is very familiar to me. But each of my films is a different portrait and a different version of the province. Ostende is a small seaside town and in my film, it’s framed through the hotel where all of the action takes place. Trenque Lauquen is a town in La Pampa, and I was interested in both Trenque Lauquen and Ostende because they are very open settings. They are not as anonymous as cities where one doesn’t know what is happening to each of its citizens. These small towns are much more open to rumors, they inspire communication. I believe places where everyone knows everything about everyone are perfect sites to deposit small mysteries, surprises, and discoveries. That’s precisely the case with Trenque Lauquen and the love letters. In these towns, there exists a type of time that enables one’s sight and one’s hearing to find wonders where one believes none exist.

RS: You place these mysteries in Ostende and Trenque Lauquen, but you never really resolve them. Why do you withhold clear answers?

LC: Well, in Ostende the mystery is kind of resolved. Maybe the film doesn’t tell you who that man with the women was and that remains a mystery, but it does confirm the main character’s suspicion that something was going on at the hotel. It’s a small resolution. Because I knew that Trenque Lauquen would be made up of two movies that were in communication with one another, I wanted to do two things. The first thing I wanted to do was put the character in a little more danger than I’d previously done; that means allowing the character to enter the fictions they initially observe from a distance. In Ostende, the main character observes the central mystery from an outside perspective but never enters it. In fact, she leaves Ostende and the mystery remains, it continues. With Trenque Lauquen I wanted to find a way to get the protagonist involved in the mystery.

I’ve always said Trenque Lauquen is a film about mystery. There was always a need to find ways of reinventing the mystery or fusing it with new mysteries but never revealing anything because in this not revealing, I believe there is something grand being done in relation to mystery. It’s like magic tricks: if the trick is revealed to you, it automatically ceases to be magic.

RS: The magic trick becomes a disappointment.

LC: Totally. I think mysteries work in a similar fashion. All the characters in Trenque Lauquen that try to understand why Laura left or why she vanished, or those who try to find her, are very one-note; it’s generally the men who fail in the movie. I think the film and its characters reach far more interesting places when they do not seek logical answers to Laura’s disappearance or try to solve its mysteries. It’s as if resolving the mystery would confer a small death upon the film because it would lose the very question it’s chasing the whole time, the question that has to do with why mysteries perdure. Mystery endures where it cannot be revealed.

RS: Revisiting Trenque Lauquen, I began noticing Laura mimicking the mysteries she’s chasing. Much like Carmen Zuna, the character she is obsessively researching, Laura decides to walk across La Pampa, and like “El Chiquito,” she also ends up stranded by the lake in the middle of town under mysterious conditions. Your anecdote during the Q&A at Spectacle Theater about having had a different ending in mind—in which you took the place of Laura in the last act—plays into this notion of doubling. It’s as if getting involved in a mystery means you become one with it.

LC: I had to be able to show a woman peregrinating across the Argentine Pampa without it appearing as though she was in danger or crazy. Above all, I’m referring to Argentine literature and cinema, which has built up the image of the Gaucho walking across La Pampa and peregrinating across the Province of Buenos Aires, while denying women that possibility. It was my way of renewing the gaze in relation to that iconic image. Generally, when a woman finds herself in that situation in Argentine literature or cinema she is in danger or she is crazy, she inhabits the role of “something’s wrong with her.” I wanted to present a character who managed to emancipate herself and followed in the footsteps of another woman who also emancipated herself, which is Carmen Zuna. And, you could go on adding a bunch of stories of other women doing the same thing. La Mujer de los perros and Las Poetas visitan a Juana Bignozzi form part of this lineage; in fact, all of my films are in conversation with one another because one is always making the same films.

RS: You’ve previously stated directors always make the same movie and make the same arguments. In your case, is this ever tiring?

LC: There’s something about the intentionality that accompanies insistence that interests me when it comes to filmmaking. Insistence, repetition, returning to things, these are all things Trenque Lauquen leans on a lot. Ostende does something similar with the song fragment from Vincius de Moraes that’s heard throughout the film. I feel that repetition and insistence make you rethink your approach to filmmaking. When you’re coming up with a scene and feel uncertain about it—its movement, its meaning, its characters—you always end up with the same uncertainties. Time changes how you go about resolving these uncertainties. The point of departure for Trenque Lauquen was wrapping up Ostende and feeling as though I’d found a bunch of answers to some of my lingering uncertainties with filmmaking. I told Laura Paredes this. I suddenly knew how to stage a scene, but it was of no use because the film we were filming was over. That’s why I think you have to make another film and push it a bit further. I think about the scenes in Ostende and Trenque Lauquen as mirror scenes. But ten years went by between each film. In the interim I made two more films. As a result, the lingering questions and uncertainties I was dealing with in Trenque Lauquen obtained totally different answers.

RS: I’m assuming life’s interventions provoked new questions that necessitated new answers.

LC: As time goes on, life starts to get mixed up with cinema, so there are things that stop interesting me. For example, it’s what I was saying about wanting to put Laura in danger because as a 20-year-old she only looks at life through windows or sitting comfortably at a bar while on vacation, but things change when you turn 40. When you’re 40, that requires another level of commitment with reality. That’s why I had to create a character that put herself in a bit more danger, someone who offered her body. I get the impression that when you view films by directors you like, the same thing is happening; they are also insisting on the same questions with the hopes of obtaining little expansions and small variations.

RS: I believe the doubling effect we talked about earlier is a perfect example of these repetitions that result in variations. As such, there’s constant reinvention, which has to do with the method of filmmaking you described wherein a director must constantly rethink their approach to filming. How do you write a narrative that is always rethinking itself?

LC: The idea was always to write something that was mutating from the beginning, and the film’s structure abides by this logic. I always intended for the film’s pendulums to fuse and for its mysteries to leave little gaps, small doubts where a mystery could suddenly transform into another. But I didn’t always know how I would pull this off. While we were filming we started to find our language. If the actors had acted exclusively in relation to the genres they were inhabiting—the mystery genre, the thriller, or the romantic comedy—the film would not have been able to harbor all the mutations it now has. We made that discovery while we were filming. The first objective idea of Trenque Lauquen as a mutant film, with a structure that also mutated and constantly fused its mysteries, emerged while we were filming. It’s a film we kept rehearsing until we discovered what it was.

RS: At what point did Trenque Lauquen stop being a rehearsal and become a film?

LC: There was a lot of rehearsing. It consisted of filming and realizing things just weren’t working; there were great crises and epiphanies. Then we decided to restructure the film so that it would no longer be something so chronological and we decided to bring Rafael and Ezequiel, who originally appeared at the end, to the beginning of the film. I think at that moment, when the film was flipped, it suddenly came into focus, and we realized we were done rehearsing.

[At this point in the interview, Citarella and I are interrupted by a tap on the window. Citarella waves and director Mariano Llinás, a longtime collaborator of Citarella’s, best known for directing Historias extraordinarias and La Flor, enters the room. He voices his frustration about the cumbersome reservation procedure at the restaurant next door and Citarella invites him to join our conversation.]

LC: I’m here with a friend who has questions for you.

Mariano Llinás: With Trenque Lauquen? I was barely involved; I only wrote the spicy dialogues.

LC: He wrote the love letters, not all of them, but the first erotic one…

ML: Hot, spicy! I wrote all of them!

LC: You wrote some. We filmed, wrote, and rewrote.

ML: And while you were filming, I picked the kids up and took care of them.

LC: He is Laura Paredes’s husband. He has a son, so he came by often to take care of him and my kid while we were on set. But he also participated a lot with the script—offering opinions, writing the love letters, writing the Lady Godiva text, and working on the edit.

ML: I participated a lot with the first edit.

RS: You work as a family. In fact, Laura, in your interview with Cinema Scope you described El Pampero as a rock band.

ML: There’s something very important there. People from previous generations—digital natives don’t have an understanding of this—like the ’80s or the ’70s as is my case have an intrinsic connection to rock culture. When I was 17 years old, everyone was either part of a band or forming a band. It was natural. Rock bands were chaotic, and I’ve known many that separated. In our case, we wanted to build something akin to a rock band in cinema, something that deliberately tried to imitate the mechanisms of a band. From rock, we took this idea that everyone in a band played an instrument.

LC: The figure of the rock band also has to do with the fact that cinema is generally carried out in a different way, it’s often carried out within rigid systems. This structure makes you wonder, can’t cinema just be four friends getting together to practice jams in their garage, possibly record an EP, play some gigs, book venues? In short, isn’t there a different way to produce films? That’s what El Pampero Cine’s relationship to rock bands is in my view, as well as the fact that every member of El Pampero Cine has their role, their place, and their personality. Beyond that, there exists a willingness to exchange ideas and work as a group that’s very rarely found in cinema. This idea that members of a crew can switch roles or that films being made can be passed around within the group is generally considered something amateur or illegal.

ML: Well, that’s something that has to do strongly with our country. When she says “illegal,” it has to do with when the state supports filmmaking. There’s often this debate, especially now in Argentina, about whether or not the state should finance cinema. People accuse us of being against state-sponsored film funding because we generally do not work with public funds. I can understand that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true, because people don’t understand where we’re coming from and the cooperative work structures, we model ourselves after. No one expected rock bands to receive state funding.

LC: In Argentina, there have emerged productions that no longer depend on the state but on Amazon, and they work without unions. Here in the United States, if you ask an actor in a union to join your film it’s a whole thing, even in independent cinema.

RS: I’m interested in the fact that you never worked with El INCAA (Argentina’s Film Board) from the very beginning considering the pivotal role it played in launching the careers of most filmmakers associated with the sudden boom in Argentine filmmaking around the turn of the millennium.

LC: All of the Argentine filmmakers except us. Mariano has more to say about this because he’s the real veteran when it comes to our ideas. I get the feeling that it started—and maybe we don’t agree on this—as a reactionary attitude in which we were arguing, “Why must we make movies this way if we can make them this other way?” We were trying to give this rock band idea a place and trying to come up with a more cooperative way of making films. That’s when we set ourselves up in a way that was not uniform and changed from one film to the next. It started off as a sort-of fight to get what we wanted and spark a discussion, but now we might be at a point in which we’d like to talk to El INCAA about including productions like the ones we make in their funding plans.

RS: Is there a fear of becoming national directors upon working with the INCAA?

ML: I feel like that risk is still very far removed. I think being a national director isn’t just about production. It has to do with your mentality. For example, there’s probably very few films that deal with such Argentine themes as ours. In our films you see the Province of Buenos Aires’ landscape like in no other, there are gauchos, and many historic sites are featured. These are things nobody does. My movies have more and more to do with Argentina’s history every time. I don’t think these thematic foci will turn us into national directors because being a national director is something else—it has to do with a concept of cinema that is in service of a patriotic thesis. That’s something completely nonsensical.

RS: You mentioned rock bands can be chaotic and El Pampero is now more than 20 years old if I’m not mistaken.

ML: Twice as long as the Beatles.

RS: How do you do it?

LC: I don’t know. A lot of therapy, a lot of work, and a lot of discussions. The constant circulation of our work also generates some kind of motor. Crises and problems arise, but we fix them with time, work forces us to move forward.

ML: It’s more fun to make movies together than with outsiders. We all make movies outside of the group. Imagine a marriage that is obligated to have other relationships permanently. It’s not just that they have other relationships but that they’re obligated to have them. Then, naturally, when you have those other relationships, you always return to your primary one happily and think to yourself, “Ah, yes, this is who I’ve always loved.” I think something similar to that is what’s going on. I make a lot of movies in other places, but my house remains with them.

LC: I’m afraid of jinxing it, because whenever we’re thinking the least about being together is when we remain closest.

Special thanks to Josh Bogatin for connecting me with Laura Citarella.