Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pablo Trapero's CARANCHO tracks the ambulance-chasing vultures of Argentina

Don't step off the curb in Argentina, for this might be your ultimate move. Or so it would seem in Pablo Trapero's new film CARANCHO, which was Argentina's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film. The movie didn't get even as far as the short list, and TrustMovies is not surprised. Darker in every way than the Academy generally prefers, the film didn't have the tony love story of last year's Argentine winner, The Secret in Their Eyes. (The love story here is between an ambulance-chasing ex-lawyer and his drug-addicted doctor girlfriend.) Nor does it offer the perks of a who-done-it mystery, a frightening political backdrop, or the enormous grief of a lost love. Instead, it's got gritty realism and a lot of nihilism. But mostly it's got those traffic accidents.

What is particularly odd and ill-thought-out, I think, about Senor Trapero's work here (the filmmaker, who has given us some wonderful movies like Rolling Family and Lion's Den is shown at right) is that, in a film devoted mostly to traffic accidents, the camera so often stays in utter close-up. These close-ups are so close, in fact, that you only see a portion of a person's face. While this envelopes us in a kind of hand-held immediacy, it certainly does not work so well for the accidents, which we would prefer to see in something approaching full-screen. (I think we see only one in this fashion, the rest of are shown, again in super close-up or with sound effects only -- which is, of course, a major budget-saving technique.)  This seems even odder because the director has chosen to film in Cinemascope's 2.35:1 ratio.

I'm harping on accidents here only because the movie does, too. The first thing on screen is a statistic about the horrendous number of them in Argentina; the film's plot takes off from this premise and never leaves it; and all of its characters are satellites revolving around the theme. Finally, there is at least one -- maybe two -- too many of these bumper-scrapers by the movie's end, which should have you rolling your eyes and mumbling "Enough already!"

And yet Carancho is full of good things, starting with its cast. Supporting roles are mostly given to creepy characters who ply their trade in this ambulance-chasing game, and the actors who essay these roles fill them to a nasty, trashy tee. In the male lead is a terrific performer who should by now be more than recognizable to foreign film enthusiasts. Ricardo Darin (above, right, and further above, left) -- the star of everything from last year's BFLF winner "Secret/Eyes" to Nine Queens, Son of the BrideThe Aura and XXY -- gives another of his fully lived-in, sexy performances as one of the vultures (the English translation of Carancho) of the title. Whether he's a decent fellow giving in to his lesser impulses or a bad guy following the angels of his better nature, Darin does "conflicted" especially well.

As the doctor who first sews him up, then falls for him and -- once she cottons to his wicked ways -- is as conflicted as he, Martina Gusman (at left, in the two photos above and the one below), who was so memorable in Trapero's last film Lion's Den, matches Darin moment for moment, emotion for emotion.  These two make a great pair, and they keep us watching, even when the movie is approaching the ridiculous. It's one of those films in which the bad guys seems practically all-powerful -- until they aren't. Which makes one wonder why certain decisions were not made a bit sooner. But, whoops, then these guys are suddenly all-powerful again. Huh?

Perhaps action sequences are not Trapero's stock-in-trade. Those here are either done in the aforementioned odd close-ups or simply seem kind of silly, as does the shootout that caps the movie's visual action. On the other hand, the sequences in the emergency room to which the accident victims are taken could hardly be better. Unlike the ridiculously glossy stuff we see on TV, these have the immediacy -- the shock and awe -- of unplanned reality.  The doctors simply get in there, do their job and let the chips fall where they may. One patient pulls through, while the guy on the next bed does not. No undue drama, tears, or dialog accompanies this, only the difficult work that must be done -- and fast.

Carancho, from Strand Releasing, open this Friday, February 11, at the Angelika Film Center, New York, with a limited national rollout to follow.

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