by Benjamín Harguindey
El Ángel (“The Angel”), which made its acclaimed debut earlier this year at the Cannes film festival and now rises to the coveted million-spectator mark in its native Argentina, is loosely inspired in the year-long crime spree of Carlos Robledo Puch, one of Argentina’s most infamous serial killers and to date its longest-serving prisoner. He was only 20 when he was sentenced in 1973. Smug, vicious, coquettish and graced with the face of an angel, Puch remains one of the most alluring and puzzling criminal cases.
Luis Ortega’s movie isn’t exactly true crime. It provides the broad strokes of Puch’s criminal career, but unlike most true crime it’s not interested in reconstucting an accurate chronology or psychologically puzzling out its criminal wunderkind. It doesn’t make any gran statements or take any particular positions regarding its subject matter. It sort of just marvels at it, dopy and gainly, as if recounting a tall tale via stream of consciousness.
Played by newcomer and surefire recipient of many a Breakthrough Performance award Lorenzo Ferro, “Carlos” is an upstart 16 year old from a middle-class family who enjoys breaking into affluent households and taking whatever he wants. Ramón (Chino Darín, of Muerte en Buenos Aires) catches his eye at school and provokes him into a fight, which segues into an enigmatic friendship as Ramón introduces Carlos to his parents (Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán in another bit of brilliant casting) and welcomes him to the seedy family business of burglary and gun trafficking.
Carlos is as fascinated by Ramón and his family as they are by him. The kid proves to be a natural at sneaking into houses and small businesses, looting them clean and getting away unscathed. He’s also pretty indifferent about gunning down guards, watchmen and whoever may startle him in the dead of night. It’s all fun and games for Carlos, but we get the feeling he’s mostly moved by curiosity rather than greed or bloodlust. He’ll wander around trying on jewelry, playing dress-up, going off-script, taking chances. When he makes his first kill it’s as if he’s walking through a dream, obliviously asking his victim if he’s alright as he loots a particularly intriguing picture.
An eerie courtship slowly boils between Carlos and Ramón. They ogle each other, they exchange cryptic compliments. The movie actually entertains the notion that Carlos may have sex with him, his mother or his father. This all seems a consequence of some strange four-way fascination. It’s clear Ramón’s family is motivated by vice and economic need, but what drives Carlos other than a sketchy personal philosophy of freedom?
At times the movie proves frustrating, so insufferably vague it can be about its protagonist. Other parts are so disconnected that the movie becomes episodic in structure and loses steam (such as the scenes in which the boys court twins, or an extended part in which they hide out in a pension for no particular reason). The whole second act is plagued with pools of nothing in which you suddenly start noticing how neat the lightning. The movie loses key players when Ramón’s parents vanish, but the introduction of a third wheel in the final act (Peter Lanzani) injects a much needed jolt to the increasingly anaemic tension between Carlos and Ramón.
More and more I found myself liking the movie for the things it wasn’t doing. For one thing, it doesn’t even pretend to be based on a true story: no disclaimers open up the movie, and there’s no ending epilogue with side-by-side photos clarifying the fate of the people involved. It must’ve been tempting to string together the plot with first person narration by Puch, but the script wisely sidesteps that too. There’s no intended meaning to Puch’s rise and fall, no real apology or condemnation either.
Ortega, who co-wrote and directed the movie, appears primarily interested in evoking a state of mind, in crafting a story around moods and attitudes rather than facts. Detractors have blamed him for “romanticizing” Puch, and that he does: with every lingering shot, with every close-up of his luscious lips and sultry eyes, with that coy little dance that bookends the movie and suggests Puch is onto something we the audience dare not. On the other hand the movie is such an obviously indulgent, impressionistic take on “true crime” that fact-checking seems like missing the point.
Give this to El ángel: it manages the rare feat of being transgressive without feeling pretentious. It instills a dark, uncomfortable fascination but doesn’t give you a clear way out. Carlos is your problem now.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).