Director: Pablo Trapero
Director: Cyril Tuschi
Director: Markus Schleinzer
“WE didn’t need dialogue!” snaps Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. “We had faces!” Sixty years on, there aren’t many visages in the cinematic firmament which would meet Ms Desmond’s approval – but the lady would surely make an exception for Argentina’s current ‘leading’ leading-man, Ricardo Darín.
With his hawkish, lived-in features – Serge Gainsbourg via Bob Dylan and Alan Rickman – this 55-year-old isn’t a conventionally handsome latino pin-up. But Darín is never anything other than an arrestingly charismatic screen presence – as UK arthouse denizens have learned via Spanish-language releases Nine Queens (2000), The Aura (2005), XXY (2007) and surprise Oscar-winner The Secret in Their Eyes (2009).
Carancho, Darín’s latest, looks highly promising on paper. A big box-office hit at home (Hollywood remake is apparently in the works), it’s the sixth feature by punchily prolific writer-director Pablo Trapero (El Bonaerense, Rolling Family, Lion’s Den) and casts Darín as Sosa, an unscrupulous small-time, no-win-no-fee lawyer who specialises in representing car-crash victims.
And since, as the opening titles inform us, there are 8,000 fatalities from such incidents in Argentina every year, there’s also no shortage of work for the likes of Sosa – cynical, amorally exploitative types known locally as caranchos, or carrion-feeding vultures. “Where there’s blame, there’s a claim,” as those notorious ‘Accident Group’ adverts used to crow – and, as is wryly noted here, “someone is always to blame.”
Sosa is going about his opportunistic business one night when he meets Luján (Martina Gusman), an idealistic doctor who specialises in accident-trauma. Both Sosa and Luján “deal” with the same people, albeit in rather different ways – and an unlikely romance slowly develops between the pair, despite a two-decade age-gap and an even wider moral chasm.
This all plays out against the moody backdrop of an overpopulated, traffic-choked Buenos Aires – and mostly after dark. If Sosa is indeed a “vulture” then he and Luján are also ‘night hawks’ in the Edward Hopper sense, two lonely souls seeking a little softness among the gritty unpleasantness of their working lives.
But while Trapero’s slick direction – boosted considerably by Julián Apezteguia’s digital cinematography, a night-town symphony of slates and cobalts – provides a smooth, high-octane ride, his screenplay (co-written with three others) proves an increasingly unsteady conveyance in the latter stages.
Various third-act contrivances – and a generous helping of blood-spattered histrionic melodrama – see the wheels fly right off the wagon, with unavoidably messy results. For all its merits, Carancho ends up like a telenovela-style Casualty special directed by Ken Loach – admirable in its social awareness and clear-eyed in its vivid diagnosis of a shameful social malaise, but not quite able to channel this indignation into the trickily narrow confines of commercial movie-making.
WITH his eagle-eye for the main chance, Carancho‘s Sosa would no doubt endorse distributor Trinity’s shrewd decision to release German documentary Khodorkovsky here just two days before Russia’s presidential election. And if the cards had fallen differently, it might well have been the film’s subject – Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky – who was the billionaire independent rival to runaway favourite Vladimir Putin, rather than the somewhat lesser-known (and less credibly “independent”) Mikhail Prokhorov.
As it is, Khodorkovsky is now Russia’s most celebrated prisoner – his jail-term for fraud is set to run until 2017, though only a couple of weeks ago the chairman of the country’s Supreme Court suggested that he might be released as early as October. This is one peril of making a documentary on an ongoing news story – there are always developments which take place after the end of post-production.
And Khodorkovsky actually world-premiered at the Berlin Film Festival over a year ago – amid much publicity over a break-in at director Cyril Tuschi’s office in which computers containing the final edit were reportedly stolen.
If this was – as cynics speculated – some kind of publicity stunt, it was one which Khodorkovsky itself didn’t really need. Hardly incendiary in terms of its content, it functions smoothly as an introduction to the 48-year-old’s commercial and political career – he was for a time Russia’s wealthiest man, and in the top 20 on Forbes magazine’s billionaire rundown – while along the way also illuminating yet another turbulent period for his nation.
This is an unambiguously personal project for Tuschi – not quite a Nick Broomfield in terms of camera-hogging, but present and visible as an engaged participant in events rather than a detached observer (“I immediately search my room,” he notes, when the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning causes him to fear for his own personal safety.”) We see the director/writer/co-editor in action trying – at times with a bumbling maladroitness that injects a welcome note of humour – to track down interviewees, for what ultimately becomes a fast-moving collection of talking heads, archive footage, extracts from Khodorkovsky’s genial jail-cell letters (voiced by Harvey Friedman) and the occasional, witty interlude of stylised-monochrome CGI.
Though most of the contributors are on balance pro-Khodorkovsky (“if he gets out of prison, he’ll be leader of the opposition”), strong dissenting voices are heard (“he stole a lot of money from Russia”). And it’s only when the charismatic prisoner himself finally appears in front of Tuschi’s cameras in the final half-hour that the tone gradually edges from objectivity towards hagiography – from documenting the facts towards campaigning on the prisoner’s behalf (Tuschi clearly reckons that justice has not been served.)
By this stage Putin, who we’re told was irreversibly angered by Khodorkovsky’s moves into politics despite earlier ‘agreements’ between the two, is firmly established as an ominously sinister foe. Indeed, the look of contempt he shoots Khodorkovsky after one particularly stormy 2003 meeting (“Putin felt challenged by … [Khodorkovsky's] open display of superiority”) is worth the price of admission on its own.
Of course, it suits Tuschi’s purposes to present Khodorkovsky as a potential Russian leader – one whose risky gambit has been to “sacrifice his queen in order to win the end-game”. Or, at least, to present him as a Putin-era martyr, cruelly incarcerated like some unholy cross between Ivan Denisovich and Gordon Gekko (Khodorkovsky “wanted to build a huge corporate empire”… “he personifies oligarchical capitalism.”)
The viewer is, however, given just enough room to draw their own conclusions from a two-hour film which doesn’t break any new ground in formal terms but which has a sufficiently ‘epic’ feel and enough visual strength – three cinematographers are credited – to justify its big-screen exposure, regardless of electoral-timetable considerations.
GIVEN the chummy tone of certain sections, Tuschi could conceivably have chosen the title Mikhail for his movie – but that would have sparked unfortunate confusions with another tale of involuntary confinement out this week. Austrian drama Michael, however, is named not after its captive but its captor: a thirtyish, timid office-worker (played by Michael Fuith), whose soundproofed basement conceals a 10-year-old boy, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger.) Michael has evidently kidnapped Wolfgang for paedophile purposes – activities which are strongly hinted at but never shown in a picture of very careful tact regarding the unpleasantnesses to which its young co-star is exposed at any particular time.
Our imagination is perfectly capable of filling in the blanks, of course, after the well-publicised Austrian cases involving Natascha Maria Kampusch and the Fritzl family – and, going back further, Belgium’s child-murdered Marc Dutroux – not to mention cinematic variations including the even weirder domestic situation depicted in Greek arthouse huit Dogtooth.
The Kampusch and Fritzl affairs focussed much attention on Austrian society, with questions asked if there was something about the nation and its social interactions which left it particularly prone to such horrors. Austrian cinema has, of course, long presented this prosperous, cultured and scenic country in a grim light via the films of Michael Haneke, Jessica Hausner, Ulrich Seidl and others – directors with whom Michael‘s writer-director Markus Schleinzer has worked for more than a decade as one of his industry’s leading casting-directors.
He’s clearly learned plenty from these collaborations: this is a quietly accomplished debut, one which pays minute attention to the shifting power-dynamics between Michael and Wolfgang, the incidental incivilities – and indeed the token kindnesses – shown by the former towards the latter no less disturbing than the nightmarish mechanics of domestic confinement. Michael thus effectively juxtaposes the banal quotidian details of this situation with the sadism and cruelty implicitly present within it, deploying short scenes that often end abruptly, keeping us off-balance.
Perhaps wisely, Schleinzer holds back from making any wider diagnosis of Austria’s social/spiritual “malaise” – though it’s telling that a character in search of a missing cat remarks that it’s “worse than if a child had died,” while one subtle scene implies that Wolfgang is almost certainly not alone in terms of his awful plight.
Schleinzer’s film – which, most unusually for a debut, premiered in competition at Cannes – does err a little in the way it relies on a queasy kind of suspense, especially in the second half. The director skilfully plays with our expectations and emotions on more than one occasion when it appears that Wolfgang might have become ill or even died – as when Michael, after a car-crash, is confined in hospital for several days – in a way that feels just a touch cheap given the grave seriousness of the crime being so forensically chronicled.
21st February 2012
written for Tribune magazine