Overlooked: Luis Ortega’s “El Angel”

The styles of Tarantino and Almodovar meet in this mesmerizing, highly fictionalized account of an Argentinian serial killer

Few things match being captivated by a film about which you knew nothing going in, and that feeling is amplified when the screening is taking place in Havana, at the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. Cuban audiences are invested in their filmgoing experience in a way that is unmatched. It was there, last year, that I caught Luis Ortega’s El Angel, knowing only that it was about an Argentinian, baby-faced killer. Nothing, not even the rain dripping down from the theater’s leaking ceiling, could divert our eyes from the screen.

If Tarantino and Almodovar collaborated on a film, the result would certainly be something close to this. The story of real-life serial criminal and murderer Carlos Robledo Puch, it ravishes the audience with 70’s decor and music, bursts of extraordinary violence and boundary-pushing sexual fluidity. It is a subversive joy-ride that doesn’t shy away from revealing the empty soul at the center of its own beating heart.

A colorful, comic book version of the story of Argentina’s most notorious murderer, the film opens with the teen skipping out on school to break into a fabulous contemporary mansion, where he puts El Joven Guardia’s “El Extrano del Pelo Largo” on the stereo and performs a delirious dance number to entertain himself. Carllitos, it quickly becomes clear, really only wants to entertain himself; he has no capacity to imagine the consequences of his actions for anyone else. Lorrenzo Ferro, as Carllitos, perfectly captures the hallow, narcissistic actions of a junior psychopath, who does things — increasingly violent things — simply because he can. He doesn’t lack remorse so much as he doesn’t even register that anyone else would care about the chaos he wrecks.

Carlos meets his match in Ramon, played by Chino Darin (the son of actor Ricardo Darin). They meet cute, which in the context of this film means Carllitos introduces himself by intentionally setting Ramon’s perfectly coifed hair on fire in their reform school science lab. Ramon is a hustler who recognizes the criminal value of Carlos and takes him home to impress his parents, who worry that their own son may be more interested in a career as an entertainer than in the life of crime they have planned. In Ramon’s parents, Carlos finds role models more suited to his image than his own dull, middle class pair. In interviews, Ortega has suggested that the film’s narrative is driven more by his own childhood and adolescence than the true story of Carllitos Puch, and the manner in which Ramon’s family flaunt their sexuality is just one vivid element taken from Ortega’s youth. (Another is his scoring of a scene using his father Palito Ortega’s cover of “House of the Rising Sun.”)

Ortega isn’t new — he’s directed several films and dozens of television episodes, including Historia de la Clan — but the energy he brings to this project suggests a much younger director who has been stockpiling ideas that he can’t wait to spend. Much of the humor is visual, or physical: an out of tune piano that reveals a stash of stolen cash; Carlos’s girlfriend, who turns out to be the unhappier of two unhappy twins; a head perfectly framed in the hole cut into the back of an empty safe; a twitching, middle-aged testicle.

Carlos as a character is compelling but utterly unsympathetic. It seems clear that he wants to find a connection to something in this world, but the truth is he tends to destroy everything he touches, both people and things. The main object of his desire is Ramon, though the relationship seems mostly unconsummated. Ramon isn’t much better at navigating the world, but his ability to feel things and his admitted desire for attention mesmerize Carlos. When Ramon’s sugar daddy gets him booked to sing on a television variety show, Carlos is left to watch it unfold on the black and white television of their shared hotel room, seething with equal parts of passion and jealousy.

Some critics have found fault with what they view as the film’s psycho-sexual subtext: homosexual, closeted men who are driven to violent crime because of their repressed desires. This is reading an awful lot into a narrative that seems, in every individual second, driven by a desire to entertain and provoke. The protagonists, though lovely to look at, are too self-involved to register as fully sexual in any real way. They may feel desire, or provoke it in others, but they didn’t strike me as being ever on track for a happy ending. But narcissists on film are always fascinating, the perfect subjects for the audience’s voyeuristic gaze and so much safer than their counterparts in real life.

For a film driven to entertain, El Angel still manages to sneak in some real moments of depth. Cecilia Roth plays Carlos’s Mother as increasingly terrified by her only child but unable to acknowledge it even to herself. Though she starts out comically unable to see the obvious, she reaches a point at which she can’t turn away from the truth that she has created a monster that only she can destroy. The brilliance of the film is that it follows a similar path, utterly charmed by the “angel” at its center, but perfectly capable of recognizing that there is nothing funny going on at all. He is the devil, in the end, and like the Argentinian public who was captivated by the real story as it unfolded, we can’t help but feel a little thrilled and guilty for going along on the ride.

Author of fiction and non-fiction; dog guy; bad boxer. New book, City of Dogs, is just out now from Avery/Penguin.

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