Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Drive Defensively: Carancho

Sosa is an attorney. Luján is a doctor. Together they should be one of Buenos Aires’ leading power couples. Instead, they are exploited by a corrupt legal system fueled by the city’s astronomically high rate of traffic fatalities in Pablo Trapero’s Carancho (trailer here), an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which opens this Friday in New York.

Reportedly, eight thousand Argentineans die on the roads each year, with an additional one hundred twenty thousand seriously injured. That represents a lot of money to shake down from the insurance companies. Unfortunately, Sosa is the man to do it. With his license in limbo, he haunts emergency rooms and funeral parlors on behalf his employer, an ostensive victims’ foundation crooked to the core. Sosa gets the victim’s power of attorney and the foundation gets their settlement.

Though a legit doctor, Luján finds herself also working as an EMT and all around medical wage slave to make ends meet. One night Sosa happens to chase Luján’s ambulance. While initially underwhelmed by the compromised counselor, there is something about the world-weary Sosa that also attracts her. Unfortunately, as their relationship develops, it brings her to the attention of his unsavory associates.

The term “grimly malevolent” does not adequately describe the vibe of Carancho. Trapero creates a world of seemingly perpetual night, where corruption is ever-present. It is a rather tough film, even by the standards of recent Latin American imports, with both Sosa and Luján taking frequent beatings. Yet, somehow such extreme experiences strengthen the bond between them.

Recognizable from last year’s Oscar-winning breakout art-house hit, The Secret in Their Eyes, Ricardo Darín probably looks ten years older in Carancho—and they are hard years. Yet, it is precisely his puffy-eyed, understated intensity that gives the film a sense of tragic elegance, notwithstanding the oppressively seedy atmosphere. Though somewhat younger, Martina Gusman persuasively sells their relationship, establishing real chemistry with Darín. Their compelling romance (if that is not too idealized a word for it) truly elevates the film beyond similarly naturalistic films from the region.

Although Argentina officially selected Carancho as its 2011 best foreign language Oscar contender, it paints a thoroughly unflattering portrait of the country. The hospitals are sweatshops (where sexism is hardly rare), the justice system is for sale, and traffic safety is nearly non-existent. Regrettably, Trapero indulges in the supposed zinger ending that most viewers will be hoping not to see from at least sometime early in the second act. However, as an overall mood piece and a showcase for Darín and Gusman, it is rather impressive. A solidly crafted pseudo-noir, Carancho opens this Friday (2/11) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.