movie thrillers

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

EL AURA (THE AURA)

ARGENTINA, 2005

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Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished.   The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street.  He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.

In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges.   The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.

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It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures.   He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience.   Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals.   Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.

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Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy.   How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances.  At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith.   El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.

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At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist.  The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her.   To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions.   Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure.   Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout.  In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.

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El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons.  She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine.  The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity.   The dog forages for food and is a searcher.  He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour.  This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog.   Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures.   Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.

The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.

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Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action.   Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves.   The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist.  The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie.  In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.

In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week.   If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men.   Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump.   Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded.   Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational.  If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records.   In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

TESIS SOBRE UN HOMICIDIO (THESIS ON A MURDER)

ARGENTINA, 2013

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So far Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio has not been made available to the people of Britain.  The DVD, though, can be imported from Spain. The bonus is that it has English subtitles. Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio came from the same company that produced the memorable Argentinian movie, Los Secretos De Sus Ojos.  Inevitably the two films were compared. Los Secretos De Sus Ojos recalled the Argentinian dictatorship and was great but, despite the acclaim and relevance, it had one big hole in the plot and an overextended ending. Los Secretos De Sus Ojos was not perfect.  And neither is Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio.   Indeed most of the film is tosh.  Argentinian cinema, though, is accomplished and smart, the strongest in South America. There is tosh and slick tosh.

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In the same way that grey London is often disguised by BBC drama the photography in Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio flatters Buenos Aires.  We see attractive restaurants, flawless apartments and really big buildings.  The movie is not just good to look at.  Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio is an example of how the conservative ears of cinema audiences can be satisfied without making the soundtrack routine. The orchestral arrangements remain but are highlighted by additions, simple chord arrangements emphasised by the piano or a horn. The contrived thriller plot of Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio may require indulgence but the film is more than a guilty pleasure.  If too much of what happens in Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio is unbelievable, the movie is luxuriant.  It also stimulates thought. The film has something to say about masculinity.  Female characterisation suffers, of course, but thanks to the presence of the handsome, sympathetic and accomplished actor Ricardo Darin as Roberto Bermúdez the film also appeals to women.

Mixing homage and the novel, clever audacity and some corn, Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio is rooted in or sourced from three films. These are the two classics by Hitchcock, Rear Window and Strangers On A Train, and the far from classic Sleuth.  Rear Window needed the paranoid suspicion of a weakened man.  Strangers On A Train had a destructive friendship between two accomplished but naïve males who were unable to understand one another.  Sleuth explored a problematical relationship between two men separated by age. All these elements exist in Tesis Sobre Un HomicidioSleuth began as a one set play.   Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio is Sleuth out on the streets and given fresh air.

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There are benefits to growing old but they soon disappear when challenged by the young.  Tesis Sobre Un Homicido may have faults but no one can claim it lacks ambition. Too much ambition is the problem.  Tesis Sobre Un Homicido attempts to deliver a crowd pleasing thriller full of surprises and a psychological study of a flawed man and even masculinity.  Each of the two elements weakens the other.  The plot means less attention is given to the psychological aspect, and the psychological drama undermines a story that, because of its contrived and abstract nature, needs to be a watertight puzzle.  Rear Window and Strangers On A Train have daft plots and require coincidence but the psychology is handled in a light way.  Their plots survive as sound constructions.  Sleuth may have more fame but it is inferior to Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio. The Argentinian film is never quite as self-regarding or as self-important as Sleuth.  This makes it more likeable.  Of the three films that provide the source it is the most ambitious that is inferior to Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio. This is not a coincidence.

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Throughout the movie the age of Roberto Bermúdez is made obvious and emphasised. He is an academic and legal celebrity who benefits from the flattery and attention of young admirers.  At the launch of his book he is picked up by a young attractive woman. They have a one-night stand, and later we are given a glimpse of her naked body.  The shot is discrete but it is enough for the audience to realise her physical perfection.  After the glimpse of the young woman the camera cuts to Roberto in his boxer shorts and t-shirt.  It is clear that this has not been a sexual encounter between physical equals. Roberto is phoning his ex-wife Monica, the woman he really wants to share his bed.  He apologises for the late call and tells Monica he was not aware of the time.  On at least three occasions in the film he has to ask someone the time.   When he visits a shopping mall, he asks Monica if the glasses he tries are suitable for his age. Roberto neither understands ageing nor how the passage of time will affect his life.  The emotional explosion of Roberto occurs in a discotheque. Frustrated by being remote from the young he becomes violent. His progress to self-destruction becomes inevitable. The discotheque scene is not the equal of the football match in Los Secretos De Sus Ojos but, like the tracking shot that leads into the football ground, there is no other discotheque in cinema that is so distinct. The entertainment is spectacular and loaded with surprise.  We see a man running and tied to a spot and bodies splash against a plastic sheet covered in water.   This peek into the sub-conscious reveals the troubled spirit of Roberto and his burden, a masculine identity that refuses to concede and mature.

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Although Roberto attracts girls who are interested in seduction his relationships with women are unsatisfactory.  Roberto may not be a rock star but in his world there is flattery, and it has not helped him understand the opposite sex.  The relationship with Monica, his ex-wife, is important because she is the one person who knows him. Their scenes, though, are underwritten. When Monica and Roberto meet, they do nothing more than provide exposition. The scenes between Roberto and Monica demonstrate how the plot of a thriller can undermine characterisation. More about the two people is revealed by his answering machine. Roberto has left the name of Monica on the message for callers. He is still dependant on her but this dependency is not explored in the script.

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Flattery from admiring students is transient. The real friends of Roberto are his male colleagues and rivals. Roberto abuses his body with cigarettes and ubiquitous whisky but he has the idea that his training as a boxer will help him to remain potent.  Instead of intimacy with women he has competition with other men.  Gonzalo Ruiz Cordera is the young man that Roberto suspects may be the psychopathic murderer.  Roberto may have his issues, and the cigarettes and whisky do not help, but it would take a lot more than the fragility and vanity of a middle-aged man to believe Gonzalo is a psychopath after one brief conversation at a book launch. The suspicions of Roberto occur too early in the film.  The plot would have benefitted from his suspicions appearing after a subsequent encounter in an art gallery.  Even then Gonzalo has said little more than a rebellious know-all student. The relationship between the two men, though, is interesting. The naivety of Gonzalo and his links to the unrevealed past and youth of Roberto benefit from being obscure.  The sparse dialogue of Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio, though, does not always aid exposition.  A viewer has to be alert to understand just what and how Roberto is investigating.   Neither the theft of the keys to the flat of Gonzalo nor the significance of the supermarket bill makes much sense although the latter is a clever idea.

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There are several movie references.  The water that falls from the bathroom shower into the glass of whisky is a neat variation on Psycho. The ending evokes the final shot in Citizen Kane. It suggests ambiguity except any sane viewer will form only one conclusion. Either that or ignore how the scene in the discotheque ended.  It does not matter too much.  If the two elements in the film do not always hang together, the proceedings move at pace and demonstrate gifted invention.

This week there has been familiar British indignation in an overheated Parliament about an international incident that deserves to be condemned but pales into insignificance when compared to the recent war crimes that the UK Government and its Russian foes have facilitated.  The talents behind Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio should not be criticised for struggling with a difficult cinematic challenge.  The film attempts to entertain and confront native weaknesses within Argentinian masculinity.  The ambition may be excessive but such objectives only exist within those who have a sense of responsibility. In British politics responsibility has been rare for some time. This week free school meals have been abolished for low-income families that earn less than £8000 per year. The elected representatives who passed this legislation claim each year on average £180,000 worth of expenses.  Tesis Sobre Un Homicidio examines the consequences of faded potency, paranoia, obsession and pathetic chest beating.  It is made by people who have a conscience. They should be welcomed even if on this occasion a not unpleasant result needs to be indulged.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.