‘Operation Carrot’ (‘Zanahoria'): Huelva Review

Courtesy of Lavoragine Films
Slow-burning, stripped-back and intriguing thriller

Uruguayan Enrique Buchichio’s Huelva festival-winning take on politics, paranoia, and the press

Loosely based on real events, the unfortunately-titled Operation Carrot is thankfully far from the mashup of Bugs Bunny and Wallace and Gromit that it sounds like. It’s the kind of compact, tightly-focused story that resonates into all kinds of different areas -- in this case, into the secrets of history, into journalistic ethics, and into how power deliberately creates paranoia. So although though it’s set specifically in Uruguay in 2004, there’s something decidedly contemporary about Enrique Buchichio’s slow but compelling follow-up to his well-received debut Leo’s Room, which suggest that international fests are likely to take a nibble.

Carrot is set in the month before the presidential elections. Sad-eyed Alfredo (Abel Tripaldi) is a left-wing journo on the verge of world-weariness, is investigating accusations of torture and worse against the military. This is met by irritation from his editor Osvaldo (Nestor Guzzini, currently also visible in Uruguay’s Oscars candidate Mr Kaplan) and stone-walling from the establishment. So when a phone call comes from the mysterious Walter (Cesar Troncoso), promising documents and videos detailing names and places about the armed forces’ dark dealings that were the (real-life) Operation Carrot, Alfredo is hooked. “We’re in the dance hall,” he explains, as though he’s imagining himself to be in a Raymond Chandler adaptation, “ so we must dance”.

Alfredo and the younger, less experienced Jorge (Martín Rodriguez) meet up with Walter, who tells them he worked for military intelligence and now, twenty years later, wants to release the material because it’s the right thing to do. And in terms of the drama, that’s about it. Much of the rest of the duration is devoted to Alfredo and Jorge’s attempts to get their hands on the journalistically precious material in the face of Walter’s constant hesitations and changes of mind.

It might not sound like much of a plot, but Buchichio handles well the little shifting tensions in the relationships, cleverly keeping open the ambiguities before closing them down a little too abruptly over the final fifteen minutes. The viewer, along with Alfredo and Jorge, is sucked into Walter’s paranoid view of the world, in which every gesture, every car without a number plate, has dark meaning. But later in the film this is overcooked, while the denouement depends too heavily on an implausible lack of communication between colleagues. They’re late flaws in a script which has otherwise proceeded with efficiency and good judgment.

At a second level, the journos’ frustrating quest for the truth mirrors that of Uruguay as a whole, with people guilty of torture under the dictatorship still free and unidentified. Attempts to disclose the truth are being met by lies and deceptions, a point which the film also makes, not always subtly: a jigsaw of Picasso’s Guernica that Alfredo’s unsuccessfully trying to complete, for example.

Other characters are brought in, including Jorge’s pregnant wife Vicky (Victoria Cesperes), to show the toll all this is taking on Jorge’s family life. Less successfully, there’s Alfredo’s ex Silvina (Monica Navarro), whose main function seems to be to making our heroes look dumb, which is presumably unintentional. But performances are solid, with Troncoso standing out in a peach of a role, sitting nervously in the back of the vehicle with slicked-backed hair, smoking cigarettes, somewhere between a real informant and a parody of one. It is to his credit that the viewer, like Alfredo and Jorge, take a very long time to figure out just who Walter is.

Visually, Carrot is all about its emptiness -- nice clean lines and unpeopled, often nocturnal spaces showing Buchichio aptly drawing on noir tropes for his atmospherics. Having carefully-placed, unsettling distant music accompanying the uneasy trio’s lengthy in-car conversations is also a nice touch. But please, producers, do yourselves a favor and change that title for the international market.

Production company: La Voragine Films, Lagarto Cine
Cast: Cesar Troncoso, Martin Rodriguez, Abel Tripaldi, Nestor Guzzini, Victoria Cesperes, Monica Navarro
Director, screenwriter: Enrique Buchichio
Producer: Natacha Lopez
Executive producers: Guillermo Casanova, Hugo Castro Fau, Carolina Alvarez
Director of photography: Pablo Parra
Production designer: Daniel Fernandez Vaga
Editor: Guillermo Casanova
Composer: Mario Buchichio
Wardrobe: Ana Dominguez
Sales: La Voragine Films

No rating, 99 minutes

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