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If The Boss, Anatomy of a Crime, the true story of a young farmhand exploited to a murderous breaking point based on a book by vaguely activist writer Elias Neuman, can’t convert any of us to vegetarianism nothing will. First time feature writer-director Sebastian Schindel very delicately tackles some of the thorniest issues facing Argentina, among them regionalism, class discrepancies, corruption and judicial rigidity and does so in an unfussy style (with a good dose of meat metaphors) suited to the material. The universal, and current, subject matter of worker exploitation should garner The Boss a healthy amount of festival attention and art house distribution in some urban markets isn’t entirely beyond its reach.
Hermogenes (Joaquin Furriel) is a farmhand from northern Argentina, Santiago del Estero, recently relocated to Buenos Aires in search of a better life. Saddled with a bum knee, illiterate and told so often he has no more value than a pack horse (it’s on his official documents) he fully believes it, Hermogenes takes a job at a butcher shop doing the heavy lifting and cutting meat. The shop’s owner, Don Latuada (Luis Ziembrowski) takes a shine to his work ethic and puts him in charge of another store, largely because he doesn’t trust the thieving, “filthy Peruvian” currently running it. Hermogenes is naïve enough to believe he’s being rewarded, but it’s clear he’s set himself up for brutal exploitation. Forced to live in the tiny back room of the store with his wife Gladys (Monica Lairana) as well as aid and abet Latuada’s fraud—the man thinks nothing of hiding the stench of rotten meat with bleach and selling it anyway—Hermogenes suffers one humiliation after another in stoic silence until he snaps and kills Latuada in broad daylight.
Most of that story is told in flashback as Hermogenes’ lawyer Marcelo Digiovanni (Guillermo Pfening), a hotshot attorney defending him in return for getting some his legal paperwork fast-tracked through the court, looks deeper in to the case. His investigation reveals the sordid truth behind the crime as well as an ugly regionalism still common in South America and a firmly entrenched pampas worker/boss dynamic that can easily go wrong. As Digiovanni tries to mitigate Hermogenes fated life sentence, he shines a light on the grotesque treatment and manipulation that Latuada was allowed to get away with.
The odd relationship between Hermogenes and Latuada, his “patron,” one that is the polar opposite of what he expects is the framework upon which the entirety of The Boss relies, and for the most part Furriel and Ziembrowski do admirable jobs in roles that could quickly descend into archetype. Schindel is careful to neither condemn Hermogenes nor justify his actions (it’s clear from the start he killed Latuada) and the film spends a lot of time asking the question of how much is too much? How much abuse can any of us take before we react violently? Ziembrowski does a masterful job of toggling between monster and benefactor, keeping Hermogenes—who he prefers to call Santiago lest he forget his place—off balance and unsure of himself. When Gladys challenges Latuada, he makes sure she’s removed from Hermogenes’ circle; when it looks as if he could lose his butcher to his hometown, he teases the prize of a new flat to keep him in Buenos Aires.
Regardless of the strong central performances and the infuriating and/or heartbreaking story, Schindel has tempered his chronicle to the point of dispassionate. Most audiences will expect fiery bench pounding and revelatory declarations, and while those kinds of big budget histrionics are by no means a must, Schindel could use a bit more emotion. We observe Hermogenes’ ordeal, we don’t really feel it. The Boss is a cerebral exercise rather than a visceral one and the story demands a bit of both.
Production company: Magoya Films
Cast: Joaquin Furriel, Guillermo Pfening, Monica Lairana, Luis Zimebrowski, Victoria Raposo, Andrea Garrote
Director: Sebastian Schindel
Screenwriter: Sebastian Schindel, based on the book by Elias Neuman
Producer: Nicolas Batlle, Fernando Molnar, Sebastian Schindel
Executive producer: Nicolas Batlle-Apima
Director of photography: Marcelo Iaccarino
Production designer: Augusto Latrorraca Escalante
Costume designer: Alejandra Szeplaki
Editor: Andres Ciambotti, Sebastian Schindel
Music: Lucas Kohan
Casting director: Victoria Raposo
World sales: Habanero
No rating, 99 minutes
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