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A man, 50-ish, tidily dressed and clearly middle class, walks into a school, introduces himself as Alejandro Williams and announces that he wants to enroll his son. Once he is alone in the school director’s office, he draws a gun and orders her to hand over the contents of the safe.
An hour or so later, he enters the director’s office in another school, introduces himself as Carlos Schultz and pulls out his gun again.
The action of first-time director Pablo Fendrik’s “El Asaltante” (The Mugger) takes place over a period of just 2 1/2 hours. Since the film itself lasts 67 minutes, the spectator follows the protagonist’s progress in raiding the educational establishments of Buenos Aires virtually in real time.
However, the patience this demands is richly rewarded, not in terms of a last-minute surprise payoff — though there is one — but in a gradual buildup of detail, mystery, tension and, paradoxically, sympathy for the “mugger.” The film’s unusual running time may limit its commercial opportunities, but it will certainly please audiences on the festival and art-house circuits.
Just why the gunman (Arturo Goetz) — we learn his real name, Ramos, very late in the proceedings — is targeting schools in particular is only revealed at the end. We are given no personal background. The man’s features are soft, homely, reassuring. We have ample time to observe them as we follow him through the city streets in a series of long tracking shots.
In a cafe where he stops briefly for a cup of tea, Mesera (Barbara Lombardo), a serving girl, accidentally spills boiling water onto his hand. Later the girl runs into him by chance and, sensing something suspicious, starts to trail him. He lures her to a piece of wasteland and pulls his gun on her, whereupon she has a fit. He flees, jumping into a taxi, but returns after circling the block. He takes her to see a pharmacist who gives her treatment. As he does so, the gun falls to the ground.
The man’s face as these incidents unfold is a playground for emotions, by turn displaying menace, courtesy, determination, anxiety, anguish, resignation and relief. The movie is built entirely around Goetz’s virtuoso performance, which is understated and finely judged. Fendrik’s direction from his own script is confident and unfussy, allowing the actor to find his own way.
It is not giving too much away to say that the denouement hangs on what happens when the man walks into a third school — this time a public-sector school, as opposed to the private schools that were his earlier targets. As the truth dawns, the man and the meaning of his actions are seen for what they are and suddenly appear terribly human.
Director: Pablo Fendrik
Writer: Pablo Fendrik
Producer: Juan Pablo Giugliotta
Director of photography: Cobi Migliora
Production design: Victoria Pedemonte
Editor: Leandro Aste
Ramos: Arturo Goetz
Mesera: Barbara Lombardo
Running time — 67 minutes
No MPAA rating
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