'Angel' ('El Angel'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Angels with flirty faces.

Argentinean director Luis Ortega recreates the crimes of a notorious baby-faced killer, with backing from Pedro Almodovar.

Cinema has always romanticized the sexy young serial killer, driven to savage extremes by raging hormones in righteous revolt against adult authority. In Angel, Argentinean director Luis Ortega makes the latent erotic subtext explicit by training an adoring lens on his sexually ambiguous antihero's androgynous beauty, luscious strawberry lips and cascading blond ringlets. Imagine if the puppyish Tadzio from Visconti's Death In Venice grew up to be a trigger-happy psychopath.

Co-produced by Pedro and Augustin Almodovar, Angel dramatizes the true story of Argentina's most infamous and longest-serving convicted killer, Carlos Robledo Puch. Scheduled for domestic theatrical release in August, Ortega's film may prove a tougher sell outside Spanish-language territories due to its local angle and skimpy lack of context. That said, the film's LBGT dimension and Almodovar connection should attract discerning art-house players and connoisseurs of queer cinema following its Cannes launch today in the Un Certain Regard strand.

From the prison cell where he has languished for over 40 years, Puch recently suggested that Quentin Tarantino should film his life story with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead. Angel may not quite live up to the fantasy Hollywood biopic that he craves, but it is still a stylish period piece boasting solid performances, colorful visuals and a terrific vintage soundtrack.

Not yet 20, baby-faced big screen novice Lorenzo Ferro is a striking physical match for the real Puch in his adolescent bloom, his impressively understated performance hinting at sociopathic narcissism without overselling it. We first meet "Carlitos" in 1971, aged 17, as he casually breaks into a grand house in suburban Buenos Aires. Instead of searching for loot, he puts on an album of bouncy pop music and throws his own private dance party. In dreamy voiceover, he calmly explains he is a born thief who arrived "straight from Heaven, a spy for God."

Despite his comfortable middle-class background, there are clear signs that Carlos is addicted to trouble. At his new school, he provokes an unwinnable fight with handsome hunk Ramon (Chino Darin, whose father Ricardo is also in Cannes promoting Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows), their violent exchanges tinged with an unspoken homoeroticism. The pair soon become firm friends and partners in petty crime. While Carlos fends off flirtatious advances from Ramon's formidable mother (Mercedes Moran), his ex-con junkie father (Daniel Fanego) teaches the youngster how to handle firearms, an intimate scene charged with erotic tension.

Juvenile delinquents become armed criminals when Carlos and Ramon embark on a string of hold-ups and burglaries, leading them almost casually to murder. Carlos appears to shoot his first victim almost by accident, but he soon begins routinely killing people during robberies, his blank face untroubled by any hint of remorse or compassion. Meanwhile, his inarticulate carnal feelings for Ramon intensify. An aspiring singer, Ramon claims to be straight but has no qualms about trading sexual favors with an older gay art dealer (William Prociuk) in return for money and showbusiness connections. Carlos observes with an uneasy mix of lust and disgust.

All this thrill-hungry, thwarted longing leads to some petty dark places. Carlos and Ramon are eventually torn asunder by a bruising brush with the police, no laughing matter in a military dictatorship, and a fatal car crash which may not be entirely accidental. Then Carlos gets clumsy and leaves incriminating clues behind during a particularly pointless, gruesome bloodbath involving a blowtorch. Relishing his sudden media fame, his cheerful confession of mass murder shocks the Argentine people, who struggle to square the boy's angelic beauty with his diabolical crimes. Inevitably, "sexual deviation" is used to explain his sadistically amoral personality.

Frustratingly, Ortega offers scant insight into his protagonist's psychological or sociological motivation, merely speculating in his Cannes press notes that Carlos is a "fake psychopath" whose crimes were more calculated than compelled. His screenplay adheres quite faithfully to real events, even if the secondary characters have been lightly fictionalized. And yet, significantly, Angel overlooks some of Puch's more heinous crimes including the abduction, rape and murder of two young women. Gun-toting serial killers can still be sexy screen antiheroes, it seems, but sexual violence is a red line. Of course, cinema has no obligation to moralize, but this very specific omission does suggest Ortega has his thumb on the scales.

While Angel brings little new to the lexicon of serial killer biopics, it hits the target as an effortlessly palatable aesthetic experience, more shiny period pageant than probing character study. The retro fashions, cars and hairstyles are reliably vivid cosmetic details in classic Almodovar style. Likewise the busy soundtrack of vintage pop hits and torrid torch songs, which is deeply woven into the drama, reaching a kind of sublime peak in a set-piece sequence choreographed to a Spanish-language version of the folk-rock standard "The House of the Rising Sun". Julian Apezteguia's sunny camerawork adds to the overall sense-pleasing package.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Kramer & Sigman Films, Underground Producciones, El Deseo
Cast: Lorenzo Ferro, Chino Darin, Mercedes Moran, Cecilia Roth, Daniel Fanego, Luis Gnecco, Peter Lanzani
Director: Luis Ortega
Screenwriters: Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, Sergio Olguin
Producers: Hugo Sigman, Sebastian Ortega, Pedro Almodovar, Agustín Almodovar, Matias Mosteirin, Esther Garcia, Leticia Cristi, Axel Kuschevatzky, Pablo Culell
Cinematographer: Julian Apezteguia
Editor: Guille Gatti
Production designer: Julia Freid
Sales company: Film Factory
120 minutes