‘Betibu’: London Review

BETIBU Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Tornasol Films

BETIBU Still - H 2014

Could have been leaner and meaner

Argentinian Miguel Cohan’s bigger-canvas, noir follow-up to his well-received "No Return"

As the Oscar-winning The Secrets in their Eyes showed, the Argentinians can deliver great noir, and Betibu, which comes from the same production stable, represents a solid addition to the canon. Like the best of the genre, it spine-tinglingly evokes the unpleasant monsters gliding beneath our smooth social surfaces. But while Miguel Cohan’s follow-up to his more compact, more involving debut No Return is full of good, small things, it’s compromised by surplus elements which ultimately leave it feeling unfocused, its satirical claws blunted. The film’s positive reception in Argentina has been followed by festival appearances, but offshore theatrical showings would also be merited.

Betibu is an adaptation of a novel by Claudia Pineiro, whose Thursday's Widows, similarly a study of what lies beneath, was successfully adapted by Marcelo Pineyro. A striking over-the-credits traveling shot which sets the visual bar high early. Businessman Chazarreta (Mario Pasik) is found dead on his country estate. Newspaper editor Rinaldi (Spaniard Jose Coronado) assigns vet journo Brena (Daniel Fanego) and rookie Saravia (Alberto Amman) to dig a little deeper, also recruiting novelist Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Moran), suffering from a case of writer’s block. to write a column about the ongoing case. Rinaldi and Nurit have romantic form and, wearyingly to both Nurit and the viewer, Rinaldo spends much of the duration trying to rekindle the ashes.

Along with a group of other rich kids, years before Chazarreta was a member of a gang of wealthy ne’er do wells, commemorated in a photo which has gone missing. Brena, Saravia and Iscar realize that one by one the member of this gang are dying in accidents, and before long they are in deeper than they intended.

The satisfyingly twisty plotline mixes up the usual ingredients into is a satisfyingly solid structure in which the stakes get ever higher and on which Cohan pegs a series of classic noir themes. The way that the past always returns to collect its debts, the contrast between rationality and instinct as a way of solving crimes, and the uneasy relationship between the press and the law -- which has a particularly contemporary relevance -- are to the fore.

But ultimately the film unpacks a throwaway, dark phrase of Chazarreta’s from an old interview with Brena: “the difference between a successful man and a powerful one is that the powerful man is untouchable”. This is what the plot of both the film and the novel on which it’s based are leading up to, in its quietly devastating final sequence.

Fanego as Brena is compelling, in the finest tradition of vet investigators. His silent yearnings for Nurit are perhaps the most humanly true thing about the film, as recognized in its title, the Spanish version of "Betty Boop", which is the nickname Brena has given to Nurit -- a small touch of human tenderness in a film, and a world, where human tenderness is pretty much AWOL.

Ammann, however feels surplus to requirements, unable to contribute much except as a sounding-board for Brena’s jaded wit, and just quietly dropped at the end in the hope that the viewer won’t notice. Another cut which the story would have survived, and which would in fact have given it a great deal more focus, is the entire Rinaldi/Nurit relationship, too obviously a mere distraction from the main business. Since both these dramatic weak spots involve the loss of a Spanish, not an Argentinian actor, the are obvious questions about whether co-production interference hasn’t come dangerously close to hobbling a perfectly good story.

By contrast, Gato (Norman Briski), Brena’s underworld connection, is a wonderful comic creation, a woollen-hatted paranoiac continually muttering about something called “The Organization” -- which the film credibly suggests may in fact exist. Rodrigo Pulpeiro’s photography exploits light and shadow to the maximum, especially when roaming around the comfortable interiors of the well-appointed country pads in which much of the film plays out. Technical credits are polished.

Production companies: Tornasol Films, Haddock Films, Balada Triste De Trompeta
Cast: Mercedes Moran, Daniel Fanego, Alberto Ammann, Jose Coronado, Osmar Nunez, Norman Briski, Lito Cruz, Gerardo Romano, Mario Pasik, Fabian Arenillas
Director: Miguel Cohan
Screenwriters: Ana Cohan, Miguel Cohan, based on the novel by Claudia Pineiro
Producers: Mariela Besuievsky, Gerardo Herrero, Vanessa Ragone, Daniel Burman, Diego Dubcovsky, Axel Kuschevatzky
Director of photography: Rodrigo Pulpeiro
Production designer: Mariela Rípodas
Costume designer: Valentina Bari
Editor: Irene Blecua
Composer: Federico Jusid
99 minutes