'The Vanished Elephant' ('El Elefante Desaparecido'): Toronto Review

The Vanished Elephant
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A head-trip detective story with more than a touch of Borges

A crime novelist is taunted by the character he created

A word of advice to crime novelists famous for penning a single detective's adventures: Don't ever announce the series’ end. Doing so spells not just an outcry from fans but something like the dissolution of reality in Javier Fuentes-Leon's The Vanished Elephant, a trippy Peruvian mystery clearly inspired by Borges but touched also by North American authors from Chandler to Paul Auster. Though the metaphysical knots in its conclusion may not satisfy every viewer drawn in by the tantalizing genre beats leading up to it, the pleasingly moody picture makes a strong follow-up to Fuentes-Leon's well-reviewed debut, Undertow, and would likely have broader appeal in niche theatrical bookings.

Author and ex-cop Edo Celeste (Salvador del Solar) has spent seven years convinced that his fiancee's strange, sudden disappearance doesn't mean she's dead. When a local art photographer mounts an exhibition inspired by his series of Felipe Aranda mysteries, Celeste gets weird vibes from the model hired to portray the detective; soon, it appears the man is maneuvering him into investigating a real-life murder spree, with clues pointing to new information about his old lover.

The film's title refers to a mammoth rock formation that was destroyed by an earthquake on the day Celeste's fiancee disappeared; while Fuentes-Leon's plot hits Philip Marlowe-like gumshoe plot points (each putting more heat on Celeste, who is suspected by a local D.A. of having offed his girlfriend) his script emphasizes imagery of fragmentation, destruction and reassembly. (Celeste's tormentor leaves him packages of photos meant to be assembled, with the help of a coded short story, into a wall-sized mosaic.)

Del Solar brings no sarcasm to the role, and the sincerity of his determined investigation makes the hunt less fun than it might have been, as does the colorlessness of supporting characters. The serious tone does, however, lay the groundwork for a third act that is more philosophical than hard-boiled, forcing us to question every one of the story's building blocks. A writer whose whole career depends on one fictional invention would be well advised, if he wants to remain comfortable, not to look under its hood.

Production company: El Calvo Films, Dynamo, Tondero Films, Cactus Flower Producciones, Fast Producciones

Cast: Salvador del Solar, Angie Cepeda, Lucho Caceres, Tatiana Astengo, Vanessa Saba, Andres Parra

Director-Screenwriter: Javier Fuentes-Leon

Producers: Javier Fuentes-Leon, Michel Ruben, Andres Calderon, Delia Garcia

Executive producers: Miguel Valladares, Cristian Conti, Abraham Vurnbrand

Director of photography: Mauricio Vidal

Production designer: Susana Torres

Editor: Phillip J. Bartell

Music: Selma Mutal

Sales: Mundial

No rating, 108 minutes