December 23, 2014
Szifrón’s wild tales work — and not
For the Herald
Damián Szifrón’s Relatos Salvajes is as good as it could be, and yet it isn’t. As a series of six autonomous stories, it runs into a common problem in films of this kind: not all the stories are equally interesting, or compelling, or well- executed, or ingenious.
After having been a privileged entry in the international competition of the Cannes Film Festival, where it received some 10 minutes of standing ovation, Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales) reaches local screens. So it’s no surprise that the first question that springs to mind is whether so much praise is indeed well deserved.
Szifrón’s two previous films — El fondo del mar (2003) and Tiempo de valientes (2005) — were somewhat small in scope, definitively not what you’d call blockbusters. Now the scenario is totally different: Relatos salvajes is produced by the Almodóvar brothers and it’s being released in 288 theatres nationwide, a figure unmatched by any other local release. It features a top-notch cast, including celebs such as Ricardo Darín, Oscar Martínez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Erica Rivas, Julieta Zylberberg, Rita Cortese, and Dario Grandinetti; it boasts impeccable production values; it’s clearly targeted to mass audiences (nothing wrong with that), and it’s had tons of non-stop publicity. Leaving these impressive facts aside, the question remains: how good is Relatos salvajes, after all?
For starters, let’s say it’s as good as it could be, and yet at the same time it isn’t. Being a series of six autonomous stories — six short films, if you will — conceptually interconnected by themes of violence and revenge, it runs into a common problem in films of this kind: not all the stories are equally interesting, or compelling, or well executed, or imaginative. Usually, these movies have two or three great stories and the rest are fillers or failed attempts. And Szifrón’s film is no exception.
Each story in Relatos salvajes deals with an individual that has had enough of other people’s nonsense, people who’ve pushed their buttons too many times. These individuals won’t take it any more — and like Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down — they take justice into their own hands. So, one way or another, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in previous films. Should the lack of originality be considered a drawback is up to you to say. Considering Szifrón’s film somehow strives to be original, and it’s not, I find it to be a minor flaw.
In narrative terms, there are two quite good stories that actually do have fully fleshed out characters as well as something to say. They do have a weight of their own and there are unexpected nuances within the formula. The other four, to a larger or lesser degree, are as predictable as they are safe and easy to like by a mass audience. And the characters are more action figures than anything else. It must be said, though, that all the stories are very accomplished as regards technique. From cinematography to art direction, from editing to sound design, real pros play the game here.
The opening story, Pasternak, is anchored on absurd coincidences: nearly everybody on board of a plane seems to have met a loser named Pasternak in the past, and in different ways it appears that they all made his already unhappy existence even more miserable. If they only knew what they have coming for them. I won’t spoil the fun for you, so let’s just say that as the opening story, Pasternak is fine. It’s like a good joke with an inspired punch line, told with good timing and enough giddiness. And don’t ask for more. But being the introductory story, it paves the road for the rest to come in an amusing manner.
Then there’s The Rats, where coincidence again plays a key role. This time, a waitress (Julieta Zilberberg) is given the opportunity to slay a usurer who drove her father to suicide. With the help of the cook (Rita Cortese) and rat poison, an unusual kind of justice will now prevail. But more than a short film, Rats is a good television skit that offers no surprise and no real drama. It’s played out by the book in quite a flat manner. It even feels too contrived to be as funny as it’s intended to be.
Road to Hell is more elaborate, it has more interesting ups and downs, and an involving dramatic progression that leads to a good climax. The story is once again stereotypical: a smooth driver (Leonardo Sbaraglia) with a smooth car on a mountain road insults a slow driver who’s blocking the way. Too bad the yuppie’s car soon breaks down and the other driver’s doesn’t. Get ready for a fierce fight to the death.
There are no problems from a technical standpoint, that’s for sure. But there’s no soul, no singular gaze, no personal mark. That is one of the structural problems of Relatos salvajes: the lack of a personal discourse. No matter how cinematically accomplished the stories are, some kind of point of view about the phenomenon of violence and revenge is necessary for good drama, even if it’s action driven drama. What is Szifrón trying to say? Other than the spectacle, what is there to see?
Bombita, which deals with an engineer (Ricardo Darín) who’s way too tired of having his car unfairly towed by the City government and is forced to pay outrageous fines, runs into the same basic problem: it’s well narrated, it’s more than well acted, but it has very little, if anything, to say. When it ends, you may think: and so what? Or maybe you will enjoy it a lot because you won’t even worry about what lies beneath the spectacle. It’s pretty much up to you, actually.
Enter the two good stories of the whole pack: The Bill and Til Death Do Us Part. The former is a true drama with no comedic hint at all. It concerns a wealthy man (Oscar Martínez) who pays an employee (Germán de Silva) to be the responsible party for a fatal hit-and-run accident caused by his son. There are real characters here, with personalities of their own, the conflict is well established in its own right — it’s not about any kind of display other than that of sleazy rich folks who won’t take the heat for having killed a pregnant woman and her baby. There’s strong stuff here and, to a certain extent, it’s well explored and has some insights. And what Szifrón seems to be saying may not be nice to hear, but it does ring true in the ruthless world we live in.
Til Death Do Us Part, as the title suggests, is about a wedding: a Jewish one at that. And it’s about infidelity, broken hearts, betrayal, pain, humiliation and deep sorrow. But it’s also about mayhem, emotional outbursts, sweet revenge, unrestrained feelings, and hysteria — all in the name of that little crazy thing called love. Considering much of the appeal of these stories lies in the surprises — and in the stellar, riveting performance by Erica Rivas — you’d better not know anything at all. This time is not predictable, not formulaic, not schematic. Just like in The Bill, this time there are real characters who do real things born from real feelings. It’s not about executing a well-written screenplay step by step, but about saying something out of the script about a very dear subject: the pains and joys of love.
Relatos salvajes (Wild Tales, Argentina, 2014). Directed and griten by: Damián Szifrón. With: Ricardo Darín, Oscar Martínez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Erica Rivas, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, Dario Grandinetti, María Onetto. Cinematography: Javier Julia. Edited by Damián Szifrón, Pablo Barbieri. Music: Gustavo Santaolalla. Running time: 122 minutes.