Directed by Pablo Trapero
Specializing in gritty city stories about everyday people hurtling toward a dead end in his native Buenos Aires, director Pablo Trapero carries the torch lit by Warner Brothers in the 1930s. In Crane World, a middle-aged man loses his job and can't find another. In Lion's Den, a mother struggles to raise her baby in prison. In El Bonaerense, a young small-town man in the big city is falsely accused of a crime, then strong-armed into joining the police force.
Carancho, Trapero's latest, is set in a literally shady underworld where gangsters exploit uneducated people who are injured or killed in traffic accidents, roping in washed-up lawyers to sign them on and then taking almost every peso their insurance companies award. Those bloodsuckers really exist, but after establishing the basics with a few documentary-style title cards at the start, Trapero couches his facts in neo-noir fiction. Flecked with bits of black humor, anchored by a poignant romance, and dressed down with studiously realistic lighting, sound design, sets, and makeup, Carancho is a darkly entertaining urban legend. (It was Argentina's pick for a Best Foreign Picture Oscar nomination this year, though the Academy decided to take a pass.)
Ricardo Darín of The Secret in their Eyes and Nine Queens plays Sosa, the lapsed lawyer at the center of the story—and the ambulance-chasing carancho (vulture) of the title. As Trapero told Michael Guillén , caranchos are no ordinary vultures: They're striking-looking, even impressive birds, but "Still, they eat roadkill." And sure enough, Darín's soulful machismo gives him a Pete Hamill vibe even as the naturalistic, often sickly lighting emphasizes his pouchy eyelids and doughy complexion.
A similar tension animates Darín's performance. Sosa looks convincingly seedy while absorbing yet another beating, and he acts deceptively trustworthy while sweet-talking another grieving widow into signing over her case to him, but when he commits to true love, his sad, searching eyes and confident body language win us over as surely as they do the drug-addicted emergency room doctor, Luján (Martina Gusman) he falls for.
Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia's handheld camera hugs the actors close, underlining both characters' unglamorized air of vulnerability by focusing on details like Sosa's thinning gray hair, the little rolls of fat on the back of his neck, and Luján's unexplained burn scar and track marks. The two live in a dispiriting world of cramped, closed-in spaces, overcrowded offices, and underfurnished hospital rooms where violence is one of the few constants. (In one of the darkly funny set pieces, Luján even has to duck gunfire in her hospital, after a couple of rival gangbangers wind up next to each other in a waiting room.)
In classic noir fashion, they're both waiting for something or someone to come lift them out of this life, and for a little while Sosa thinks their relationship may be the change they were waiting for. But in the end, of course, there's no way out of their marathon of misery.
And yet, despite the underlying despair, there's an understated, fatalistic feel to the story. It's as if Luján is speaking for the director when she repeats her favorite piece of advice, telling traumatized victims, grieving survivors, or hyped-up gangbangers to take it down a notch or two. "Tranquila," she coos. "Tranquila."
Opens February 11