One of the more curious (and disturbing) magic tricks of the movies is how they can make complete sociopaths kind of likable — or at least charismatic — in a way that would never happen in real life. Travis Bickle, Hannibal Lecter, Tom Ripley, Annie Wilkes, Henry Hill, the list goes on. Thanks to director Luis Ortega’s darkly comic new Argentinian import, El Angel, that list just got a little longer.
Inspired by the true-crime dirty deeds of a Buenos Aires teenager in the ‘70s named Carlos Robledo Puch, the film (which is Argentina’s official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar) is a portrait of a psycho as a young man. Hypnotically played by Lorenzo Ferro with soft features, an off-puttingly innocent grin, and a mop of corkscrew blonde curls, Carlitos is both utterly amoral and undeniably charismatic.
The film opens with Carlitos breaking into an upscale house and making himself at home, raiding the liquor cabinet, dancing to records in his socks, and sharing his philosophy in voiceover about how he was a born thief “straight from Heaven, a spy for God.” Then he makes off on a stolen motorcycle. He doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. When he arrives home, his mother (the wonderful Cecilia Roth from Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother) asks where he got it. She knows the truth, but she’s also willing to buy her son’s lame excuse. After all, what loving mother wouldn’t turn a blind eye and do the same?
At reform school, Carlitos hooks up with an older, more handsome classmate Ramon (Chino Darin), who, sensing that Carlitos is a fellow criminal in training, takes him home to meet his father (Daniel Fanego) — a scuzzy, ex-con and junkie who immediately puts the two boys to work as thieves. They hardly need arm-twisting. From there, the film becomes a fast-paced series of comical episodes about their half-baked exploits highlighted by Carlitos’ shockingly casual attitude about killing and robbing, while he harbors latent homosexual fantasies about Ramon.
Ortega has a real eye for flashy, chaotic set pieces and a real ear for excellent Latin rock needle drops on the film’s killer Scorsese-inspired soundtrack. The electric, caffeinated pace of their crimes brings to mind the kaleidoscopic underworld of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. And it’s easy to get hooked into the boys’ spree of mayhem. But after a while, Carlitos’ total lack of morality begins to wear a bit thin. Surely, there has to be some shred of morality or remorse buried somewhere deep inside of him? But maybe that’s a viewer wanting this troubled kid to be more human than he is. I guess, some people are just wicked. For a while, though, Ortega and Ferro work their miracle with real verve. They make being very bad look very good. B+