Redolent of David Cronenberg's Crash and sundry episodes of ER, Argentinean filmmaker Pablo Trapero's sixth feature concerns two people who fall in love amid sudden corporeal trauma and creeping ethical decay. The influence of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros and 21 Grams), is evident here, though not his more excessive formal tendencies, which helps Carancho entertain, albeit in a conventional manner more associated with network TV drama. Shrewdly made with an eye toward commercial success, Carancho (translation: vulture) has an outside shot at straddling the arthouse/multiplex divide.
Numerous times throughout, characters are implored to "calm down" or "stay calm." Good advice if you're able. Tranquility is in short supply within the film's perilous milieu, which encompasses streets littered with car crash victims and the emergency rooms to which they're taken by ambulance. Along with inherent distress, somehow it's also natural (according to the laws of cinema) that two souls toiling in such a setting, administering medical aid or pretending to offer the legal variety, will find romance. In fact, it's a classic scenario: love grows in fetid soil, here sprouting through cracks in the asphalt of a Buenos Aires district where, at night at least, it appears only the reckless and mercenary roam.
Lujan (Martina Gusman) is a young physician from the provinces working as an EMT and later as an ER doc. On her shift one night she encounters personal injury lawyer Sosa (Ricardo Darín). Sosa chases ambulances literally; that or he's waiting in the shadows when they arrive at the scene, since he might have staged the smash up with larcenous intent. He works for a seedy law firm that, while posing as an altruistic foundation, is actually a crime front. He and his fellow corrupt counselors get accident victims and their relatives to sign over power-of-attorney and then pocket most of the money subsequently paid out by insurance companies. It's a low-down, lucrative racket and one that Sosa wants to leave behind, as any protagonist worth his salt would.
His quest for spiritual redemption is mirrored by Lujan's desire to do the right thing from a Hippocratic standpoint (she's a talented healer) and with regard to her career. Problem is she's become addicted to narcotics; shooting up is the only way she can endure the suffering she's trying to alleviate. As for the cause of that misery, the sociological hook employed by Trapero and his three fellow screenwriters is the high number of traffic deaths in Argentina, particularly amongst young people. According to the press notes, vehicular incidents are the number one cause of death in Argentina.
Yet rather than get bogged down in the details or implications of this state of affairs, Carancho is driven by two flawed lovers and a sleek thriller plot. Darín, star of last year's foreign-language Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes, and Gusman—who resembles Rosario Dawson, especially vocally—both turn in affective performances without being showy. Their relationship is as believable as the moral compromises that enable their paths to cross.
Trapero forgoes transmitting a lot of peripheral information or widening the movie's purview. Neither character has a significant back-story to make matters more complicated than they already are, and the plot is propelled economically yet with sufficient diversion. After a staged accident goes awry, Sosa's plan to extricate himself from his vulpine associates is jeopardized, as is his relationship with Lujan. Like lovers in a Warner Bros. yarn from the 1930s or '40s, they pay a price. But so do the real baddies.
Carancho's noir vibe stems from the scenario itself, plus claustrophobic cinematography and art direction. Only one or two scenes take place during the day or in a space that sunlight can reach. But another tech credit truly stands out: the rich, layered sound design by Federico Esquerro makes brilliant use of ambient urban noise, whether it's the near constant sound of traffic or, for example, the smack of billiard balls during Sosa's meeting with a crime boss in a bar.
Like the rumpled, middle-aged Sosa, Carancho is at once seductive and repellant. Without resorting to sensationalism, gratuitous gore, false spirituality, or any extraneous artificiality, Trapero has fashioned an emotionally involving picture. Its major pitfall is that it lasts one frame too long. I'm not usually a fan of unresolved endings, but less at the conclusion of Carancho would have amounted to more, no matter how logical the fate of its Latin American Bogie and Bacall.
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Martina Gusman, Carlos Weber, José Luis Arias and Fabio Ronzano
Director/Producer: Pablo Trapero
Screenwriters: Alejandro Fadel, Martín Mauregui, Santiago Mitre and Pablo Trapero
Genre: Crime/Thriller/Romance; Spanish-language, subtitled
Running time: 107 min
Release date: February 11 NY