Dir/scr: Fabian Belinsky.Arg-Sp. 2005. 129mins.
A successful debut filmis always a difficult act to follow. Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky dealswith the pressure by giving us what might be described as the anti Nine Queensin his follow-up feature, El Aura. That multi-territory hit, whichspawned the US remake Criminal, was as sharp as a flashy card trick,with bags of attitude and fast-paced who's-cheating-who action.
El Aura takes the pace right down, swamping a heist plot -which, on the surface, promises some Nine Queens twists and turns - withsuch a detailed study of a passive, insular central character that the actionbecomes muffled, fuzzy, and altogether secondary.
The result is an original,atmospheric exercise in existential film noir, sealed by a mesmerisingperformance from Bielinsky's male muse, Ricardo Darin. Authoritatively directedand lyrically edited, it proves that Bielinksy's debut was no fluke, thoughsome may find the film's deconstruction of the heist genre too much of anintellectual exercise; audiences looking for Nine-And-A-Half Queens willgo away disappointed.
Fuelled by vigorous marketing and media coverage, El Aura had a massive opening weekend in Argentina, with over 120,000 admissions. Away from home, however, this is a less commercial prospect than Nine Queens, and has little remake potential. It will do best in territories with mature arthouse markets, where it should build slowly but surely on the back of critical interest and word-of-mouth. Celluloid Dreams can expect to build on the French, Australian and Greek deals already announced, though it is unlikely that El Aura will match the 30-territory figure notched up by Bielinsky's fortunate debut.
El Aura's focus is an epileptic taxidermist, a conflicted,introverted character, played by a careworn, furrowed Durin, who doesn't evenhave a name. All we learn about him is that he's good at stuffing animals, thathe has fantasies about pulling off the perfect robbery, and that he findsrelationships difficult (his wife, who leaves him at the beginning of the film,is no more than a silhouette behind the glass door of his workshop; he turns upthe Vivaldi to drown out her angry knocking).
His epilepsy is establishedin the opening frames of the film, as we see him coming round from a fit on thefloor of a bank's cashpoint vestibule. The "aura" of the title refers to thesuspended, dreamlike state that precedes a classic grand mal attack.
When a pugnacious colleagueasks the Taxidermist (as he is listed in the credits) to go on a hunting tripin Argentina's wild Patagonian south, he reluctantly tags along.
Less than a quarter of anhour into this two-hour-plus film, we leave Buenos Aires behind for the woodsand high sierras that will provide the backdrop for the rest of the story.Actually more than a backdrop, the scenery becomes a visual metaphor for theTaxidermist's mental state: a watery light filters through tall trees, blurringoutlines and suggesting an endless, open, autumnal prison.
The dominant coloursestablished by Checo Varese's disciplined photography are variations on darkgreen, dark brown and grey, with splashes of colour - like the blue and orangecasino chips that play a part in the heist story - standing out in unnaturalrelief.
An attack on a security vanstuffed with casino takings is the job that provides the film with its heiststructure, strongly sketched minor low-life characters and consequent storytension.
But Bielensky delights inloosening the grip of story and replacing it with a different kind of tension,based on atmosphere and quasi-symbolic elements, like the menacing Alsatianwith one blue eye and one brown eye that trails the Taxidermist.
Although he has aphotographic memory, Darin's character seems to find it difficult to interpret,or react to, present stimuli: he sleepwalks his way past the sexual chargerepresented by Diana, the intense young woman who runs the low-grade forest huntinglodge where the Taxidermist takes a room, and is utterly passive in the finalshoot-out.
Though there is action -some of it abrupt and violent - we can't escape the feeling that theTaxidermist is gradually merging into the impersonal natural background, likethe story itself, leaving only his aura behind. But it's a resonant aura, andone that sticks in the mind long after the lights go up.
Patagonik Film Group
Alejandro Carrillo Penovi
Nahuel Perez Biscayart