Dir: Orlando Lubbert. Chile. 2001. 90 mins.

The unexpected winner of the Golden Shell for best film in San Sebastian, A Cab For Three (Taxi Para Tres), a black comedy about a taxi driver drawn into a life of crime, continues the festival's current preference for South and Central American cinema: the top award has gone in recent years to work from Argentina (1998's El Viento Se Ilevo Lo Que) and Mexico (2000's La Perdicion De Los Hombres). The prize (booed robustly at the press announcement, although the picture was liked by a few critics) could be a mixed blessing in inflating expectations of the film, since this is an extremely small first feature, remarkable chiefly for its acerbic take on modern Chile.

Boosted by a vigorous promotional campaign, it has attracted over 200,000 spectators domestically since its release on 2 August. Abroad, business is likely to be on a modest scale, but the award will attract interest from specialist distributors and curious audiences in search of a rare taste of Chilean cinema. Further festival bookings, especially in Spanish-language territories, should also be on the table.

Ulises Morales (Alejandro Trejo) is a middle-aged cab Santiago driver struggling to keep up the monthly repayments on his ancient Lada. However his life is dramatically transformed when two muggers, the loud-mouthed Chavelo (played by popular TV comic Daniel Munoz) and the younger, vulnerable and slightly gormless Coto (Fernando Gomez), hijack his vehicle as a getaway car.

They propose two alternatives, "steering wheel or trunk": in other words, to become either their accomplice or their hostage. At first Ulises resists. But after the crooks democratically insist in giving him a third of their spoils, he yields to the temptation of easy money. Their crime spree starts modestly, with a bag snatch from an old lady. But it soon escalates into raids on a race course and a petrol station, with Ulises emerging as the gang's prime mover, egging them on to ever more ambitious heists.

The stakes are raised when the two hoods show up at Ulises's home, ingratiating themselves with his wife and family, while the driver begins an affair with a diner waitress who is a witness to one of their crimes. The story eventually takes a downright surreal turn when Chavelo and Coto become born-again Christians who attempt, without success, to make Ulises see the error of his ways.

A political exile, the film's writer-producer-director Orlando Lubbert lived in West Berlin for 20 years. He began his career directing documentaries in both East and West Germany, returning to Chile in 1995. Based on a real-life anecdote, A Cab For Three, his feature debut, seems at first a very lightweight, zany comedy but gradually reveals a political edge (Coto, for instance, turns out to be an orphan whose parents disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship).

As the protagonist's name hints, his odyssey involves a chain of moral choices and compromises: the film is a Third World version of a epic journey, but one in which the lines between comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains are constantly shifting. Without passing judgement, it paints an unsentimental portrait of people on the breadline who live in a culture defined by greed but still fight to retain a modicum of personal dignity.

The tight budget is compensated for by a trio of lively performances, Lubbert's snappy direction, and an appealing soundtrack of Chilean music, including Joe Vasconcellos' local hit Volante o maleta (Steering wheel or trunk).

Prod co: Orlando Lubbert Producciones Audiovisuales
Domestic dist: Orlando Lubbert Prods.
Int'l Sales: Orlando Lubbert
Exec prod: Lubbert
Scr: Lubbert
Cinematography: Patricio Riquelme
Ed: Alberto Ponce
Music: Eduardo Zvetelman
Main cast: Alejandro Trejo, Fernando Gomez-Rovira, Daniel Munoz, Elsa Poblete.