Bet you saw this coming: Damián Szifrón’s wildly successful black comedy-anthology, Relatos Salvajes, was shortlisted yesterday and will be competing alongside four other international blockbusters to win “Best Foreign-Language Film” at the 87th Academy Awards this February.
The cast and crew are ecstatic at the news: this could be Argentina’s third-ever Oscar win, after 1986 hit, La historia oficial, and El secreto de sus ojos in 2010, which, incidentally, also stars Ricardo Darín. So nothing new for him, then. Rita Cortese, who plays a murderous cook, will not be attending the ceremony because of her – ironic, considering the film’s opening scene – fear of planes. But she celebrated the picture’s ability to “cause laughter instead of pain,” along with the uneasy sense of identification viewers feel towards the characters.
The Spanish-Argentine co-production became within weeks of its release the most-seen movie in Argentine history, with nearly three and half million spectators at home, and has also stacked up an impressive 720,000 viewers in Spain. It has already won prizes at the Sur Awards, San Sebastián, Biarritz and even received a Goya nod. But in Hollywood, competition is expected to be tough as Relatos will be facing down Russia’s Golden Globe-winner Leviathan, Timbuktu from Mauritania, Estonia’s Tangerines, and critics’ favorite Ida from Poland, which is also up for Best Photography.
But Relatos is pretty good, too.
[Warning: There are spoilers ahead. Keep reading at your own risk.]
The picture splits into six short stories, each introducing a completely new setting and set of characters. At just over two hours, this would really be dragging on, if it weren’t for the sheer insanity of the plots. Although the shorts spread across a variety of locations and social classes, ranging from dark realism to gimmicky slapstick, they all hinge around the film’s ominous catchphrase: “Anyone can lose control.”
The stories all follow an eerily predictable pattern in which The characters, slowly pushed to the brink by the injustices and demands of daily life, suddenly crack in an explosion of absurd violence and exuberant release. Pushed past the “fuzzy line that separates civilization from barbarism,” we enter an unpredictable reality where characters take an undeniable pleasure in losing control.
A failed musician orchestrates ‘an accident’ for everyone who ever did him wrong. A waitress in a seedy diner serves the man who ruined her life. An obnoxious businessman and a country hick push the limits of road rage. A demolitions expert gets his car towed one too many times, with explosive results. A wealthy oligarch racks up a hefty bill while trying to buy off his son’s mistake. A “perfect” wedding implodes into slapstick chaos when the bride discovers her fiancee’s been cheating on her with a leggy workmate.
All these stories are completely insane, widely improbable and thoroughly unhinged, but for all that, it’s not hard to see why the movie was so popular. The situations the characters experience are the same we all face on a daily basis. We just wish we had the balls to give in to temptation and do away with decency to finally get our dues. It’s no accident that Romina, Érica Rivas’ brilliantly deranged monster-bride, becomes more sympathetic as she sinks to more and more sadistic extremes. Or that Cortese’s cook, who remarks “the world is run by bastards,” and reckons that maybe we should just do something about it, seizes our attention more than the unassertive, trembling waitress.
The film is wickedly funny, anarchic and intelligent, but what it really comes down to is a massive cinematic middle finger to society. I can picture Szifrón tapping away furiously at “Bombita,” the third story, just as his car got towed again even though he definitely parked it behind the line, and the guy behind the desk just won’t listen. There are more themes at work here: corruption, morality, personal responsibility, loyalty, family, self-control, and all of them have a daily universal relevance.
“We liked the movie a lot, we saw it as a portrait of the worse of human condition, and because of this, I think it is accessible to any culture,” explained Agustín Almodóvar who co-produced the movie alongside his internationally renowned brother.
Szifrón also commented: “Anyone can lose control. We often face the desire to do so, although this only rarely happens… When I read about some tragic event in the newspaper I never have the feeling the guy who committed the crime is that different from me.” There’s a lot of anger and injustice in the world and if we’re to buy Szifrón’s view on things, people are on the verge of not taking it anymore.
The awards ceremony will take place at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre on February 22nd, but even if Relatos doesn’t win, all is not lost. El Deseo is deservedly pleased with the picture, and is looking into producing some more “very risky” material, including Pablo Trapero’s El Clan and Zama which is due for release this spring and tells the story of the end of the Spanish colonization in Argentina.
So there’s also that to look forward to! If you still haven’t seen Relatos Salvajes, look up your local cinema listings and grab a bucket of popcorn.
Sorry for the spoilers, but then again you probably should have paid attention to my warning above.