As much as we thrill with stories of heroism and valor, there’s just something inherently compelling about a bad guy. From Hannibal Lecter to Walter White to Tony Soprano, popular culture is rife with examples of monstrous, morally-bereft characters committing acts of unspeakable cruelty before the rapt, admiring eyes of an adoring audience.
These are characters who lie, cheat, murder, and betray on a regular basis, and yet the audience has been conditioned to not just empathize with them, but actually cheer them on. These villainous protagonists with dubious moral compasses provide us with the vicarious thrill of doffing the heavy shackles of societal convention and just letting loose, wreaking havoc. And because they are often entirely fictional characters, we also get to rest easy with the knowledge that no actual people were harmed in the process.
Things get a little murkier when the story is an adaptation of real-life events and the “bad guy” in question actually existed. When the devastation left in his wake is very much real, and dozens of lives were either driven to ruin or literally snuffed out of existence by their cruel actions. Suddenly, those visceral thrills start to feel a little gross. Then we start asking questions about the ethics of art, and whether a film that presents itself as a fictionalized retelling of real-life events has any inherent responsibility to be impartial and truthful.
You’ve probably seen signs for Luis Ortega’s new film El Angel splattered all over town, featuring a handcuffed Lorenzo Ferro smirking smugly as he is escorted by police. It’s a strong choice for a poster, immediately compelling you to find out what happened to get that young kid into that situation.
As one of the widest releases in the history of Argentine cinema, the film needed to attract as many eyeballs as it could. But given the fact that the film promised to tell the story of one of the most infamous killers in the country’s history, it was going to get a lot of attention regardless of how many bus stops they decorated.
El Angel introduces us to Carlos Robledo Puch (Ferro), a teenager with a penchant for breaking into other people’s houses, making himself at home, and casually “borrowing” things. Puch is initially presented as a sweet but mischievous kid with an utter disregard for the concept of private property. In high school, he forms a connection with a fellow classmate Ramón Peralta (played by Chino Darín), and together they embark on a journey of increasingly violent crimes.
All the while, Puch’s long-suffering mother (Cecilia Roth) worries that her son has given in to his darker impulses, but she couldn’t even begin to imagine the depths to which Carlitos is able to plunge.
I’m of two minds about this movie, and so I will discuss its merits as a film first and as an adaptation of real-life events second.
El Angel is, truthfully, a fantastic film, and one of the most impressively evocative period pieces in Argentine cinema. The cinematography and art direction are both expressive and vivid, and their orchestrated use results in an expertly crafted feast for the senses, rich with nuance and color. Music-wise, the film alternates between using period-appropriate Argentine rock songs and the tuneful cacophony of The Viking of Sixth Avenue himself, Moondog.
The editing in service of its storytelling choices is suitably strange, emphasizing small character moments while sometimes glossing over some of the bigger story points; it makes for a thoroughly odd and sometimes jarring watch, but one that is always compelling. It is such a tonally strange movie; brutal and unflinching one moment, laugh-out-loud funny the next, and often surprisingly poignant. It navigates various genres expertly, keeping the audience on its toes at all times. There are dance sequences and extended musical montages throughout the film. In spite of this, El Angel is able to fit a lot of story into its two-hour runtime without ever feeling like it overstays its welcome.
Yes, Ferro is sensational as Puch, conveying both the boyish charm that made him irresistible to just about everyone in his circle, and the dead-eyed bloodthirst that would often overtake him. But he’s not the only bright spot in the cast: The film features sympathetic and believable performances by just about everyone in its sprawling cast, creating a group of characters that are as endearing as they are erratic and unpredictable.
Darín – yes, he’s related to that Darín – provides an excellent counterpoint to Ferro’s controlled chaos, brimming with enthusiasm and a touch of naiveté. Their relationship is explored in great detail by the movie, which features sexuality, gender expression, and unrequited love as some of its running themes.
If there is one thing keeping me from wholeheartedly recommending El Angel, it’s some of the choices that the filmmakers made when adapting this real-life story, and the disquieting implications thereof. Though the film shows us many of the monstrous things done by Puch and his associates, they are way, way toned down for the purposes of crafting a sympathetic character. For example: Puch wasn’t just a cold-blooded murderer and thief, he was also a serial rapist and a kidnapper. The film completely omits these acts, and strips away Puch’s misogyny for reasons that I don’t completely understand.
At the very least, it’s a missed opportunity: it would be so interesting to have an audience develop a sympathetic relationship with a character, only to then have the rug pulled out from under them when shown the true extent of his horrible actions. This would create a strange dynamic, and force the audience to confront and inspect its own feelings about the character and story. Alas.
It seems clear at this point that the filmmakers merely used Puch’s story as a jumping-off point to craft something new. While scrubbing the story clean of its true nature feels somewhat tone-deaf in this day and age, El Angel is still a remarkable film. The extent to which you will enjoy it will depend on how comfortable you are with divorcing the film from the real-life story that inspired it. It is a thoroughly entertaining, often surprisingly moving film. But it is not a documentary.
El Angel is screening at all major movie theaters across the country | More info here