Film Review: ‘El Angel’ Puts Style Ahead of Character

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What makes a serial killer tick? Countless horror movies have explored this question. Biopics have searched for reasons for the behavior. However, few have couched this sort of question in a teen romp. “El Angel” from Argentina almost resembles an early Sofia Coppola. There’s a dreamlike quality to the proceedings as we follow the escalation of our central character’s antics. The film is well done in establishing its mood. However, it never succeeds in keeping the characters interesting. We learn little new about them and instead are treated to repeated beats in service of the film’s mood.

The film loosely follows the true story of Carlos Robledo Puch, Argentina’s “Angel of Death” serial killer. However, director Luis Ortega’s film seems less concerned with context. Seventeen-year-old Carlos (Lorenzo Ferro) appears like a normal, delinquent teenager. He breaks into houses, engages in some petty theft and lusts after his dreamy new friend, Ramon (Chino Darin). As Carlitos and Ramon strike up a friendship, their crimes escalate in nature. Thefts become burglaries. Holds up soon escalates to deaths.

As the two go on the run together, Carlitos and Ramon resemble Bonnie and Clyde. However, the rift between them grows as they both seek different things out of their friendship. Ramon desires fame as a singer and goes to grand measures to achieve these goals. Ortega shoots these moments with great pops of color and style. The cinematography fully buys into the hope and bright lights of what being a star might be. Carlitos desire stardom too, but not in the way he imagines. He desires infamy and lusts after being a part of this life Ramon is after. The movie plainly underlines this as Carlitos takes off the towel of a sleeping Ramon and adorns his private area with jewels. Overall, Carlitos just lusts, whether it be for Ramon, money, nice things or attention.

It’s freeing to see a film not feel beholden to the facts or headlines of the historical figure at its center. This certainly grants screenwriters Luis Ortega, Rodolfo Palacios, and Sergio Olguin with the opportunity to take liberties. However, their script only sets up a rough framework and establishes a more modern DGAF attitude. From scene to scene, the movie languishes is mood but has little else to do. It’s effectiveness hinges on Ortega’s direction. One early sequence involves Carlitos meeting Ramon’s parents. His parents soon teach the boys how to handle guns. This sequence pulsates with danger, drama and even sexuality. Other moments like this feel more like repeated beats, trying to recreate the same blend of emotions.

While the film seems more style over substance, Ferro perfectly captures the style. He holds the camera’s attention very well in the central role of Carlitos. Ferro nails the swagger of Carlitos. It’s hard to take one’s eyes off Ferro’s Carlitos. His baby face and cherubic, youthful look betray the cold, morally compromised morality underneath. Ortega knows how to capture this contradiction, but struggles more with dramatizing it. The film romanticizes his androgyny and lusts after his nonchalance. However, we get less of an idea what drives him towards his heinous crimes. It’s not that the character needs a motive or explanation for his actions. However, there needs to be more to the character at a base level for us to invest our time and energy into the character. Ramon, meanwhile, exists with more interesting contradictions. He wants stardom but sacrifices his values to get closer to his dreams.

“El Angel” features one of the higher profiles of foreign films this year. It represents Argentina’s Foreign Language Oscar submission this year. More so, it touts the producing credits of famed director Pedro Almodovar and his brother Agustin Almodovar. Those expecting a Pedro Almodovar level film won’t get something at the caliber they’re expecting. Those interested in “The Angel of Death” himself, Carlos Robledo Puch, might be frustrated by the lack of information one gets from the movie. However, as an engaging mood piece, “El Angel” offers a good-enough two hours and a really interesting turn by Lorenzo Ferro.

“El Angel” is distributed by The Orchard and hits limited theaters on November 9th, 2018.

GRADE: (★★½)

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