Sunday, March 15, 2015

Damián Szifron | Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

cold tales
by Douglas Messerli

Damián Szifron (writer and director) Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) / 2014, USA general release 2015


We follow a young model (María Marull) about to embark on an airplane journey. Striking up a conversation with a man across the aisle, she discovers that he is a music critic, and mentions that she once had a relationship with a musician that ended somewhat badly. When asked his name, she replies, only to discover that the man across from her is the one who savagely reviewed his work, ending the musician’s career. Soon others, overhearing their conversation, begin to reveal that they have been teachers and acquaintances with the same man named Pasternak; indeed everyone on the plane have been involved with this difficult, apparently mentally ill being. His psychiatrist, also on the flight, attempts to pound on the cockpit doors where, we discover, Pasternak is now in control. “It was all your parents’ fault,” declares the psychiatrist, hoping to divert the obvious destruction of all trapped on board. The film cuts to an elderly couple sitting on a terrace in their back yard as the plane appears low on the horizon and dives down toward what are obvious the parents who have raised this sudden mass murderer. The film’s credits follow.

     The stories that follow are all similar in theme, dark tales of strange compulsion, of dark interactions between unknown individuals, and utter frustration with the injustices of everyday life which end in violence and death. In “Las Ratas” (“The Rats”), a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) in an isolated diner one rainy evening suddenly encounters a customer who previously destroyed her family, having forced the sale of their home—an event that killed her father—tried to force her mother into a sexual relationship, which is why they now live in such a clearly isolated spot. In tears, she confesses her situation to the cook (Rita Cortese). An ex-felon, the cook argues that she should put rat poison in his food. Despite her hate, the waitress refuses the offer, but the cook proceeds with her plan. Only after serving the beast his French fries does she realize the cook has conspired to kill him. When the monster, now running for political office, is joined by his son, the waitress rushes to remove the poisoned food, but the belligerent diner refuses to have them “warmed up,” and his son joins him in consuming the fries, soon after, becoming sick to his stomach. In horror, the waitress grabs the plate, spilling its contents to the floor, the ogre rising to threaten her in response. As he moves toward the girl, the cook suddenly appears behind him, stabling him in the back several times, a pool of blood welling where he falls to the floor, trapping the waitress underneath his body. The police arrive; who will be found guilty, we can only wonder.
    In “El más fuerte” (“The Strongest”), a driver, Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia) on an isolated highway, is strapped behind a meandering old and dented car, whose driver, Mario (Walter  Donado), refuses to let him pass. As Diego finally gets an opportunity to speed around the other driver, he insults him and gestures a profanity. Further along, Diego’s car gets a flat tire, and he is forced, rather ineffectually, to change it. Soon after Mario catches up with him, proceeding to attempt to smash in his windows, defecating and urinating upon the front windshield. Terrified at the perverse turn of events, Diego finally leaves his car to push Mario and his vehicle into the river nearby; but when he observes that Mario has survived and is about to return to the highway, he attempts to run him down, overshooting his position and ending up on top of the other car. Unable to free himself, Diego is again attacked by Mario, who first tries to choke him on his own seat belt and later beats him. Diego reacts in response, beating Mario over the head with an emergency fire extinguisher. Finally, entering from the car trunk, Mario makes his way back into the automobile, stuffing a lit rag into Diego’s gas tank. As the two attempt to fight it out for escape, the explosion finally consumes everything, leaving a tow truck driver who Diego has earlier called to observe, along with the police, the two charred bodies bound in a ghoulish embrace.

    “Bombita” (“Little Bomb”) is also about explosions, as we observe demolition expert, Simón Fisher (Ricardo Darin) organize and blow up a series of old grain silos. He calls his wife soon after, promising to pick up a cake on his way home for their daughter’s birthday. He pulls into a parking place outside the bakery and picks up and pays for the cake, only to discover that in the interim his car has been towed, even though there seems to be no evidence that he has been located in a no-parking zone. Forced to pay for the towing despite his insistence that he done no wrong, he arrives home late, the party nearly over. His wife (Nancy Dupláa), angered by his numerous excuses of tardiness over the years, demands a divorce. 
    At the city parking division, not only does the city employee refuse to hear his plea of innocence, but sarcastically denies the possibility: he has been towed, so he is automatically guilty. Angered by the smug illogic of the employee, Fisher grows violent, security is called, and he is briefly imprisoned. Upon meeting with his company lawyer, he is told that his job has been terminated, the company fearful of the publicity. Without a job, his custody of his daughter is called into question. At a new job interview, a secretary refuses to allow him to see a company head, and when he attempts to return to his car, he discovers it has been towed once again.

    Furious with the marital and bureaucratic injustices of his life, the former demolition expert plants a “little bomb” in his car and, as he dines nearby, watches it being towed away. The bomb goes off in the towing yard, destroying property without killing anyone, proving that the bomb expert knew precisely what he was doing. Now in jail, he has become a public hero, and the last scene shows a visitation by his wife and daughter who bring him a cake which he and the inmates consume in joyful celebration. 
    “La Propuesta” (“The Proposal”) concerns a hit-and-run accident that kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child. The rich boy who has been driving has clearly been protected by his family throughout his life, and now that he is involved with a death, they call in their lawyer who suggests a possible solution: together, the lawyer, father (Oscar Martínez), and mother convince their faithful caretaker, Casero (Germán de Silva), to take the blame by insisting that he, after drinking, had borrowed the car and driven throughout the city. In return for his confession, the family will pay him $500,000 and care for his wife and children, assuring him that, at most, he will receive only one year in prison.
    The scheme is undone, however, when the local prosecutor (Diego Veláquez) perceives that the car mirrors are not at the right height and angle for the driver of his small proportions. To put the “proposal” back on track, the lawyer offers the prosecutor one million dollars for his silence. The put-upon father is about to go along with the proposal when the lawyer himself demands another large sum and the caretaker, overhearing some of the bargaining, demands a further payment in the form of an city apartment. A final request for $30,000 just for operating expenses jinxes the entire deal, as the father determines to offer no funding and force his son, for the first time in his life, to own up to his behavior. 
     After a great deal of further bickering, the “legal” crooks all agree to split the million dollars up between them, but as the caretaker is led away in handcuffs, the dead woman’s vengeful husband rushes forward to kill the innocent Casero.
      The final long “tale,” Hasta que la muerte nos separe” (“Until Death Do Us Part”) begins as a wedding celebration for a lovely and apparently loving young couple, Romina (Érica Rivas) and Ariel (Diego Gentile). In the midst of the celebrations, however, Romina perceives that a fellow worker whom her husband has invited to the affair, is more than a casual friend and discerns, by calling her cell phone, that she has the same number that her new husband had claimed was that of his guitar teacher. Mortified by the discovery and, soon after, by admission of by her husband of the sexual relationship, Romina rushes from the party, and, in an almost suicidal state of mind, escapes to the hotel roof. A kitchen worker discovers her at the very edge of the edifice in tears and gently attempts to comfort her, reminding her that love must be stronger than a single event.

    His consolations appear to have an effect as she calms down and attempts to kiss him for his help. The kiss, however, suddenly turns into a passionate embrace and, soon after, results in animal sex, which Ariel and his cohorts, rushing after Romina, shockingly encounter. Suddenly the vengeful Romina declares that she will spend the rest of their relationship having sex with every man she meets, torturing Ariel until either he dies of leaves her his entire estate. Sickened by her behavior, he nonetheless, requests that they return to their guests. She has now become almost a new woman, forcefully leading the guests in celebratory dances, and grabbing up the arm of the woman with whom her husband has had the affair, spinning with her in what begins as an almost ritualistic revel which ends, somewhat predictably, with her loosening her hold so that the girl crashes into a mirrored wall. 
     Blood is spattered everywhere, doctors are called. Now drunk, Romina takes out her fury on the groom’s mother and others. The mother, in turn, attacks the new bride and other family members join in the melee until each are peeled away, standing as opposing forces in the grand ballroom. Picking up a knife, Ariel seems intent on his own revenge, but simply cuts out a piece of wedding cake, pushing it into his mouth. Approaching his new wife, now sprawled out on the ballroom floor, he offers his hand which, finally, she accepts as they dance slowly across the floor, kissing—at first rather cautiously, but gradually more and more intensely—and falling into an intense passionate session of lovemaking. As the embarrassed guests tiptoe out, the couple proceeds to engage in sex across the table, fragments of the wedding oozing onto the floor.
     Such tales may indeed seem “wild” to U.S. audiences, but, in fact, they belong to a long tradition in Latin American and French literature. Their roots can be traced back to Medieval times, taken up again by 19th century writers such Edgar Allen Poe, through the stories of  Petrus Borel, and others. In the late 19th and 20th century numerous writers continued the tradition, one of the most notable of them being the Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera, whose Cuentos fríos (Cold Tales) might suggest a name for the genre.* These tales of hysteria, passion, anger, hate, and murder, presented from an icy cold objective point of view, reveal that in their obsessional perspectives of reality, love and hate can become so intertwined that any warm emotion can suddenly be converted into cold-blooded wrath and freezing anger can boil the blood to such a passionate intensity that everything blows up.
     For years, translator/friend Rick Gilbert has lobbied for me to publish just such an anthology as in this film Argentine director Szifron has quite brilliantly achieved, while contributing another group of works to the genre.

*I published one of the tales from Piñera’s Cold Tales, “The Face” in 1001 Great Stories, Volume 1 (2005) on my Green Integer press.

Los Angeles, March 14, 2015

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