Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 05, 2015 2:05 pm 
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More dark satire from Chile, with a religious focus

Chilean director Juan Francisdco Olela's debut feature film is a dark comedy toying with the conceit that if a devout Catholic can be tormented by guilt, he might be even more bothered by the lack of it. This is what happens to the pious Domingo (Daniel Muñoz) when he shoots and kills his secretary while she's in the office having sex with her boyfriend, mistaking her for an intruder, and feels nothing. We have already been introduced to Domingo's frustrated wife Lorena (Trinidad González) and his enigmatic teenage son Roque (Alfonso David). And to his clueless jerk of a father-in-law and boss, Don Patricio (Julio Jung), the one who obligingly brought in the pistol. Horrified at his lack of feeling, Domingo repairs to his trendy, singing priest, Padre Efraín (Roberto Farías), who sends him, as penance, to visit Chester (Gregory Cohen), a criminal in prison. Not a good idea, since Chester, jokingly, winds up goading Domingo into committing other crimes. Ostensibly this is to reawaken his superego.

But what is happening? The movie turns into a kind of oblique moral thriller as Domingo, the hollow "good" man, turns into an inept sociopath. Domingo's wife feels abandoned, and his son Rogue is troubled with parallel doubts and involved in misdeeds that are the more interesting for being masked. The disintegration of the family is secured when Paula (Isidora Urrejola), a sexy young relative, takes over the deceased secretary's place in the office, and begins to be more and more part of the household. Whatever her involvement with Roque, it's not what you might expect.

The fresh angle of El Cordero is the gradual and unexpected ways in which Domingo makes his slide over toward the dark side in what may be a search for an authentic moral sense or simply a discovery of his true nature. On the surface, El Cordero looks like a conventional movie about repression and conventionality, but due to the oblique twists of Nicolás Wellmann’s screenplay, it keeps us guessing.

The nonbelievers among us may see El Cordero as primarily poking satirical fun at fake modern day religiosity, but Chilean critic Camillo Rojas, in the online journal Revius, points other, more serious implications for Chileans. He says "The Lamb [as in sacrificial, the meaning of the Spanish title] is an account of the atrocities that may be committed in the name of (or covered by) faith," Rojas writes. "It is also a portrait of a post-dictatorship in which conservatism still reigns as an implicit rule, in the subconscious of a society that increasingly struggles to achieve more liberal attitudes." Rojas stresses that the film's set in the Nineties, when Chile was most struggling to extricate itself from the remnants of dictatorship.

These points add to our understanding of a movie that might otherwise just seem a somewhat oddball Latin American stab at existential comedy seen through a Catholic lens. But even with a richer sense of its possible local significance El Cordero still utterly pales next to its older relations, Pablo Larraín's brilliant, bracingly black dictatorship-period Chilean films, the 2008 Tony Manero and 2010 Post Mortem. Likewise, needless to say that Daniel Muñoz, whose job, which he performs most ably, is to represent the existential crisis of an empty man, can't compare with the priceless Alfredo Castro, nor can Olea's tongue-in-cheek satire and slightly bungled thriller match Larrain's unforgettable Charles Addams drolllery. But the transition from dictatorship is harder to handle than the full-on madness. Even Larraín lost some of his punch with his transitional Pinochet-referendum tale No (2012), starring Gael García Bernal.

Olea and Nicolás Wellmann present the action in a way that's somewhat more oblique than can be satisfying. In compensation their story intrigues, and doesn't overstay its welcome. But Chicago blog critic Tim Brayton points out that the writing grows diffuse and muddled as it goes along and secondary characters are too underwritten to set of the protagonist and give his emptiness dimension.

El Cordero ("The Lamb"), 90 mins., debuted in October 2014 at the Biarritz and Chicago festivals and showed at Santiago and several other events, but has not had major reviews. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it showed 1, 3, and 7 May 2015 in competition for the SFIFF narrative feature prize.

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