Accident Prone

Amy Taubin on Carancho

Pablo Trapero, Carancho, 2010, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes.

TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS are the number one cause of death in people under thirty-five in Argentina, eight thousand fatalities a year. Profiting from these “incidents” are ambulance-chasing lawyers who sue insurance companies on behalf of the victims and keep most of the spoils for themselves. In Carancho (the title means “bird of prey”), Pablo Trapero crosses the social realism of his early and strongest movies—Crane World (1999) and El bonaerense (2002)—with the brutality and slightly steamy sex of film noir. Most directors settle for the stylistics of noir—venetian blind shadows and oblique camera angles. Trapero goes for the substance: institutional corruption that robs everyone it touches of their moral compass.

The picture opens with Hector Sosa (Argentine star Ricardo Darín) getting beat up for reasons that become clear only much later. As a result, he goes though the film with the dazed though antagonistic demeanor of the prototypical noir protagonist. While he waits for his license to practice law to be reinstated (we never find out why he lost it in the first place, which reinforces our sense of the utter confusion and corruption of the justice system), Sosa works for a scummy supposed community service organization, chasing down accident victims and convincing them or their grieving relatives to sign on the dotted line. Disgusted with his part in this lucrative scam, he tries to quit but discovers that the only way he’ll escape “The Foundation” is if its thugs go too far and kill him instead of just roughing him up.

Acting on tips from EMS workers and hospital higher-ups (not to mention the police, who also get a piece of the action), Sosa is usually first to arrive on accident scenes. He repeatedly encounters a young doctor, Luján (Martina Gusman), fresh from the provinces, who works with an ambulance service and moonlights in the ER. Self-medicating to stay awake and to numb herself to the horrors of her jobs, Luján has become a full-fledged addict. The two begin an affair, but Luján breaks it off when she discovers that Sosa is trying to make amends to the clients that his boss ripped off by staging accidents that will give them another chance to make a claim. Luján doesn’t only have moral qualms about the scheme; she also realizes that there’s no way to limit the injuries that the fraudulent victims will sustain. Nevertheless, she can’t entirely close the door on Sosa.

Shooting at night on highways and suburban streets, in rundown corners of Buenos Aires and in ERs so poorly equipped they might as well be in a third-world country, Trapero has created a claustrophobic, sordid landscape that takes its color scheme from the brownish-red of dried blood and the yellow-green of hospital neon. The body count is high, the deadly denouement inevitable.

Trapero is a force, as both a director and a producer, in Argentina’s exploding though financially strapped film industry. His most obvious attempt at commercial filmmaking (car crashes, blood, sex, drugs, ER drama), Carancho is probably too downbeat to make money at the box office and too realistically brutal to please art-house audiences. (The remake rights have already been bought by Hollywood, with Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart [2009] slated to direct.) I prefer Trapero’s more humanist films—the two mentioned above plus Rolling Family (2004)—but I can’t imagine a less exploitive, more disturbing depiction of institutionalized corruption than the one he has made.

Carancho opens Friday, February 11, at the Angelika Film Center in New York. For more details, click here.