Saturday 3 March 2012

Liability: "Carancho"

As devotees of afternoon television will be all too aware, where there's blame, there's a claim. Pablo Trapero's new thriller Carancho suggests one of the few growth industries in latter-day Argentina is that of personal injury litigation: the system that allows victims of accidents to claim money from whoever is deemed liable. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this system is open to abuse - much less a lawyer. Carancho translates as "vulture", and the hero of Trapero's film, Ricardo Darin's Sosa, is established from the very first moments as an ambulance chaser in the most literal sense. An unlicensed lawyer whose preferred money-maker is staging traffic accidents (in one extreme case, taking a sledgehammer to a client's leg, then encouraging him to hobble in front of speeding cars), he involves himself with the victims' families, in order to take a healthy cut of any compensation awarded. Well, it's one way to make a living.

Sosa's existence gets far trickier, however, when he becomes involved with a first responder: Lujan (Martina Gusman, the director's wife) is a rookie paramedic whose professional MO is easing - rather than causing, or exploiting - pain. She's impressed by her lover's can-do qualities, but - unlike her colleagues - is initially clueless as to why Sosa's always there at the scenes she's called out to, and appalled when she eventually finds out about the scam. The film opens with incident-scene snaps of a car smashed into pieces, and Trapero's interest in the fractious nature of Argentinian life continues unabated: the punch-up that breaks out between rival football fans in Lujan's emergency ward counts among Carancho's more genteel eruptions of violence.

Here, the filmmaker's working on an expanded (2:35:1, if we're being technical) canvas, and has an established star at his disposal: Darin brings with him trace elements of his Nine Queens swindler in a performance of increasingly crumpled, seedy desperation. Yet rupture is never far away: the film turns on a dime at the halfway mark, when we flash ahead a few years, and the characters effectively swap roles, or at least exchange poles on the moral compass. Sosa finally takes a case that really needs to be won, while Lujan, now an insomniac doctor, reveals the extent to which she's been compromised by her involvement with the lawyer.

The sudden bait-and-switch may be a stumbling block for some viewers, but Trapero couldn't have asked for more from his actors to help get his audience over this hump: Gusman - so compelling, so alert as the female convict in Trapero's previous film Lion's Den - goes to the opposite extreme of the performance spectrum as a woman seemingly sleepwalking into malpractice, if not malfeasance. And if the Darin strand features one or two meetings too many with shady fat men whose precise narrative function is underdefined, the nerve-fraying finale amply demonstrates the benefits to be gained from treating thriller material with the cool hand of realism. In his unflashy way, Trapero remains one of the most persuasive and dynamic storytellers at large in world cinema.

Carancho is on selected release.

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