Wild Tales

May 30, 2015
Érica Rivas in 'Wild Tales' (2014)
Érica Rivas in 'Wild Tales' (2014)

“What does cinema know, that we don’t?” That’s how this column started a fortnight ago, with a quotation from German director, Rüdiger Suchsland. The same line seems even more relevant in discussing Damían Szifrón’s Wild Tales, a portmanteau film featuring six short stories about ordinary people being driven to the brink by “inequality, injustice and the demands of the world we live in.” These words from a publicity blurb are perhaps too sociological for a movie filled with extreme, violent behaviour.

The prophetic part of Wild Tales arrives in the pre-titles sequence, Pasternak. A woman on a plane strikes up a conversation with another passenger, only to find that he is a music critic who once gave a savage review to a former boyfriend of hers, one Pasternak. But wait, here’s another passenger who was Pasternak’s teacher, and another who was his shrink.

Soon it becomes clear this is no coincidence. Everyone who ever crossed the hapless Pasternak appears to be on this plane, having been gifted their tickets. And guess who’s locked in the cockpit, sitting at the controls?

The similarities with the recent disaster involving the homicidal pilot of the Germanwings Airbus A320 are astonishing. There is even speculation that pilot, Andreas Lubitz, may have seen the film. Some have argued that Szifrón’s movie, which was Argentina’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the recent Academy Awards, should be canned as a mark of sensitivity.

That seems an extreme reaction for what is almost certainly a coincidence. If we were to reject every movie that echoes or foreshadows a disaster most of Hollywood’s big budget epics would be scratched – an admittedly appealing thought. Can nothing save us from Dwayne Johnson and San Andreas?

The startling aspect of Szifrón’s film is that it is a comedy, albeit of the blackest ilk. Pedro Almodóvar and his brother, Agustin, are listed as executive producers, and Wild Tales displays the same questionable taste, the same cynicism and edginess as the Spaniard’s back catalogue.

In the second story, The Rats, a waitress at a roadside diner goes to serve a surly customer, only to recognise the village loan shark who drove her father to suicide and hit on her mother. The cook has a simple solution: put rat poison into his food, but retribution is not so easily achieved.

The Strongest is a disastrous tale of road rage in which a sleek businessman in an expensive car jousts with a yokel in an old truck. The mounting toll of damage and violence has an element of Laurel and Hardy, but it continues to escalate until neither man can control their murderous impulses.

Bombita (“Little Bomb”) is the segment that offers the most scope for audience identification. An explosives engineer, played by Argentina’s favourite actor, Ricardo Darín, has his car towed even though there are no markings indicating that parking is illegal. His attempts to get justice become a Kafkaesque horror as every aspect of his life is progressively eroded. Finally he takes revenge in a manner to which he is uniquely suited.

There have been several films on a similar theme to the fifth story, The Proposal, most recently, Paolo Virzi’s Human Capital (2014). Driving home from a bar a rich man’s son has hit and killed a pregnant woman, then fled the scene. The solution devised by the family lawyer is for the elderly gardener to take the rap in return for a cash payment. Yet there are bribes and fees to be paid to the other participants in the deception, as everyone seeks to profit from the tragedy.

The final story, Till Death Do Us Part, is the most riotous of the collection. At the reception for an expensive Jewish wedding the bride becomes aware that her new husband has had an affair with one of the guests. At first she collapses into tears, then gets angry and decides to take a very public revenge. It’s white-knuckle stuff – simultaneously funny and frightening – as we watch the party degenerating into anarchy. Érica Rivas puts in an outlandish performance as the bride.

If Wild Tales works better than most portmanteau films it is because it avoids the unevenness of using different directors. Szifrón, in only his third feature, reveals a crisp, sure style and a fearless approach to subject matter. His boldness has struck a chord in Argentina, where Wild Tales has become the most-watched local film of all time – an alarming reflection on injustice, corruption and obstinate bureaucracy in a country where politics has been a roller-coaster ride.

Szifrón may be standing in Almodóvar’s shadow but Almodóvar took courage from the example of Luis Buñuel. In the manner of his mentors the Argentinian director has made no attempt to impose a moral framework on events. “Bastards run the world,” says the cook from the second tale. In the moral universe of this film there is no justice unless you take matters into your own hands, putting yourself outside the law. But the law, as everyone knows, is an ass.

Wild Tales
Written and directed by Damián Szifrón
Starring Ricardo Darín, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Érica Rivas, Julieta Zylberberg, Rita Cortese, Walter Donado, Oscar Martínez, María Marull, Diego Gentile
Argentina/Spain, rated MA 15+, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 30th May, 2015.