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El Angel, Argentina’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, tells the story of Carlos Robledo Puch, a real Argentine serial killer the press dubbed the Angel of Death because of the teenager’s golden curls and cherubic face. He was convicted of 11 murders at age 20 and is currently Argentina’s longest-serving prisoner.
The grisliness of the true story is sanitized in Luis Ortega’s film. Yes, Carlos (a terrific Lorenzo Ferro) is eventually shown shooting people—usually as a reaction to being caught off-guard—but in general he’s portrayed as charmingly spontaneous and carefree, the type to put on a record and dance in strangers’ houses after he robs them. It’s 1971 Buenos Aires, and Carlos says he was “born a thief ” and had no role models. The portrait of his home life belies this, however, with both his parents concerned about his criminal behavior and desperate to stop it. A reform school doesn’t help; it’s here that he meets the slightly older Ramón (Chino Darín), whose father, José (Daniel Fanego), is a gangster.
Once José teaches Carlos how to shoot a gun, their bond is sealed and they go into business together. Carlos is a little too reckless for Pops, though, so eventually it becomes just the teen and Ramón. They knock out job after job, selling their stolen merchandise (or, often in Carlos’ case, giving it away), and disappear from their families for a while, living in a hotel. It’s here that the eroticism between the two becomes apparent, though both have dated girls and Ramón, in particular, has a homophobic streak.
El Angel has a great Latinx rock soundtrack that makes every scene that it graces seem uber cool. Ferro and Darín makes a handsome duo, with Ferro giving an especially seductive performance that will mostly keep you on Carlos’ side. The film is occasionally funny, with Ortega seemingly aiming for a Tarantino-esque vibe. But soon the humor sags under the violence; once Carlos’ shootings no longer seem like knee-jerk reactions, you stop being in the kid’s corner.
Worse, there’s no psychological meat here, no unearthed motivation behind why Carlos has chosen a life of increasingly serious crime. His character, therefore, can’t go beyond one note, with his blond ringlets defining him more than his backstory. Carlos robs and kills and does it some more until the cops catch up to him. Meanwhile, the film doesn’t have a thought in its pretty little head.
El Angel opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.