Saturday, May 05, 2007

Film Review #99: The Aura
Director: Fabián Bielinsky
Cast: Ricardo Darín, Dolores Fonzi, Alejandro Awada

Esteban is an odd bird all right. An amateur taxidermist living in Buenos Aires, tongue-tied to the point of dumbstruck much of the time, he shambles through life with a baffled squint. He is formidably imaginative though, with a nearly photographic memory. Scenes of the jewel heists and payroll robberies that fascinate him spring geyser-like from his mind’s eye and pour across the screen.

An epileptic, Esteban (Ricardo Darín) is likewise fascinated by “the aura,” those few vivid seconds that warn him a seizure is coming, when he says “everything stops and a door opens in your head.” Esteban must be goaded to defend himself, but he wades easily into another man’s life and the ready-made plot to rob a backwater casino’s armored truck when it stops at a one-woman brothel on a blank stretch of road. Having traveled impulsively to the desolate southern region of Patagonia with an acquaintance for a botched hunting trip, Esteban is deep in the woods now, running for his life. This trip itself is like the aura – a surrealistic step out of daily life and time before a bloody convulsion of violence.

As one source of inspiration for this 2005 film, Fabián Bielinsky cited John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). When the Argentine screenwriter/director suffered a fatal heart attack on a trip to Brazil last June to cast a TV commercial, he left just two feature-length movies of his own from twenty years of working in Argentina’s film and television production. His pair of films both starred Ricardo Darín, in a set of roles like day and night.

Darín was all wise-cracking, shameless surface as the self-described and self-deluded master crook Marcos in Nine Queens (2000). And Nine Queens, a dazzling con game of a story, is all switchbacks taken at red-line speed. While Marcos and another petty swindler, the sweet-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls), work each other – and an ever-expanding circle of accomplices – to unload a phony set of rare stamps on deadline in downtown Buenos Aires, a dark tussle of family revenge between Marcos and his sister Valeria boils and breaks the surface. Finally produced because Bielinsky won a screenwriting contest with the script and was thus able to shoot as he wanted, Nine Queens succeeded handily with ticket-buyers, festival juries and critics on home ground and then opened in Europe and the US to substantial enthusiasm.

Then last November, The Aura reached US theaters and played steadily in New York City for months. Despite a DVD release in early April, the film is still booked in some art house theaters around the country. Nine Queens and Bielinsky’s sudden early death guaranteed the second film a serious look, but The Aura is a decidedly different take on the heist movie formula and its star a radically different breed of crook this time.

Compared to its predecessor, The Aura proceeds at an almost stately pace. This story unfolds over seven carefully demarcated and labeled days – from Wednesday to Wednesday – and its screen time stretches almost two and a half hours. Stripped of his former mobilizing confidence, Ricardo Darín as the taxidermist Esteban has an identity so imprecise that his actual name appears only in the closing credits. Esteban first appears stretched prone upon the ground at night near an ATM after an epileptic seizure.

Next he’s squirreled away in his shop, fitting a cured fox pelt over a skull form and setting its glass eyes, his own face illuminated in the gloom by his work light. Beyond the door to his shop, where he keeps his clippings of celebrated thefts, there’s a woman waiting. He ignores her and the next day he’ll come home to find his wife has simply left. Goaded earlier about his freedom by his acquaintance Sontag (Alejandro Awada, also a gangster in Nine Queens), Esteban agrees to fly into Patagonia.

Once in the woods, Esteban finds that life falls away like an old overcoat. Other characters vanish or die silently, suddenly, without ceremony or grace. Touched by Diana (Dolores Fonzi), the much younger wife of the backwoods thug Dietrich whom he kills by mistake, Esteban has a moment of reaching out as convulsive as his seizures, and as passing. During Esteban's deep-woods dash for survival, Bielinksy turns his protagnist's capacity for visual conjuring into a switchback as dazzling as any in Nine Queens.

Worth seeing together, Bielinksy’s films are absorbing, technically masterful and unsettling parables of modern life.

This review was published in the 5/3/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVD releases of recent films that did not have a regular theatrical run in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.